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Leadership and Management

Learning (Part 1): How to make it happen

My program manager just showed me the data and we’re clearly not going to make our targets this FY.  By a lot.  I’m just finding out about this now, with three months left in the FY and the mid-year grant report already two months late. 

My Development Director just sent me the report I asked for three weeks ago and it’s garbage.  I can’t use it.  The Board Committee is meeting next week and I promised they’d have it in advance so we could discuss it.  There goes my weekend—and his.

Most managers and leaders I know like to talk about how important learning is.  And they mean it!  But often they don't know how.  This post and the following two are intended to give you both an overview of the subject and then a very simple approach, involving five basic questions.  I'll walk you through each of the questions so that you know why you're asking it and what you should be trying to get out of it.  

Management is fundamentally about the future—how do we get from where we are to where we want to go? This doesn’t mean you can or should ignore the past.  The challenge is how best to use what has already occurred, particularly the bad stuff, to improve our work and our teams.  Our ability or inability to rise to that challenge defines in large part our reputations as managers.  

It’s when things go wrong that we have the opportunities to learn. Our teams can become more resilient, develop greater confidence in themselves and each other, be creative and learn.  And we, as managers, have the opportunity to grow our own skillset and show our stuff.  Part of that opportunity is present in the moment as we deal with the situation in real time. Here, I’m talking about the potential that can be realized when we unpack and learn from the problem after the fact. 

As we think about the future we want to create in the context of whatever just went wrong, we need to focus both on the quality of work that we’d like to see as well as on but the relationships with and among our team members that make that work possible. We also need to keep in mind that we are constantly modeling; how we confront our problems will be closely scrutinized and probably emulated.  

That combination of considerations may be overwhelming when we’re frustrated and annoyed that someone screwed something up.  So exploring the past is generally not to be done in the moment.  Give yourself (and your team) a bit of time to hopefully gain some emotional distance and perspective.  But don’t take too long—left unaddressed, the damage that was done to relationships and/or to work expectations is likely to continue.  Put something on the calendar quickly to signal your intent to address the situation and to force yourself to follow through.

In the lead-up to addressing the situation with your staff members, think about what you want to be modeling as you approach this problem:

  • Chances are you’ve told folks not to be afraid to make mistakes. Now that someone has made the mistake, you need to walk your talk. Don’t blame.

  • Or rather, blame yourself. Whoever made the mistake, you own it—your team, your responsibility, your mistake. Here, you’re not just setting an example, you’re demonstrating that you have your team’s back.

  • You’re curious. Even if you think you already know what happened and what should be done now, you’re open to learning more about the situation and incorporating it into your thinking. In particular, prepare to hear about what you could have done differently, and to not be defensive.

  • You’re looking for patterns. If something happened once and is unlikely to repeat, well, stuff happens. But if the behaviors and choices that led to this situation have happened before, they’ll most likely happen again absent intervention. Patterns should be the focus of your curiosity.

  • Spend the right amount of time on this. Be efficient with your time and respectful of the time of others.

It’s worth noting that by focusing on learning and growth, this approach intentionally sacrifices accountability for past behavior.  Accountability is important, and I hope to return to the topic, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to reconcile accountability for specific incidents with learning from these incidents. Almost invariably, the emphasis on accountability will put people on the defense and shut off their learning or on the offense as they try to show why someone else should be at fault.  The combination of learning and accountability is both desirable and possible but, for present purposes, let’s assume that you have to sacrifice one to get the other. 

So how do you do it? How do you address the past incident in a way that pro future conduct and relationships?  You ask questions.

Different circumstances may call for slightly different questions, but let’s use the scenarios at the top of the post as reference points.  Five questions offer a template for addressing problems with staff members in a manner intended to a) support clear communication, b) assure that the situation doesn’t recur, c) promote a pattern of shared responsibility and problem solving that will carry over to other future challenges.  These are:

  • What happened?

  • What should have happened?

  • What should I have done differently?

  • What should you have done differently?

  • What will be different next time?

Asking these questions, in this order, can lead to positive results.  The questions are grounded in curiosity, shared responsibility and a focus on the future.  They promote information sharing, limit defensiveness, identify conflicts, and promote a plan for the future.  

In the next two posts, I’ll explain each of these in more detail so that you can better understand how to maximize the benefits from them. 

Gary Gold-MoritzComment