Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lessons in Leadership from Reynold Levy, via Tim McClimon

In his blog (CSR Now!, highly recommended) Tim McClimon, President of the American Express Foundation, recently devoted a couple of entries to re-capping an interview he did with Reynold Levy, whose book They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center, recently came out. Tim worked at the AT&T Foundation during the time that Levy was president there, before assuming the presidency of Lincoln Center.

Tim recaps some of the 25 leadership lessons that Levy lays out in his book. I thought it would be valuable, given the commitment of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to leadership (a focus we have in common with the American Express Foundation), to share some of these by excerpting from Tim’s blog. If you want more visit Tim’s blog, or better yet, buy and read Levy’s book!

I think his advice resonates – perhaps because it mostly mirrors what I have learned in my career. (It's always gratifying, I suppose, to have some of our perspectives externally reinforced.) Ren was not always the easiest person to work with or for (as I think he would readily admit), but he was highly respected, and highly successful, and therefore is worth listening to and learning from. What follows is from Tim's blog, with his permission, excerpted and slightly adapted.

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He begins his chapter on leadership lessons with this one: The Art of Employee Recruitment and Retention -- generally regarded as one of the most important responsibilities of any CEO, but one that is sometimes disregarded in the nonprofit sector. "I am always on the prowl, seeking energetic, intelligent, curious, and ambitious new employees who wish to achieve extraordinary results," states Levy. "I look for both solo actors and team players, recruits brimming with the confidence to go it alone if necessary and able to work with others productively, whenever desirable." But, his confidence comes with a price: quoting David Rubenstein, he observes that he has "never encountered an outstanding performer in his professional life who worked from nine to five."

On the other hand, another lesson is Seek Work-Life Balance. While recognizing the need to achieve a balance across all aspects of one's life, Levy suggests that leaders should think of their lives in phases that "may require you to defer gratification and to sacrifice, at work and at home." In fact, he suggests that "to aspire at any given time for complete harmony between meeting the unpredictable challenges of the workplace and satisfying the often surprising needs of your children, your parents, your spouse and your friends is an open invitation to frustration."

That being said, one of the more important leadership lessons that Levy discusses is Make it Easier for Others to Help. From personal experience, I can say that he was, and is, a master of that. 

Stay Focused, Avoid Distractions. "Intense focus leads to outstanding performance. Superior programming. Balanced and surplus budgets. Audience enthusiasm. And, a positive reception among trustees, donors and critics," states Levy. "Not being aware of all kinds of practical stuff, like the date of Mom's birthday or the capacity of the gas tank of my car, leaves me the space to keep on top of what I need to know at work, as undistracted as possible." So, in other words, don't sweat the small stuff. Leave the details to others. Don't lose the forest for the trees.

Ask Thoughtful Questions, Listen Intently. "How often have you been involved in a conversation in which those participating talk completely past one another, and pauses are not just intervals for absorbing what was said, but simply a waiting period before offering one's own point of view, uninfluenced by other participants," asks Levy. "A key to successful leadership is learning from those closest to problems and challenges." Active listening and engaged questions. This is an important skill for leaders to master, and employees will feel more energized and motivated if leaders are asking them questions rather than simply making statements.

Self Discipline. When I practiced law with former NYC Mayor John Lindsay, he would often tell young associates that one of the most important things we could do as attorneys was answering our phone messages the same day. Echoing that advice, Levy writes: "The respect people accord to those who work hard never ceases to amaze me. Return phone calls, e-mails, and paper correspondence on the day they are received. Be available, as needed, to your fellow employees, trustees, sources of funding, and key influentials. Exhibit energy. Exude optimism." This kind of best practice takes incredible self discipline and intense focus. But, the pay-off can be tremendous - both for organizations and for leaders.

Pick Up the Pace. "I have committed many more errors through inaction or delay than through timely or even premature conduct," asserts Levy. "Mistakes by omission, not commission. Mishaps by neglect, not abuse." I often recommend a similar approach that can be summed up as "Ready, aim, fire, aim, aim" rather than "Ready, aim, aim, aim, fire." I've had to learn that getting things roughly right is often more important than getting them perfect, despite the fact that I'm somewhat of a perfectionist. In our fast-paced work world, the hare beats the turtle almost every time. Finding the right balance between being quick to market and having a perfect product is critical for many leaders today.

Heavy Lies the Head. It's often said that being at the top of any organization or enterprise can be a lonely position. It's hard to know whether the advice you are receiving from employees is really accurate and not sugar-coated. And, motivating people through reward and recognition can sometimes be harder and more time-consuming than simply telling someone what to do. But, sharing in the success of others, and offering credit where credit is due go along ways toward decreasing the isolation. Levy concludes his chapter on leadership lessons learned with this statement: 
  • Running a nonprofit is never to be confused with running for office. It is not a popularity contest. There will be occasions when tough choices are necessary. They will not always be well received. The true leader should aim neither to be feared, nor to be loved, but to be respected.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Private Foundations and Communications

Recently the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation completed a comprehensive assessment of our programs and operations, and one of the key findings was that we had not adequately told the story - or stories - of our good work and the work of our grantees. The need for more robust and effective communications was made more acute by the relatively recent decision to focus our grantmaking on arts and culture, and nonprofit leadership.

We began working with Launch Advertising - which had done similar work for the Denver Foundation - to assess our existing communications assets, strengths and weaknesses. This led to several months of deep work clarifying to whom we wanted to communicate with, to what end, with what messages, and how.

We have developed a new web site, a refreshed logo, and will be rolling out an e-newsletter, and more aggressive use of social media. (Interestingly, after lots of experimentation, our new logo is exactly the same as the old logo - same typeface, but with a different color palette, and dropping the wreath image.)

And with all of this deep thinking on our own communications needs, it got me exploring the very concept of why a private foundation should even be thinking about this stuff, and devoting any but minimal resources to it. Certainly this was the model of the past - a foundation often did not have a web site, even in the era when websites were common. We don't have to raise money, we don't have to "sell" anything, so why think about communication? I remember years ago when serving on a communications committee for Independent Sector it was a major topic of discussion that foundations were not communicating what they did, and that made the public - and Congress - uninformed of their work and value. At one of those meetings the Ford Foundation presented their then-new web site, and it was a transformative shift. The site was no longer about how to get a grant, or who got a grant (though that information was still there), but about the issues Ford cared about, and how programs and organizations (supported by Ford) were making a difference in communities.

A recent series of articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, (in partnership with the Communications Network) called "Making Ideas Move" is a tremendous resource on this topic. Yes, private foundations do not raise money, and don't need to "put butts in the seats," but we do care about issues that are core to our mission, and we can be storytellers. Embedded in our grantmaking are remarkable stories of people and organizations making a difference in the world, and we should be communicating those stories - to other funders, civic leaders, the nonprofit sector, and maybe even the general public. This can significantly amplify the power of our grantmaking. As the Communications Network puts it: "the power and potential of strategic communications to improve lives and spark change."

We are not alone in this shift in thinking. As we look at examples nationally, foundations like Irvine, Rockefeller, Knight, and Bloomberg, have web sites that go far beyond the traditional basic grantmaking information. Locally, Colorado foundations like Gill, Colorado Health, and Piton use their sites to address issues they care about, tell compelling stories of their grantees, and transparently share what they are learning. (I am excluding Community Foundations from this discussion, as they must solicit and communicate with individual patrons, and therefore their communications have always been somewhat more sophisticated.)

BSF Staff, L-R, Gary Steuer, Monique Loseke, Ann Hovland, Gina Ferrari
More attention to communication can also humanize and make more transparent the work of the foundation and improve relationships with grantees, which also improves the effectiveness of what we do. Our previous site, for example, had no bio information or images of staff.

This is clearly is a topic of growing interest as I was recently asked to facilitate a conversation on the topic among Colorado Foundation CEOs for the Colorado Association of Funders (CAF), as well as a similar conversation for the Aspen Institute's Seminar for Mid-America Foundation CEOs. As the initiator of the National Arts Marketing Project when I was CEO of the Arts & Business Council, and the creator of the communications efforts of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, thinking about communications clearly has become something of a pattern or thread in my work, in very different contexts. Interestingly, at the CAF conversation some funders still expressed skepticism at why they want more robust communications if it would only lead to more grant inquiries, which they could not handle with limited staff. And clearly, being a smaller foundation, we have also had to be cognizant of the need to be able to staff our communications work appropriately.

So, visit our new web site, and let us know what you think. After all, real communication is a two-way conversation! The URL is: