May Leong is a graduate of the Generative Leadership Program. We are publishing articles telling the stories of what happened in the lives of our program graduates based on their learning in generative leadership. These articles will eventually be published in a book.
FROM ‘HARD WORK’ TO LEADERSHIP
By May Leong
Earlier in my career, as a new leader in a new market, I became Executive Director of the first global nonprofit organization devoted to promoting and supporting women in web technology. With 28 founding members worldwide, we grew to over 15,000 members in five countries in the first year. The new Board and I were learning to navigate the uncharted waters of building the organization into a long-term sustainable, international nonprofit when we hit the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. Easy funding dried up after years of rampant high-level investment in anything web-related, and a power struggle emerged among the Board members that resulted in me being asked to step down so another Board member could replace me. A couple of months later I was invited back to lead that same organization and I jumped back in and started working even harder given how passionate I was for their mission. It wasn’t long before I realized it was time to find a new leadership strategy to replace my ‘working hard’ one.
Looking back on that time it is easy to see where I made mistakes and where I got it right, both for myself and for those around me. Fortunately, at that same time I was learning a new leadership discourse called Generative Leadership, and had the opportunity to reflect on how my leadership practices were generating (and not generating) the results I was committed to. With the leadership skills I learned, I transformed my style from that of hard worker to a generative leader, which has helped me since to manage looming deadlines, customer expectations, the many and varied promises of my teams, and my own periodic mood of overwhelm.
WORKING HARD ONLY GOES SO FAR
As an Asian American professional, I share the work ethic that is not only the norm for many Asians, but also typical of high performers in most organizations – the misguided belief that if you just focus, put your head down and work hard, you will be rewarded with success because people will see your worth and reward you accordingly with promotions and accolades. Working hard, however, doesn’t guarantee success as it can lead to one of three possible outcomes:
(1) people appreciate your hard work but want more and you don’t get promoted
(2) people don’t see your hard work because that’s part of the work culture and it’s just expected and you don’t get promoted
(3) people appreciate your hard work and, if noticed, you get promoted
When you look at it, the odds aren’t in your favor, and there’s the additional challenge that working hard doesn’t necessarily qualify you for the next level of responsibility. With all of these options you are likely on the road to some form of burnout as well. Besides being a chancy strategy for getting promoted, I can personally attest (as I’m sure many of you reading this can too) that working hard over long periods of time leads to being overwhelmed, resentment and a costly disconnection with those around you in your personal and professional life.
I came to realize that working ‘hard’ is perhaps one of the least effective leadership strategies you can adopt. That’s not what good leaders do. Good leaders get their teams and individual contributors to make and fulfill clear and do-able promises that, when all combined, meet the objectives and goals of the organization. Good leaders make clear requests of their folks; they pay attention to the mood of the team members, since we know that the mood of the team impacts results. Good leaders coach and support their staff to meet their deadlines and resolve the issues that jeopardize outcomes. They help team members see how their work contributes to the organization’s mission and results. Nowhere in the litany of leadership books, articles and training materials does it recommend that a leader keep their eyes down and work hard.
I learned that leadership is not working hard, but fulfilling valuable promises with your team.
A POWERFUL LEADERSHIP PRACTICE – THE MAP
To be a more effective leader, I had to change my strategy of working ‘hard’. With coaching that I received in the Generative Leadership program I saw that I needed to change my belief and my habits around this. I learned to start focusing on the conversations, relationships and promises of my team members; as a result we became more successful and impactful at what we were doing. To support me in breaking my old habits and embedding a new one, I was introduced to a powerful new practice developed at the Institute for Generative Leadership called the MAP (short for the ‘managing action practice’). This practice has proven so useful that I’ve brought it to every organization I’ve since worked with. I even use one for my personal life as well.
According to The Institute’s paper “The MAP – Crucial Questions for Managing Action and Results:”
The Managing Action Practice – the MAP for short –is a conversation designed around the key questions and answers for making and managing the fulfillment of promises. The questions and standards for answers are . . . absolutely necessary for the successful coordination of action that results in navigating effectively through changes and breakdowns, managing customer satisfaction, and fulfilling promises.
The MAP is a process – it is a series of reflections and conversations that reveal what actions are most needed in order to fulfill on the promises that you’ve made. The MAP isn’t a plan, to-do list, or progress report. Part of its design is that it requires busy leaders to be in regular conversations with themselves, team members and customers to ensure that promises are on track, aligned with everyone’s cares and needs, and still satisfying the customers. It requires those who use it to monitor and assess their capacity (rarely done in most organizational cultures today where ‘no’ or ‘not now’ isn’t an acceptable response to a boss’ request). It requires you to identify and name your ‘red flags’ – those concerns and challenges that might affect your ability to fulfill on your promises. It makes you assess your mood and that of your team. It has you consider where you need to renegotiate any promises because of changing circumstances, conditions, players or markets.
I could write an entire book on what the MAP conversations can do for an organization or team but in this short space let me offer you a few of the MAP questions to help you determine if you have any gaps in leading your own team or organization.
- Care – What do you care about? Is that aligned with the promises you are making to this team or organization? Why does your team or organization exist? What are you and they taking care of by existing? Are the things you and the team working on aligning with these cares? Is there clarity around this for you and everyone on your team? Do team members understand how what they do on a daily basis connects with their cares and those of the organization?
- Customers – Who are you trying to satisfy with your and your team’s outcomes? Who gets to say they are satisfied with your work? Do you know if all of your customers (includes anyone you have made a promise to internally or externally) are satisfied at this time? Have you asked them lately?
- Promises – What are you promising, specifically? (As a team you are promising certain outcomes and milestones by some timeframe to satisfy each of your customers.) Are you and every team member clear about what those promises are? Are the promises actually promises and is each owned by an individual? Do you all have the capacity to fulfill on the promises or do you need to renegotiate some of them? (I can’t tell you how many organizations I’ve worked with that make what we call “criminal” promises – saying ‘yes’ to their customer when they know full well they can’t possibly meet the deadline or standards.)
- Red Flags – What promises are in jeopardy of not being met? What do we need to do about that? What conversations do we need to have and with whom to renegotiate the outcomes.
FINDING MY WAY TO PASSION – USING THE MAP FOR MY OWN LIFE
The results I was seeing with the MAP in business inspired me to do the same for my own life. Back to the time of the dot-com crash, it was having an interesting repercussion on the way we did business (all over the world, not just in Silicon Valley). Many people lost their jobs, and while losing one’s job was a normal part of the market economy making “corrections” to a bubble situation, we began to notice something different – companies were laying off employees regardless of their skill level, seniority, experience or hard work. That was the change I witnessed and heard about from various colleagues in other fields. We no longer worked in a world where one could count on company loyalty to its employees or where hard work would help ensure that you weren’t the next one out of a job. Anyone was now vulnerable to being laid off at any time for any reason.
Faced with this uncertain job market I still knew that whatever work I did, it had to be something I was passionate about. I was ready to entwine my future in the nonprofit world because of the passion I felt for the various causes. In doing a MAP for my life I began to realize that my time as an executive at this particular nonprofit was coming to an end. I was ready for a larger scope, mission and horizon. In seeing the great need that such organizations have for fundraising I worked with my Generative Leadership coach and with the MAP and decided this was where I would next focus building my professional skills and career.
When you ask most people what they wanted to be when they grew up, some might have said a dancer, astronaut, doctor or president of a company. No one says I want to become a top professional fundraiser. But perhaps now that our lives are touched by nonprofits on a regular basis and because even children are involved with activities that involve paying it forward, and giving back – phrases not common when I was growing up – this may change. I found that fundraising for the nonprofit missions that I care about is not just my career path, but is my passion.
MAPping AND FUNDRAISING
I’ve been a professional fundraiser most of my career and I know that most people who serve on nonprofit boards hate having to ask for money. Paradoxically the number one reason that a Board exists is to fill a fiduciary role – being fiscally responsible for the nonprofit as well as moving it sustainably forward into the future through strategy and top-level implementation. This commonly creates a big problem for the nonprofit’s executive director and leadership team.
I found through experience that introducing the MAP conversation to my Boards and using it as a way to reveal the needed conversations, actions and potential issues has been very useful. Unlike a road map you use to get from Point A to Point B, the MAP has allowed us to generate multiple paths to reach our targets and engage in conversations such as capacity or ‘red flags’ with regularity and ease. It has also brought accountability to the role of Board member.
I remember on one of our campaigns our goal was to raise half a million dollars. We came up with many ways to raise that money including:
- Ask one donor to make that gift.
- Get two donors, each, to make half the gift.
- Put on an event (breakfast, telethon, auction) and raise the money through sponsors, table captains and guests.
- Skip the events and do a letter writing campaign.
- Save on the cost of producing a printed appeal and conduct our campaign online.
- Run a marathon, sell cookies, hold a wine tasting, do car washes, sell tickets, etc.
We landed on four ideas, turned each into a promise with a measurable outcome and a customer for the promise. Each Board member committed to promises that, all together, added up to the outcome we declared would mean success. All the promises went on the MAP and we stayed in conversation weekly as to how everyone was doing and what obstacles needed overcoming. What became clear after a few weeks was that some of the Board members didn’t want to be held accountable for their promises. They were on the Board because of their belief in the mission. The role they wanted to fulfill was that of advisor and making critical contacts and introductions. That was a useful discovery!
The organization needed and wanted those contributions, so we had them make promises for what they were willing to do instead of having them make promises that they weren’t going to keep. We aligned their promises and actions with the organization’s expectations and needs. Instead of the typical nonprofit scenario where leadership is disappointed with the Board’s lack of accountability and the Board is disappointed with leadership’s ineffectiveness, we aligned all our actions, cares and expectations. Needless to say, the mood in the entire organization greatly improved now that folks were taking actions more aligned with their cares.
Now when people learn that I have been a fundraiser for over a decade I usually get some interesting comments and questions ranging from: Oh it must be hard to do/ Is it hard to do? to Oh I could never do that/ How do you do that? to It’s such a noble thing you’re doing. And while yes it certainly is noble work, I would definitely agree that it is hard work, but not because of what most people think. I have no inhibition about and actually find it fun to ask people for money. The hard part is the preparation, making sure there is a good match, because in fundraising it is all about the three R’s: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.
And those three R’s require lots and lots of good conversations to clarify cares, passions, actions, promises and concerns. I find it easy to ask for contributions when I know the person I’m talking with cares about the cause, wants to support it and we both know they can support the cause at the level that’s being asked. It is all about the different paths it takes to get to that conversation, as well as the many conversations before and afterwards. When you are clear on what you care about and the person you’re asking is clear on what they care about and you’ve made the right match, and built your case then magic happens – they can’t help but say yes.
LESSONS FROM TRAVELING WITH MY MAP
Traveling the road of the nonprofit field, especially in leadership and fundraising, has been fraught with bumps and lessons along the way. I’ve learned that, done well, it involves four important elements:
- A deep level of commitment to what you care about and the alignment of your care with the mission or cause you’re involved with.
- The patience to learn how different constituent groups work in the nonprofit system – they all work differently. I have found no two nonprofits to be alike, and even chapters or sites of one larger nonprofit all have their individual cultural microcosms.
- The ability to deal with frustrations and setbacks, as well as the achievements, in a way that keeps everyone’s integrity intact.
- The mindful practice of regularly checking in to see that all of the different facets needed for success are there, and when they are not, to champion the importance of including them (i.e., infrastructure, financial ability to attract and keep the best staff).
Over the years I have many people to thank for being patient with me, teaching me valuable lessons and letting me extend my entrepreneurial chops. It is because of the generosity of others, and my commitment to being a great leader and fundraiser that I rose through the ranks. Using MAPs has helped me continue to stay centered and true to what I care about and what my team cares about, even when we get slightly off the path from time to time. It reminds me to have conversations with myself and my team when being busy and working hard is just simply easier. Using the MAP to have those conversations has enabled me to be a more effective leader. It has helped me move my “leadership mode setting” from hard to smart. And keeping it there? Well that is one component I am still MAPing out.
We invite you to explore the questions below. They are designed to provoke your thinking and may be difficult in the sense that you don’t arrive to quick or easy answers. They are, however, worth considering for the sake of the leader you want to become and the impact you want to make:
1) What do you care about and do your current actions align with this?
2) What conversations do you need to have and with whom around your or your team’s promises?
3) What mood are you in at work/ at home?
4) What are some examples of where you are working ‘harder’ than you need to?
May Leong is a passionate community builder, with over 12 years of experience directing fundraising programs for nonprofit organizations in Seattle, Washington, such as: Technology Access Foundation, YouthCare, Junior Achievement of Washington, The Northwest School, Nikkei Concerns, and DigitalEve.
Her prior experience included corporate and banking work, retail training, and teaching English as a professor at a number of college and university programs in San Francisco, Seattle, and Japan. Her business articles have been published in print and online newspapers and magazines in the US and Japan.
A first generation Chinese-American, May was born in Hong Kong and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She and her family have lived and worked in the West Coast for over 20 years. As an empty nester, she and her husband are enjoying date nights again. May is finishing the manuscript for her first novel (fiction) and has already started her second book (non-fiction).
Contact May at: email@example.com