We Need a Common Language

27 Feb

There’s something unique that happens when you are building a transformation driven culture in an organization– folks arrive at your doorstep speaking all sorts of different languages. And by this I don’t mean actual languages as in spoken in different country (well that happens sometime too especially when you are running an international non-profit). No.  Folks arrive as new employees at your organization, transplants from similar places and the words they use aren’t your words.

Over the past year at Feed The Children we’ve had new employees decide to join our team from other non-profits such as Heifer International, Food for the Hungry,  World Vision, Compassion International — just to name a few and we’ve also included the organization World Neighbors in our family. These new team members are passionate and excited about furthering our mission with their gifts and talents. They came to join our team because they knew something amazing was going on at Feed The Children. But, the problem of our community building is that all of these new employees use different words.

For example, at Feed The Children we might talk about the importance of child based community development or the four pillars– two bedrock words when we speak of our international programs and these same words might mean the exact opposite of what we are talking about to a new staffer.

And this is our current challenge: we have to find our language– together. Maybe some of the words we are using right now aren’t the best descriptions of what we are trying to do. Maybe some hybrid version of the best of our now collective experience can be our common ground.

If there is anything I know about organizational leadership, it is this: without effective communication among your team members, it doesn’t matter how good your programs are, they will fail. Unified teams that know how to speak to one another are those who get the job done.

This is why over the next quarter at Feed The Children we are going to be talking more about how we talk to each other.

It’s really a great problem to have, as far as problems are concerned– to be a surrounded by a diversity of thoughtful leaders. But the challenge for us is where do we go from here?

I love the idea expressed by John Kuypers in his book, Who’s the Driver Anyway? Making the Shift to a Collaborative Team Culture: “If you first take a minute, an hour or a month to let go of feeling annoyed, frustrated or critical of the person or situation that may be driving you crazy, you set yourself up for much greater leadership and personal success.”

May we all be more conscious of how we listen and respond to one another. Sometimes common language or not, if we just take a minute to sit with what is before us, we can usually see situations needing our attention more easily.

I Take It Personally

9 Feb

Most people know that I am a Starbuck’s tea fanatic. It is the one place I go most often other than to work and home. My day really doesn’t get started without a cup of the black tea goodness in my hand. Folks say I can make anyone a Starbucks disciple.

I also admire the leadership of Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks. His business instincts are strong. His work ethic is inspiring. And how he has a built a corporation from the top down of care and concern for his employees is what I am striving to model.

I think if Howard and I sat down, we could be friends. I couldn’t agree any more with this statement he made in his book, Onward.

“Whenever I see someone carrying a cup of coffee from a Starbucks competitor, whether it’s an independent coffee shop or a fast-food chain, I take their decision not to come to Starbucks personally. I wonder what I, as Starbucks’ chairman and ceo, might have done to keep them away and what I might do to encourage them to come back or to try us for the first time.”

I feel the same way about Feed The Children. When I hear that my friends are sponsoring children through other organizations or churches are giving their mission dollars to other relief agencies or when I see banners on the highway for organizations similar to us, I get upset. I wonder why not Feed The Children?

It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of what other organizations are doing. I wholeheartedly support the work of so many of my colleagues. We need countless approaches and voices at the non-profit table of service. Our problems are just too great to do it alone.

But what I am is passionate for is the growth of Feed The Children. And I want everyone I know to know about it.

I believe in our programs– they are growing to be some of the best in the world.

I believe in our staff– that they are some of the most talented in the nation, able to get the big tasks that await done.

And most of all I believe in our mission– to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry. At Feed The Children, we feed kids first so that we can begin to change their communities in more sustainable ways for the long haul.

So my confession is that I take it personally when I hear that you, my friends aren’t supporting Feed The Children.

If you’ve had a bad experience with us, I want to know it.

If you’ve had questions or concerns about our programs, I want to know it.

If you’ve chosen another organization to support like us for any other reason, I’d appreciate knowing why.

I have a dream and that is that one day Feed The Children will be known as the leader in our industry, not just that organization that you heard about at one time. I want everyone to know that Feed The Children is doing amazing, life-changing work all over the world.

So if you want to know more, let’s talk.

It’s All About Just One

15 Jan

imageBeing in this line of work, people stop to ask me two kinds of questions.

The first is something along the lines, of (not really a question) “Wow, you must sleep so well at night knowing what kind of good work you are doing?” (These are the people who want to make me into the saint I am not).

And the second is, “How do you sleep at night after all the things you’ve seen in other countries? Don’t you just get so overwhelmed?” (These are the people who don’t realize having your heart exposed to such poverty and injustice is just a part of the role).

However, the real truth is that some nights I sleep just fine, and others….not so much.

I am 100% confident that I am doing with my life what I need to be doing right now, but at the same time, I do have restless nights. I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I don’t want to let down the hundreds of thousands of children — who are depending on Feed The Children. I hope that I am doing everything I can to let the staff know how much they are valued and appreciated so that we can focus our efforts on delivering for the children.

While I am encouraged by the good I know we are doing in many places that are in desperate need of hope, I am also filled with anxiety sometimes as to why we can’t do more. There are always sad faces that I see on children when I travel, kids who I know did not get enough to eat the day before, both in the US and around the world.  And there are always too few hours in the day to accomplish all that I dream about coming forth at Feed The Children.

However, there are new mentors I’m gaining along the way. They are teaching me that at the end of the day it’s always about just one child.

It’s about one family.

It’s about one opportunity presented.

It’s about one life changed.

It has been interesting as I have settled into my role with Feed The Children that there are several kids in different places I’ve traveled that have stuck with me. I’ve seen thousands of kids. I’ve hugged hundreds. But then, there is one or two in a country or a region of the world that have captured my heart in a special way. I know I am doing my job for them.

I know these are the ones that come to mind when I have a bad day. They encourage me to work smarter and lead more wisely.

In the wee hours of the night when I can’t sleep, I think of them. I remember as my mentors have taught me: it is always about one child.

And because of this one child, I keep on keeping on– long, sleepless nights or not.

Adapting Strategic Plans

12 Jan

Even if you aren’t a visionary leader or a visionary organization, one of the easiest things you can do to make people on the outside think that you are is to create a strategic plan.

The process of writing it can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Meeting after meeting, consensus building after consensus building, fight, cry, pray and then emerge from the process with a one year, five year and ten year strategic plan.

I am not anti processes like this. In fact, when I arrived, Feed The Children had a strategic plan that they’d worked diligently on for quite awhile. I appreciated its thoughtfulness and passion for success. This plan did a great job in many ways of steering our big ship in a more fruitful direction.

But, from where I sit and the experiences of leadership that I’ve had thus far in my career, I have come to see a lack of execution as a real hindrance to an organization. For so many times I’ve seen organizations reach the point of creation of a 10 year plan and then feel like it is an invitation to rest on the confidence of the plan– without making leaps and bounds toward what is actually in the plan. So easily strategic plans can be placed on a shelf somewhere gathering dust while the organization continues on in a pattern of status quo.

I don’t want Feed The Children to be one of these organizations. I want us to be vibrant. I want us to challenge the status quo. I want us to be known as an organization that executes our plan well.

This is why when I arrived on the scene 18 months, I listened. Then, as a leadership team we evaluated the current strengths and failures of our organization. And then we took a time out and devoted some of our key energy toward re-writing our plan. Our new strategic plan is in tune with where I know Feed The Children is destined to go. Our new strategic plan is an active document that we are seeking to live into more each day.

I believe this is what adaptive leadership is all about.

We evaluate our assets, our strengths and our downright pitfalls so that our plans are not just strategic, but relevant.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Leadership is as much about having the right ideas as it is being able to adapt to new ones.

Leadership is as much about projecting toward to the future as it is understanding the present.

Leadership is as much about making plans as it actually following through with them.

I’m glad I’m a life-long learner of leadership and that there’s not just one plan.

New Thoughts for the New Year

31 Dec

New Year’s Day will be here so soon!

It’s that time of year when we all seek to sit down and make resolutions. We seek to get our financial life in order. We want to lose weight. We want to be better people.

I am not the kind of guy who often makes resolutions. Not that I am against them or those who do, but I rarely follow through with some lofty self-improvement goal that rolls off my tongue on December 31. So years ago, I just stopped. Now I just try to live the way I know I ought to live every day of the year. Sometimes I fail miserably. Other times I do pretty good.

G.K Chesterton said: “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.”

I loved this quote when I first read it for two reasons.

First, it speaks to the fact that there is nothing overtly magical about the ticking of the clock towards 12:01am on New Year’s Day. Yes, it’s great to stop and celebrate, to have a good time with friends and family. But, in the end, New Year’s is not that big of deal. It’s just another moment, another day, and another opportunity to breathe with thanksgiving for the gift of life. We are lucky to have so many of these moments through the year.

Second, I love the idea that Chesterton speaks of transformation. To truly be the “better people” that many of us crave to be, we have to allow something greater than ourselves (and I call this God in my own life) to change us– to give us a new soul, a new nose, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes.

Simply put, we have to see the world differently.

Over the course of 2013, I have had many opportunities through my work with Feed The Children to see the world with a new perspective.

I’ve met girls like Karen in Honduras who must go through the trash every day in order to earn her family a few dollars to live on. And though she misses school, she goes in later and gets the class assignments she missed from her teachers in an attempt to get the education that she hopes will lift her and her family out of poverty.
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I’ve met child care workers like those who run our orphange in Kenya who love and care for the children under their care as if they birthed these babies themselves.

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I’ve met boys like Oscar who our country staff calls “Kevin 2” although we are no blood relation– there is something about his spirit that has captured mine and vice versa.

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And through these experiences I am slowly and gradually changing.

This year I bought fewer Christmas gifts for those who really don’t need the excess and I gave more away.

This year as I sat around the Christmas table with my family, I couldn’t help but remember my larger family (and children!) around the world.

This year when late nights at work and piles on my desk sought to stress me out, I took a moment and remembered why I am working so hard– for the children– and I carried on.

I’m sure 2014 has much more to teach me and I am ready. New Years resolutions or not, 2014, here I come!

What I Saw in Honduras and Nicaragua

12 Dec

imageLast week, the Feed The Children Christmas tour continued as Elizabeth and I packed our bags for Central America.

We went to see the field programs that seek to feed children, provide better opportunities for education and livelihood development– many of which I had seen before (in Honduras last December) and in Nicaragua (which I had not). We went to share Christmas gifts with the kids in our programs on behalf of the rest of the staff in Oklahoma. We went to do what we could to encourage the good work of our field staff in these countries.

[As an aside, Elizabeth when she travels with me pays her own way to go. She is so excited about the work and mission of Feed The Children that she currently volunteers her time to support the work of our communications department and build relationships with staff as I travel. She recently wrote about what this experience has been like for her in case you are curious here].

As we rose at early hours in the day and traveled down bumpy roads and drove up the hill seeking to not get stuck in the mud in other communities, I couldn’t help but think about how great our reach is an organization.

I know I share the statistic all the time that we feed over 352,000 kids every school day. It sounds like a nice number. It is a big number (but of course I think we could feed more). But, when you begin to see with your eyes what this work looks like as I have in back to back trips over the past three weeks on multiple continents, you can’t help but say wow.

In the past at FTC, we haven’t been as upfront as we should have been about our international field work. There has been more that we should have done to communicate the message of who we are and who we are serving to our staff in Oklahoma as well as our donors. But, it is a new day and a new conversation. And I am here to tell you, I am so pleased at what I see going on in Honduras and Nicaragua.

image copyI saw children in a Honduran community, where the major income producer is collecting trash for recycling, coming to school with TOMS shoes on them (distributed by FTC) eager to learn.

I saw children in FTC’s care at Casa del Nino (a boy’s home for ages 5-18) in Honduras who were among some of the most well-behaved boys I’ve ever met with hearts wide open to love and give back to those in need in their community.

I saw children in a Nicaraguan community with mothers who so desperately want a better life for their families that they’ll come to parenting class and spend time learning out to bake bread in our community development center that they can sell to their neighbors.

I saw so much poverty. I saw so many dirty faces. I saw so many babies who needed their diapers changed.

But, I saw so much hope: hope that our field staff is bringing to these communities everyday.

It’s hope that looks like a hug, going the extra mile to enroll one of the children in one of our programs, and the look of delight when a child gets a plate full of rice, vegetables, and chicken.

I know Christmas is days away– but for me, my heart is already full. I’ve had my Christmas. Honduras and Nicaragua were places that brought the icing on the cake that Kenya made for us weeks ago.

I’m so proud to lead this team. And, in you should be proud of one another too.

Waiting With Hope

11 Dec

This week, I contributed to my wife’s Advent devotional project called Baby Jesus Blog. She and her friends have been sharing birth stories all month long and here is mine:

People say that I’m a pretty optimistic person. Though I can make a good “worst case scenario” checklist, I always tend to fight for the most positive outcome. I really think in the end everything is going to turn out fine.

And this is my story. Growing up, I knew one day I’d get married and I always knew one day I’d like to be a father.

I grew up with some of the most amazing parents a child could hope for. Why would I not follow in their footsteps one day? I’ve had amazing relationships with my nieces and nephews through the years and would like to imagine that I served as a positive role model for them. Why not have my own kids? I knew I had a lot of love to give and I also knew I could be a great dad.

To read more click here.

Happy Advent to all my Christian friends out there!