by Circle of Trust® Facilitator Ken Saxon
NOTE: The following post is a re"print" from Ken's column in the newsletter for Courage to Lead® for Nonprofit Executive Leaders. See below for information about registering for an introductory retreat or a retreat series specifically for nonprofit execs.
In everything I've ever done, I've cultivated a core group of people who serve, in some informal way, as my thought partners - as catalysts for inspiration and creativity, and around whom I do my best thinking about what I do and why. Typically, these people and I share some similar values and professional interests, but our backgrounds are many and varied, and our ages run the gamut. But when I'm with them, something happens. But what, exactly?
When I ran my business, there were a handful of people in our industry, spread around the country, who were my most fruitful collaborators outside my company. When I had a complex problem, or if I wanted to bounce around a new concept, these were my go-to people. Sparks flew when we connected, and I almost always emerged from our interactions energized and with new ideas to that my focus is on leadership, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to better serve the leaders in our Courage to Lead® groups. When I'm in my office by myself thinking about my own work, I can only take my insights so far. Often I get stuck. I can also get lost in all my busy-ness. All that activity, though productive, is rarely the source of creative inspiration for me.
I find I have to carve out space to work on the work - to creatively focus on how to lift my game, and come to deeper understandings. Sometimes our calling leads to unexpected places. In mid-November, I found myself in just such a unexpected place; in a Minneapolis airport hotel, during a blizzard. I had volunteered to be part of a task force for the Center for Courage & Renewal looking at our offerings for leaders (like Courage to Lead), and how our impact on these leaders could be expanded and deepened. This task force effort would not make me any money, and it involved giving up time that feels like my most scarce resource. Why did I say yes?
I went to Minneapolis because the task force participants were each people who spark my thinking about my work. One colleague works with healthcare leaders, another with clergy, and a third primarily with school leaders - but each is an inspired practitioner who frequently experiments with form and content in an attempt to better serve leaders. Until this gathering, the task force had only participated in monthly conference calls. But it was when we were in the same room that the real synergy began to emerge.
On the first day, we began by sharing stories, experiences and questions - making connections, coming to know one another better, and raising key challenges. Then things started to pop. By the second day, we were in such a creative flow that the person taking notes of the meeting could barely keep up. Every new insight led to another. I was left with much to think about in terms of how I do my work, and how I might make a greater impact.
I know you are dedicated to your work, and the mission of your organization. So I challenge you to consider - Who are your best thought partners? And in all your busy-ness, don't forget to cultivate those people. Relationships must be nurtured to be sustained. Our Courage to Lead participants say that part of what they most come to value about the program is carving out a recurring time from day-to-day demands - quarterly retreats and monthly leader circles - for reflection, generative thinking, and being with an inspired group of peers. Making time for our program is not easy for these busy leaders, but when they commit to attending, they get much in return.
One last thought... As nonprofit organizations have shrunk their budgets, the first thing many cut was "professional development" - fewer conferences, less travel. And yet it was at this task force meeting in Minneapolis - and a conference on the East Coast last spring - that I did my best thinking this year about my work and how I can advance it. If cuts in "professional development" get in the way of engaging with your most valuable thought partners, they are counterproductive! At a time when it's difficult to give raises or grow staff, it's actually all the more important to invest in your people to keep them fresh and motivated and adding value - and to keep new ideas and energy flowing into your organization.
In a period of scarce internal resources, it's critical to cultivate and engage outside partners. When we allow others to define such expenses as "overhead" rather than critical investments, and to slash them when things get tough, we harm our agencies' missions over the long haul. And that's why we're in business, right?
Learn more about Courage to Lead for Nonprofit Leaders here.