Since graduating from college fifteen years ago, I have enjoyed unexpected success.
As a leader and fundraiser, my teams and I smashed through success rates in donor retention, total and annual revenue, and participation in giving.
We closed out capital campaigns and giving challenges. We increased one annual fund sustainably by more than 30 percent.
Personally, I’ve earned seven prestigious awards, served as a speaker at more than 30 conferences nation-wide, and published two books with a third on the way.
I served as a volunteer or board member in nearly a dozen different roles, launched two small businesses, was made an Executive Director before 35, and Vice President before 40.
I’m not bragging. In fact, I feel silly sharing that, but it matters because statistically, it should not have happened. In fact, the only reason that stuff matters is because it paints a picture of overcoming odds.
I was classified at-risk in middle school. My family fell below the poverty line. I faced several emotionally-debilitating challenges in my youth. I only went to college because I had a very persistent guidance counselor who steered me toward the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Once in, people went above and beyond to ensure I graduated.
I’ve seen the statistics play out. Many of my early peers are still stuck in poverty or grappling with addiction. Some have died or landed in jail. Education is certainly the great equalizer but what we do with that education matters. How we live out our leadership through our professional lives determines how far we can go.
The secret to success:
So how does one go from at-risk to successful professional? (Personally, I credit faith first and foremost, but what else?) There are a multitude of ingredients but the two most important words are this: humility and collaboration. I believe these two behaviors underline every win I ever experienced.
When we are born onto this earth we know nothing in terms of learned information – not a single word. This earth is a foreign place. I’ll never forget bumping into my brother-in-law Tim at the store. His infant son Gage sat in the car seat in the cart. The entire time Tim and I talked Gage stared intently at my lips. I could see his brain working as he watched us form words. He was learning language right before my very eyes.
Somewhere along the line, we risk devaluing the learning process. Every effort should begin as Gage did – watching, learning, assessing, absorbing. At the root of learning is humility. I know some things but not everything. From a place of humility, I open myself up to the information around me. I see and hear things differently. I value differing opinions. I am receptive to input which allows me to grow and expand my understanding. Just like Gage had to learn before he could speak, as professionals we must learn before we can act.
Collaboration – my second favorite word. Studies show that companies with diverse leadership teams and boards are more successful and experience higher revenues. Diversity of perspectives and skill sets leads to a more well-rounded operation. I can only accomplish so much on my own. As we draw others in, we expand our capability. We also bring new and important information to bear on the challenges we face. Other staff members, departments, community members, age groups, cultures – all of these can lead to better solutions than those created in a vacuum.
What it all means:
Fifteen years ago, I was an insecure, broken person with absolutely no thought about my future except that I liked to write. Today, my life has purpose, meaning, and impact. I am so grateful for the path laid out in front of me and those who led the way, and I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that leading from a place of humility and inviting other voices in to the process opens possibilities beyond our imagination. In fact, I dare say some of our world’s biggest challenges can be overcome using the formula of humility and collaboration.
In his text The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, astronaut Ron Garan said, “A partner’s different perspective is valuable, but the very fact that it is different means that it will require work, humility, time, and resources to incorporate that perspective. At times, this will require checking one’s pride at the door.”
Collaboration and humility are hard work but when enacted, change lives and communities.
As a college Vice President and successful entrepreneur, I have received and conducted my fair share of evaluations. Early in my career, as the recipient, I remember sweaty palms, unasked questions, elation over good marks, and deflation over low ones. Most years, we never discussed the evaluation again, after it was given.
Giving an evaluation can be equally stressful. No one ever taught me how to give a good evaluation in a behavioral sense. I’ve been trained on the tool, but not the rich and powerful philosophy behind it or how to use it to coach, motivate, inspire, and LEAD!
Most recently, my organization underwent a significant design process for evaluations and realigning job grades. Simultaneously, I hired several key positions and conducted evaluations of my direct reports. In the midst of it, the team debated the value of merit pay versus other rewards.
After long and bountiful conversations with my employees, colleagues, and HR professionals, I am convinced more than ever that evaluation processes harness transformative power for the individual, team, and organization. Monetary rewards pale in comparison as a motivating factor.
Done correctly, evaluations lay the ground work for:
I propose a simple process.
When it’s finished, take a look at the evaluation prior to your one-on-one’s with direct reports and be ready to talk through the plans you made. Give performance updates throughout the year and solicit feedback from the employee. As a result of processes like this, I’ve worked through very difficult conversations. I’ve also watched some team members blossom into their best selves. As a result, their careers took off! What a fulfilling and exciting experience for a leader.
Year one as a Vice President taught me lessons I will carry throughout my career. These behaviors made my first 365 days productive and stable - a time for team building, ideation, vision casting, new strategy, and implementation. They set us up to begin reaching higher and deeper in year two.
1. Be humble.
You were hired because you are capable. You have the right mix of skills, ability, knowledge and experience. Perhaps you’ve managed major projects, achieved stretch goals, won awards, or earned difficult degrees. Whatever the case, you are in a new environment. Even with a solid set of experiences in your wheelhouse, this is a specific opportunity – new people, new obstacles, and new structures. Not everything you know will apply. There is much to learn and it begins by studying, asking, and listening. Spend time in the earliest days observing people, systems, reports, and culture. When you feel compelled to teach, be collaborative with the person or group you are teaching. Show the value-added or place the lesson in the context of questions and discussion. Follow the notion “assess first, decide second.” In doing so, you gain valuable insights and your attitude will win people over.
Humility is essential, but don’t be passive. You are on the leadership team now and it is important to behave like a leader. When issues come to the table for a vote or discussion, speak. Ask questions. Share your opinion. Be willing to listen, adjust, and re-state or change your view when necessary. All of this can be done in a non-aggressive way. Make it conversational. Great teams – perhaps the most innovative ones – include people with diversity of viewpoints, skills, and life experiences. Don’t be afraid to share your point of view. It will add value to the conversation. After all, it is our duty to dig deep so we can make the best decisions for the organization – for the customers we serve and the people we employ.
As you observe, assess, learn, and discuss, begin to form strategies in your mind. Think about the how and why of moving your department forward. What changes need to be made? What resources can be maximized? What is working well that can be touted? What is missing from the system? Who can you collaborate with? What tools or skill sets do you need? As you begin to answer these questions, bring them to team meetings and one-on-ones with your supervisor and other key players at the organization. Understand the who, why and how. Build a strong case for strategies you will employ so you can garner the resources and support necessary to make them successful. And finally, know that some of your strategies will fall flat while others go off like fireworks. The ones that fall flat don’t equate to failure. Instead, they are important lessons learned. You build upon them. Simply re-assess, re-state a new case, and share how best to move forward.
4. Make tough decisions
In today’s competitive landscape, resources are precious. We are not just accountable to the bottom line of the business. We are accountable to our consumers, those whose livelihoods depend on the company, and our communities. A soft heart and empathy are beautiful things and I believe I possess those, but balance must be found and it comes in the form of assertiveness. You manage important resources – people, money, equipment, and intellectual property. You are responsible for aligning those resources in the best way to achieve your department’s objectives. Sometimes change is necessary. Don’t be afraid to make the tough decisions that will maximize resources toward great outcomes.
Leadership can be a real joy when marked by balance – balance between humility and assertiveness, study and strategy, listening and acting. It is a balance between being purposeful today and planning for tomorrow. Good luck!
Working in higher education has its perks. One perk I have become immensely grateful for is lifelong learning. Last week my institution sent me to an Advancement Roundtable at LaGrange College in Georgia for vice presidents of development. I learned a lot in three days! Here are five leadership insights worth sharing from top professionals in the field.
1. I am a steward of resources. I am a guard of morale.
While discussing the challenges of leading teams, Dr. Joe Watkins, Vice President for External Relations at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA, made this astute observation and I couldn’t agree more! We come across all kinds of people challenges at work and it’s easy to get lost in the gray area. As leaders, we must remember, we partnered with our employer toward a shared vision. It’s our job to ensure the resources we steward – financial, capital and human – are aligned most effectively toward that aim. We will come across good people who simply need help and others who are unable or unwilling to grow. In the midst of those challenges, we are guardians of morale. Drops come unexpectedly. We must be ever vigilant in identifying those painful slivers under the surface and addressing them quickly. In doing so, we keep all eyes forward.
2. Our grief over anticipated problems can steal the joy of the day.
This piece of wisdom came from Jim Casky, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Goshen College in Indiana, during his morning “centering moment.” This insight applies to life and leadership. Simplified: Don’t borrow trouble. We have enough problems to solve today. That’s not to say we shouldn’t consider possible outcomes and prepare, but we mustn’t pain over the possibilities. One of my favorite books as a twenty-something was the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. They talked about the trap of negative emotions. His holiness said that when we act on negative emotions like fear or anxiety, we often cause the outcome we are trying to avoid. Be a wise planner and an astute observer, but do not give your joy away to unnecessary grief.
3. Coach up or out.
I loved Terry Toler’s view on coaching. As the Vice President for University Advancement and Church Relations at Southern Nazarene University, Terry views his team of fundraisers as development’s version of the Navy Seals. “We need high performers,” he said, “and not everyone can make the cut. Sometimes you have to coach up or coach out.” Fifteen years into my profession and more than a decade of leadership experience tells me Terry is spot on. Everyone deserves an opportunity to be led – to be grown. A good leader uses the evaluation process to spot deficiencies, bring attention to them, and begin the work of coach. Some team members will take the opportunity and accomplish things they never thought possible. Others will resist and eventually come around. Some outright refuse. We can’t afford to leave people in positions for years who aren’t willing to work hard to meet shared objectives, but rather invest our time into those who can.
4. What is the institution’s story? How will your chapter read?
Dr. Vance Peterson is a former vice president and college president who now serves as a consultant for AGB Search. Dr. Peterson spoke about the transition from vice president to president and how one prepares. Among his suggestions was this piece of brilliance, “What will your chapter be in the life story of the institution?” I think back to my time as Executive Director of Development at Houghton College. I was a mid-manager working hard with passion. What was our chapter? Well, our team hit all-time highs in the annual fund and total giving. We launched a sustainable county-wide leadership development program and graduated almost 60 people. We rebranded our giving societies, started faculty and staff campaigns, and spearheaded a comprehensive major gift program. It was crazy and amazing! I’m proud of that chapter and plan to write one just as cool as the VP at Trocaire College. Our chapters should never be dull and uninspiring!
5. Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
Okay, this one didn’t come from one of the attendees. Do you recognize it? This jewel is straight from Mahatma Gandhi. During lunch on the second day of the conference, I found a little scroll tied with a red ribbon at my plate. I opened it and Ghandi’s words were typed on the paper. How perfect! As a passionate leader, a hard worker, and a believer in civic engagement at every level of the organization and community – this one hit home. One of my greatest assets as a leader is being a sponge and learning as much as I can every day. This is also something I highly value in my team members. But learning is not enough. We must act with urgency if we are to make a significant impact on our community and the people we serve. After all, we are on this earth but for a fleeting moment. Live and work well!
Some leaders just “get it.” Call it emotional intelligence. Call it an inner compass. Call it strategic vision, but whatever you call it, some have it and some don’t.
Leadership theory has evolved immensely throughout history. The “Great Man” theory said only a certain personality type could rise to power. The authoritarian leadership theory espoused power and control as secrets to success. Others argued a leader had to be in the right place at the right time (situation theory) or had to act a certain way (behavior theory). There was even an anti-leadership leadership theory that argued there is no consistent rule.
Today’s leadership theory recognizes those inconsistencies and presents a new vision. In many ways, it rolls all leadership theories into one.
Today’s leadership theory points to a process in which individuals identify and grow their God-given gifts and abilities into powerful strengths, then practice those strengths in dynamic environments where they can impact change and inspire others.
The beauty of today’s leadership theory resides in its unique complexity. There are no easy answers.
We know now that just because someone is born in the right place at the right time and has certain personality traits, it doesn’t guarantee greatness. Success is not inherent in power and control. Just look at the number of leaders with unbound power who fell from grace.
Today’s leadership theory is complicated because it calls on each individual to examine their life, to explore their gifts, to develop their talents, and to find their passion. Where one person finds greatness in books and shared knowledge, another may find it in business or art.
In fact, some may find it in the quiet, private places.
Consider the older gentleman I sat next to at church who delivered lunch throughout the week to home-bound seniors. He made them laugh and smile in an otherwise bleak day - then he shared his stories and attracted others to volunteer. He was the epitome of leadership.
This May, I will share "Two Simple Ways to Change Your Thinking and Reap the Rewards of Magnetic Leadership" with the Western New York Chapter of the American Business Women’s Association. We’ll explore some challenging questions that will push each participant to think about their unique leadership ability and begin to build on their strengths; but it will require a “letting go” of some traditional leadership myths.
Bill George, author of True North, said it well, “To become authentic leaders, we must discard the myth that leadership means having legions of supporters following our direction as we ascend to the pinnacles of power.”
No – leadership is about finding your inner truth. It’s about drawing others toward a shared vision with tangible impact. Leadership is rarely the same from one person to the next. Leadership is as unique as our fingerprint.
Some of the most successful people in history overcame epic failures. Oprah Winfrey experienced the kind of childhood trauma that crushes the human spirit. Albert Einstein was slow to speak fluently. Bill Gates’ early business idea crashed and burned. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected by dozens of publishing houses.
Yet, they persevered. No. They overcame and overcoming is like an evolution of the human spirit. It can and does lead to greatness.
One of my favorite books of all time is True North by Bill George, former CEO and Harvard business professor. George interviewed successful leaders in business and discovered a commonality. They all faced “crucibles” in their lives, but they overcame. They put their life story in context and moved forward.
That process of pausing, analyzing, learning, and evolving is the human version of the science lab.
Scientists rely heavily on failed experiments as a pathway to success. Before any great medical innovation or technological invention sweeps society, it likely crumbles on the lab floor over and over again. Through failure and the process of elimination, scientists and inventors discover greatness. They discover the needle in the haystack.
Humans are no different, only our lab is our life. If we quit early, we may never reinvent ourselves.
Psychology Today writer Ryan Holiday said, “To gain the benefits [of failure], we have to listen to it and recognize the problems it exposes.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is ourselves. Gaining the courage to stand up after a great big fall is never easy. Our failures are often followed by disappointment, anger, pain, and embarrassment. Yet, those things are temporary.
In a Forbes article, Scott Petinga says turning failure into success takes guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity – things we are all capable of if we choose to embrace them. I know. I have endured huge failures in my life, some of which are the basis of my novel Hope Rising. Nevertheless, I continue on, and that tenacity – as Holiday put it – has led me to some of the best moments in my life and in my profession.
So, what do you need to know?
Embrace your failures. Pick them apart. Look for the problems hiding within. Correct those faults and move forward. Be brave. Be relentless. Be bold. You can and will invent a life you can proud of.
Pamela Witter is a speaker, author, and professional fundraiser. She serves as VP for Development at Trocaire College and owns and operates a small business called Seed Planters. Visit her at www.BeASeedPlanter.com.
Petinga, S. (August 12, 2014) How to Embrace Failure in Order to Become Successful. Forbes.com (Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2014/08/12/how-to-embrace-failure-in-order-to-become-successful/)
Holiday, R. (March 12, 2014) Why You Should Embrace Failure. Psychology Today.com (retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-obstacle-is-the-way/201405/why-you-should-embrace-failure)
Turning ideas into effective action can stump even the best minds in business, but may be the secret to success.
My friend and inspirational entrepreneur Kent Stroman (Institute for Conversational Fundraising) pointed this out to me recently and he’s right. When I recall my greatest career wins, they included:
An urgent problem
Essayist and psychologist Og Mandino said, “Opportunities, many times, are so small that we glimpse them not and yet they are often the seeds of great enterprises.”
How many seeds – how many great ideas - fall on rocky ground? Are choked out by the weeds or burnt in the sun? The ones that are nourished we know very well. The internet. Social media. Cars. Airplanes. Heart transplants. Saxophones. Paper from tree bark. Astounding!
Mandino continues, “Opportunities are also everywhere and so you must always let your hook be hanging. When you least expect it, a great fish will swim by.”
I have caught a few fish in my fifteen years on the job.
A 35 percent increase in annual fund revenue. The launch of a life-changing leadership development program. Publishing my first novel. Teaching my ADHD-daughter to value her gifts despite the world’s feedback. Speaking in front of an auditorium full of at-risk youth about overcoming brokenness.
Big fish. But they did not leap on the hook. I had to catch them. When Mandino says always let your hook be hanging, maybe he meant keep your eyes open for the urgent problems. Constantly scan the waters. Put yourself in new ponds. Seek out challenges. Then, when the fish swims by, reel it in.
The work that follows is never easy. As professionals and people of potential impact in this world, we have a difficult job in front of us. Inspiration becomes our motivation. Look for the reason behind the effort. Why should we catch that fish? What difference does it make?
Then, study and strategize. Be a life-long learner. Explore the options. Seek solutions from experts because none of us are experts in everything. Find the little pieces of gold in the stream, sift them out, and put them in a plan.
Action becomes the easy part because the hard work is done.
There is no guarantee that every fish we catch, every case we make, or every strategy we write will lead to the next big idea – but some will. The ones that take root and grow have the potential to change lives, communities, and even the world. For that, it is worth the effort.
Pamela Witter is the founder and owner of Seed Planters, an author, professional fundraiser and speaker. Learn more at www.BeASeedPlanter.com. Find her on Facebook at Seed Planters.
Pamela Witter is a published author, fundraiser, and life-long student of leadership. Browse Pam's blog entries for possible conference session or keynote topics. Pam customizes training opportunities for her clients.
Email me at BeASeedPlanter@outlook.com.