Listening Differently

I have been reading Trust Agents by Julien Smith and Chris Brogan and as often happens for me when reading a new work, I take something away that feels slightly askew of what the book is about.  One example of this in Trust Agents, is where the authors talk about the tools that the interwebs have for listening to what people are saying about you or your organization.  They point us to all the nifty gadgets that are available for us to pull this information together with.

My mind immediately went to my own organization, but not in the same way.  I need to pull information together internally.  I need a better collection of the moments in time data of many moving parts of our organization.

It used to be easier

A few years ago within our previously small non-profit there were a few programs and listening and sharing were easier.  Getting information about the performance of our programs was often as simple as having a conversation with a teacher, therapist or director and asking for it.  It was softer, it was simpler, it was more personal and a couple of objectives could be achieved simultaneously:  connecting with staff and understanding how we were doing in each program.

What happened?

Having experienced some rather rapid growth (doubling the number of employees in 18 months through growth, not acquisition), I have noticed that the information I am needing and the speed at which I need it about our organization internally has changed.  We have over 20 financial departments that require reporting internally and externally.  We have dozens of revenue streams that must be managed, many of which are grants, all of which need reports.  Our customers/clients have grown and changed each one requires services that are as unique as each of them.

What I will be changing

Listening Internally

With Chris and Julien’s suggestion to create a dashboard of external listening, I came to the realization that my internal methods of listening were too scattered, inefficient and not as clearly rooted in the data to drive decision making as they should be.


Again, the advice in Trust Agents is to delegate because your community needs you.  While I have enjoyed the collection of information process through connecting individually with staff, I have redirected the reporting responsibilities of programs (and adding/fine tuning a few), to my Executive Assistant to aggregate the important data.  She already receives and reports much of it externally to state agencies, foundations and the like, it just needed to be pulled together internally in order to listen to what it might be telling us.


All of this aggregation of data is being reported on an internal Dashboard.  The use of a dashboard is not a new concept, but I have used it as a reporting tool for our board and not necessarily as a listening tool for me.  It is my internal RSS feed albeit not as easily or neatly pulled together.  It will be one way in which I listen to some key indicators of our performance within the organization.

What’s Next

All of this would be useless if I didn’t have a plan for it or a reason why I am doing it.  None of this is entirely novel, and I have been doing it in some form and fashion for the last five years.  The difference is the size and scope and amount of information.  The difference is the time it takes to gather the information via my old means.  The difference is that I have to listen differently in order to understand my community and be present for them. Now that I am gathering this information in one place.  Now that I have changed the way I listen to that aspect of our organization, I have time for all of the other things.  I have time to hear the stories and visit with programs and listen for the meaning behind the data.  It gives me time and purpose with which to participate in my internal and external communities.   So thanks Chris and Julien for sparking an actionable idea.  Now, back to the book.

5 years

Portland Museum of Art Calendar

I’m coming up on my five year anniversary in my position as Executive Director of a social service non-profit in Maine which serves children and families.

Truth be told it’s a few months away, but I have a tendency towards nostalgia.
I don’t remember if the interview committee asked me about where I want to be in five years.  I don’t remember a lot of what they asked, but I do remember a sense of calm.  I remember things feeling right.  What I do know is that the kernels of where I wanted the agency to be, through an expansion of our ability to serve children and families, were there shortly after I arrived.  I just wasn’t sure how.

What I do know is that I had to spend time with this agency, I had to spend time with the people and understand the mission and the history.  It was crucial in my mind, to understand this history and build upon it’s strengths in order to grow and serve more children and families in new ways and at the same time honor the mission of this agency which was here long before me.  I think we’ve done that well.

In thinking about hitting the five year mark, I also realized that while I have been with other organizations longer than five years, I have never been in one position this long without moving “up the ladder”.  I was with one company for eight years, but in that time I held 6 positions with 5 different titles in 4 different locations.  I just kept moving to what was “next”.  After eight years when “next” wasn’t with that organization, I went to one that offered me “next” and within 6 months, I was promoted to “next” at that organization.
The funny thing is, when I think about what is next for me, it continues to be with this organization and it continues to be in this position.  Next is linked to so many possibilities for this agency, so many ways in which we can meet the needs of children and families, so many things that are not yet done and it makes me wonder what done even looks like.
I love this work more than I have loved any other “work” that I have done and I have always been fortunate to serve children and families.  However, I didn’t just arrive here five years ago, I felt led and that same sense of purpose keeps me right here.

For someone who has moved up so quickly and so often, it is an interesting feeling to see next this way.

No Matter Which Door

Dr. B and Our Team
There has been talk in the past several years about seamlessness within human services departments within state government. There is the thought that we should and can create a sense of ease for families who enter the system. There is the thought that ‘no matter which door they enter’, they are easily linked to the appropriate service. I think the idea is a noble one, and surely families would benefit. What I wonder is this:

What if the people within system thought more about how they enter the family system than how the family enters their’s?

What if each person who serves the family thought about joining with a family in a collaborative relationship rather than expecting a family to “access” services?
What would happen if we all believed that families can be successful, do have strengths and expertise to share with us?

What if we entered their door with permission and respected what is their home?

Just wondering.

What Does Helpful Look Like?

The other day Chris Brogan wrote this short and simple post about being helpful. That’s it. That was his advice. Thanks Chris.

So great, ‘be helpful’. The question for me though is “What does helpful look like?”. I wonder about it being an attitude, an approach to working with and supporting people. Perhaps helpfulness can only be dictated by the person being helped.
What if, you are already in the business of being helpful? What if your mission is to ‘Improve the lives of children and families by providing the care, knowledge, resources and skills to help them achieve their goals in life’? Isn’t that helpful enough?

Their Goals

I have had the pleasure of hiring 22 new staff members in the past 7 months. I have met with each one of them individually at the start of their time with us, for at least 45 minutes. Each time, I review our mission because it means something to me…to our organization. What I always emphasize is the part that says: “their goals in life”…we focus on their goals for themselves, not ours for them.

Who am I serving?

While our organization serves children and families, my role does not always afford me direct contact with the people we serve on a daily basis. The fact is, I serve my staff. So, what is it I can do to be more helpful to them? How do I help those who provide services to children and families?

How can I help?

My first inclination was to give a long list of all a few things that I think would be more helpful to my staff. Here’s a few things that came to mind:

  • Provide more entry points for contribution to the big picture.

The fact is, I love looking at big picture stuff as much as anything. In the past year we have grown tremendously having trippled our physical size, grown our staff, and our capacity to serve. It started with some big ideas. Really though the organization benefited greatly from folks who have a gift for the detail. They were the ones to keep me grounded in reality and made the growth useful.

  • Recognize the gifts and talents of others and create opportunities for them to be shared in our organization.

People’s gifts and passions extend well beyond their job descriptions. Find out what they do well and find ways to facilitate their sharing of these gifts.

  • Discover where people get their motivation to do the work they do.

When you understand this motivation, you can recognize when it happens. When this happens, you get to share in the experience that gives meaning to their work and create mutual understanding of the power of your shared work.

It may be simpler than that.

Everything I have just mentioned could perhaps be summed this way: It’s about relationship. It’s about genuine, honest relationship that is valued and understood. Whether it is between parent and child, practitioner and parent, staff and supervisor, understanding how to be helpful occurs in the context of relationship. And if you really care about being helpful, you might consider asking how.

Who do you think we should listen to?

Our organization just embarked on its largest fundraiser of the year. For this event, we solicit businesses for sponsorship. This year, our Community Relations person put together her own packets for potential donors, using many in house materials and some nice folders from Staples. I’ll admit, I was hesitant, but thought that they were quite nice.

So far, our sponsorships are up, many of our long time sponsors have increased and several businesses and organizations have made it a point to mention just how nice the materials were. One organization representative said, “It made it very easy to sign the check.”

With the many positive comments and the demonstrated success of the campaign, we are of course very pleased.

We did however, receive critical and negative comments from one business. Interestingly enough, it was a marketing and design firm.

Who do you think we should listen to?

The Discipline to Face Reality

As a follow up to my earlier post, I am laying out some guiding elements to help my agency through some challenging times. I want to share some of the basics with you, build upon it and share even more with you as I further develop measureable goals and outcomes. Much of this plan has been in implementation for the past year and a half. I should also note that even though it is laid out in Phases, much of it occurs simultaneously.

The purpose of providing an overview here, is to give context for my weekly posts which will reflect the progress and setbacks, following a model provided by Dale Carnegie and re-visited at the Great Big Small Business Show.

So, here is an outline of the plan.

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

- Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking US military officer imprisoned in Vietnam. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Phase 1 – The Current Reality

Using our core business measures and other indicators, I am going to re-visit and re-build a top level view of the current realities of agency, pare down the extraneous projects and bring the larger projects which represent our core mission into clearer focus.

The Broad Categories are as follows:






Phase 2 – Drilling Down, Facing it.

In each Broad Category it will be necessary to drill down to assess specific realities. This will require collaborative assessments of programs with Senior Staff and teams. Each drill down will provide actionable items which can be done, delegated or will become a “project” with ‘Next Actions’ assigned to them.

Phase 3 – Ask/Do/Share

Chris Brogan recently helped to frame up this last one for me. On a post at Grasshopper Factory Chris wrote:

2006 – The Year of Ask

I started the year off by saying I had a three word mantra for the year: Ask, Do, Share . Ask meant that I’d ask for things I wanted or needed, but also that I’d ask often if I could be helpful to others. Do meant that I’d work on execution instead of planning. I’d spend more time getting things done than planning to do it. Share meant that I’d do my best to pass on everything I learned, good and bad about what I learned. This has proven very useful to me.

Asking has proven to me that there’s lots more opportunity out there, if you’re not shy. Doing has given me the small successes that I’ve been able to string into a big ball of self-confidence, as each little victory proved encouraging. But sharing, now that’s really been the key.

Here’s how it would like it to unfold for me:

Ask – I will be asking every staff member for thoughts, ideas, and solutions to the reallities that each program is facing. This conversation must be authentic. It is in my nature to protect people so, I hold onto the problems and fail to open it up for others to contribute which could reveal a solution. I will also be asking the communities which the agency resides in for help with specific elements.

Do – This is core to the admiral’s quote. Chris says that he worked on execution instead of planning. Don’t confuse this planning exercise with a failure to execute. Refer back to Phase 2 in which I will be drilling down in order to do just that…execute.

Share – I will be sharing this process with the staff and with all of you in the hopes that we can grow and learn in an open and productive way.

In the spirit of Asking, I will be appealing to this community for thoughts, advice and tools.

I am looking for the following things for our small non-profit.

1. A simple, efffective and free Cash Flow Analysis tool. ( I have a fatastically dedicated Business Manager who has developed her accounting experience and knowledge on the job. We are looking for support on this.)

2. A CFO level advisor to help me with certain questions. I will be building my Board of Directors with this in mind, however it would be nice to have one that I could contact for some Q&A’s.

I am hoping to make this process as useful for everyone as possible. Please feel free to ask questions or suggest ways in which this can be better represented so that it is most beneficial.