In October, we had the incredible opportunity to lead 100 of North Carolina’s nonprofit leaders through a program we designed, BlueCross BlueShield of NC Foundation’s Nonprofit Leadership Academy Reconnect. Over three days, we helped board and staff members from communities around the state strengthen their strategic thinking skills, add to their leadership toolbox, build relationships with their colleagues, and take care of themselves.
We wish we could give all of you the experience of Academy Reconnect (complete with a poetry-writing fox!), but in absence of that, we want to share a few of the core concepts woven through the program. We believe that there’s no one way to understand the work of leadership and strategy, and so we combined three of our favorite concepts to build Academy Reconnect: adaptive leadership, the “big question”, and failure and improvisation.
Readers of our newsletter know that we are big fans of adaptive leadership, a term coined by Ron Heifetz. The concept is simple: the work of helping people change their mindsets and habits (adaptive challenges) requires curiosity, experimentation, and patience. The practice, however, is not simple. At Academy Reconnect, we focused on helping leaders identify and understand the adaptive challenges they face every day. We also shared a few of the tools to lead through these challenges, such as raising and lowering the heat and stretching outside their comfort zone.
Focusing the efforts of a team, board, or organization around a single “big question” is a powerful tool to mobilize stakeholders. A good big question:
Has a significant impact on the organization and the mission. If it doesn’t have a big impact, it’s not a big question.
Is answerable, but not easy. You should feel like you are able to make progress on the question, and if it is too unwieldy, you might need more focus.
Fits the wits and resources of the team assembled to do the work. Your big question should need the input of those around the table and be answerable with the resources you currently have or are able to find.
In the Academy Reconnect context, we create space for teams to reflect on past work, scan internally and externally, and wrestle with the best version of their organization’s big question to tackle in the coming months.
Failure and Improvisation
Tackling big questions and adaptive challenges requires leaders to try strategies that are different from their normal ways of leading. A fear of failure often holds people back from this kind of experimentation. We believe in giving people the permission to fail – and practice actually failing – are key ways to shift our own perceptions around failure. At Academy Reconnect, we provided participants with an opportunity to practice failure through improvisation training led by a local comedy troupe. And we celebrated failure through a fanciful storytelling event we called Cirque de Fail.
We encourage you to look for inspiration and tools from a variety of sources. There’s no one book on leadership, strategy, or innovation that has all the answers. The most effective leaders build their toolkit with resources collected over time through trainings, colleagues, and their own curiosity.