Riding for your Brand

Marc Chardon, the bright and inquisitive former leader of Blackbaud Inc, and I wrote several pieces together that will be featured on this site. One theme we call, “Riding for the brand.”  Brands we note, do not establish a class or cohort of groups. They exist to define and protect the distinctiveness of an organization, whether a cattle ranch in Wyoming or a drug treatment organization in New York. Where’s our beef? It’s underneath our brand!

As foundations move from funding programs to investing in results, they shift from sprinkling money among many organizations to investing more on those organizations that achieve the strongest human gain for the dollars available.  Yet when I ask many nonprofits where they think they stand on achievement relative to other groups in their field and geography, most do not know. And a few shrink from the question—suggesting that this means having to at least implicitly call attention to differences with colleague groups. My advice is to get over that. You need a way to move from blending in to standing out.

No need to badmouth other groups. You simply show your results relative to those of other organizations taken as a whole. You let the viewer draw his and her own conclusions. And if you are interactive with other groups to the point that shared action determines your success, say so. Be clear about how collaborations with other high achieving groups lets you together create results that are well beyond those that sum from your separable activities. Then supporting each party to the collaboration makes good sense to investors.


Patient Activation

A cutting edge movement in medicine—and especially in Community Health Centers—focusses on what patients can do to manage and improve their own health. It starts with the assumption that the choice people make in such areas as exercise, diet, smoking, and alcohol are as consequential to health as is all of medical technology. This moves medicine to the change management field and to understanding how to help patients move from passively receiving services to actively managing their health. In many cases, the inability of people to create success for themselves is seen as associate with low self-confidence and self-efficacy. People have to know that they can change their behavior and that the change will lead to better health before they will take great initiative.

In many social and human service areas activating clients, consumers, or customers by another name would seem to fully apply. Do participants see themselves as receiving a service or as getting help to make intentional change? I am impressed with one promising step that takes the idea of setting targets from organizations and programs to participants.The national program called School Turnaround, a division of The Rensselaerville Institute (TRI) uses an intervention approach to reverse decline in failing schools. One of its tactics in the strategy around compelling outcome clarity is student target-setting.  Each student in the school knows what he or she is trying to achieve. I want to learn 5,000 new words…I want to learn how to spot the main idea and separate it from the theme of a book I read…I want to know how to make inferences—not just what is written but what it means. And—yes—I will move from a score of 63% to 78% on this test and here are the October and December benchmarks I will reach.     

When you go into a traditional classroom and ask students what they are doing you hear that they are reading a story. When you go into a School Turnaround classroom you hear that students are trying to learn how to spot the main idea on each page. What difference intentionality makes! How purposeful are your participants in your programs? Are they sitting through the session or are they looking to achieve something in each and every hour with you?  Perhaps “patient activation” can help.


Attributes and Achievement

I keep seeing writings that speak to the power of attributes in forecasting achievement in most jobs.  The latest was sent by a colleague at the Humana Foundation who had read a piece by Jeff Nally, head of the Nally Group, which focused on learnings from Dr. Paul Brown, a professor at the Monarch Business School in Switzerland.   He summarizes Dr. Brown: “We’re hiring for the wrong things when we focus primarily on knowledge, skills, and experience. We are really hiring energy, not individuals. We are hiring the unique ways a person uses information, energy, and relationships to achieve outcomes.”

Over and over I see the value and primacy of energy and other attributes over education and experience as a predictor of high achievement.   Another example is a re-read of GRIT by Angela Duckworth. The many studies she cites show the relationship between GRIT scores and achievement in colleges and many other places. It’s $9.88 on Amazon and is a great investment in a very readable book. Which is more important to you in sizing up a person: their Master’s Degree or their grit. This book will help you answer that!

Image result for book reading grit

The Achievement Lock of Education

Marissa Dobbert is a middle school math teacher at a charter middle school in Sarasota, Florida.  She was selected as the 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year in Sarasota County, Florida.  I used her as an example of tracking milestones in a January workshop for nonprofits in Manatee County.

I read about Marissa in an article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune and called her.  Being in the Results First business, I began by asking her how her students achieved academically compared with other students.  In Sarasota County, 55% of students in the lowest 25% performing group made gains on the Florida State Assessment (SFA) in the last reported year.  In comparison, 67% of her students made progress.  

Marissa reflects the characteristics of sparkplug leaders to a T.  First, she is drawn to challenges. She taught advanced courses and could not wait to get back to working with struggling students. Second, she is highly energetic, noting that she stands on chair and moves quickly—bouncing around the classroom to create and sustain attention “like a crazy person.”  Third, she is very focused on achievement and has two highly specific steps she considers essential to achieving them

First, Marissa focuses on creating a connection.  Her sense is that calming fears of students who have never succeeded at math and creating a connection between her and the student is an essential starting point.  In my parlance, engagement is her first milestone. She is clear that no amount of teaching will make much difference until she can see and hear some level of connection between her and each student.

Second, Marissa forgoes dutifully teaching the full-to-the brim math curriculum.  While she is held to the same standards of academic achievement on the Florida State Assessments (FSA) she teaches at a charter school that gives her some flexibility in approach. She uses that to concentrate on what she sees as the most important skills. Her assumption is that knowing all math content is less helpful than knowing the small number of essential tools that let students handle problems in most, if not all, content levels.

Marissa also uses problems to which the kids can relate.  Rather than a text book question, she translates textbook questions to the kinds of situations she and her students face. This gives not just context but motivation. 

There you have it. The procedural lock in social and educational programs is to get through all prescribed content. The achievement lock is to change the process and hold results as the constant.  


Energy as the Scarcest Resource

Clear on core values and mission…strong on culture…presence of strategic plan…high-performing board…outstanding leadership… clear policies…, competent technology. Many attributes define successful organizations. In the rosters of qualities of high performing groups, however, we seldom see a factor that may actually be the most important ingredient in predicting sustained success.

The word is energy.

An organization can have all the right attributes, but lack the energy to bring then to life. Energy is not only precious but scarce. It is easier to acquire information and even insight than it is to buy energy. In fact you can’t buy energy. You have to make it. Here is my take on the value of energy in people and in their organizations.

Our scarcest resource is energy — in ourselves and our organizations

Energy is a huge predictor of both organizational and personal achievement. It is the lifeblood of focus, drive, passion, and tenacity.  Regretfully, many of the practices used in organizations (including job descriptions, budgeting, and strategic planning) seem to take out more energy than they put in.  How sad!

To build energy in yourself and your organization you first have to see what is now happening. What happens between start and end of work to charge or drain the batteries? I have developed a tool called an energy audit and you can contact me for more information and possible us.  It lets organizations or units within them take a look at their sources, distribution, and applications of human energy—in both positive and negative forms. It’s a bit like a house energy audit that looks for heating and cooling is generated and distributed and at energy leaks in and out.

Unlike many conditions (including empowerment and self-esteem) people seem reasonably clear and consistent on understanding their energy level and when it goes up and down. Many can tell you, for example, whether they leave a meeting, a Facebook session, or a one-on-one discussion with their boss with more or less bounce in their stride.

We also know a lot about how to increase energy. One great generic strategy is to compress time.  Virtually no one is more excited at the fifth meeting of strategic planning than the first. And almost everyone at the end of an hour looks at their watch to see how much longer this gathering will continue.   We build energy by doing things in shorter order. And far more often than not, quality actually increases when we reduce cycle time of most activities.

Download the full document to see my take on the value of energy in people and in their organizations as a predictor of high achievement.


Evolving into an “Outcome Guide”

When Consulting Just Doesn’t Fit the Narrative of Our Results First Work

As a Results First leader, I am different than an every day consultant. I chose the term “Outcome Guide” for six specific reasons:

  1. Guiding is in a result context.  You don’t need a guide to wonder through a field or a forest—whether literal or figurative. You need a guide to reach a destination—whether it is mountain top, a creel full of fresh trout, or a specific accomplishment for an organization.  

  2. Success is clear and agreed upon in advance.  You either reach your summit or you do not.  The point is not to write a plan but to use a plan to get to a stated place of achievement. So many consultants are paid by the hour or the output. I am paid when you arrive where you wanted to go.  And I offer a warranty. 

  3. Guides are expected to know the route and share that knowledge. They do not ask their clients to discover their own paths.  They are a resource-full partner, not simply a facilitator for reformulating  what group members already know.

  4. Guides help with provisions.  I find the analogies to organizational life playful and helpful.  Many organizations, for example, set forth on program voyages loaded with murky baggage of evaluation and outcome terminology. They have packed too much to sustain the pace. 

  5. Guides  are expected to know the terrain.  Think, for example, of swamps as places that can mire you down and cause great loss in momentum. Most organizations can anticipate these after the blush  of project launch is over.  Knowing about when swamps (as well as mountains and other obstacles)  will be encountered gives a huge leg up on how to avoid or get through them. 

  6. Guides must know the starting point.  Whether on a map or a Garmin, you need to know present location as well as destination.  Starting half way up the mountain is very different than starting at the bottom. Further, most groups find it difficult to confront unpleasant discrepancy between aspiration and current reality. Jim Collins is among those that feels that confronting reality clearly is essential for greatness.
Photo by Pixabay on

I developed many of my thoughts and tools while President of The Rensselaerville Institute (TRI) , “the think tank with muddy boots.”  I recommend the Institute for project-scale engagements.  Its Outcome Group is especially good at insuring that an outcome framework gets to your “shop floor” in a way that builds energy and intense focus on achievement.  I especially like it that TRI is the first to take its own advice.  Its signature program, School Turnaround puts a set of outcome tools to use to reverse failure in public schools in short order. 


120 minute meeting–60 minute bladder

long meeting bladder

I have long preached that meetings need agendas and purposes far less than they need targets. What has to be achieved for this 30 minute gathering of eight persons  to be wildly successful?   I can now report that over 50 clients using this approach report that their average meeting time has been cut in half and that far more participants report that their meeting time was productive.  When I have dug in some surprises awaited me.  One is the difference between speaking in place vs. speaking to a destination.

In many meetings, a big problem is that participants say the same things repeatedly. The meeting is governed by ritual and personal viewpoint, not by the realities of a problem to be solved. Redundant comments can take 25% or more of meeting time I am told.

With a target—and a deft chair or facilitator– meetings move forward as comments build on each other as they must to achieve the result.     So we need to cut our waiting list for this vital service from four weeks to two weeks. Sorry, your comment on how bad government regulations are or how delayed our grant is are not relevant.  Who has an idea for something we can do to shave days off the time it takes to get people help?  Motion builds energy only when it is going somewhere.  Well done, you groups and people that allow no meeting to take place until someone can say what it is to achieve!


Wise words are often contradictory

It is hard to agree with “Absence makes  the heart grow fonder”  and also with  “Out of sight, out of mind.”  I came across another twosome of adages recently.  On the one hand, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” On the other, “What you see is what you get.  I often advise people to trust their first instincts.  Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful short book Blink makes the points that persons steeped in experience can often look quickly at something and tell us what it is—a fake or a real  painting…a successful or unsuccessful organization.  They know just what to look for that predicts something important.

I tie this skill to advice I give organizations. First, get the most insightful people to give you their take and trust their judgement on anything important..  They do in a blink what you can’t do in a week.   Second, even if you can’t find an expert, take your best shot and move forward. You will learn more once in action than by dithering at the starting line.

Robert Cherry (known through a David Brooks column) has pushed me to a double take. He found in a study of hiring of ex-offenders in Minneapolis that only 6% of the ex-offenders were hired when their record was disclosed up front.  This city, however,  hired 60% of those with records when this news came in toward the end of the hiring process.

What can we make of this?  For me it is to pause before the quick decision to ask if we are looking in our assessment at factors that clearly predict the success we seek.     There may be good reasons to hire or not hire a person who has been incarcerated but using that factor  to predict job performance is not among them.  Forcing out our assumptions behind the decision is a great idea.

The lesson is less that you “can’t judge a book by its cover” than it is to separate those factors seen and heard early  that  have strong predictive value from those which do not.

transferable skills and assumptions (hiring workshop)