Category Archives: Leadership Development

Three Steps Ahead

I am a terrible chess player.

When I was in middle school, my younger brother learned to play chess. Since it’s a paired activity, I also learned so that we could theoretically play with each other.

I know he isn’t a savant, but my brother was exceptionally good at chess within days. Really.

You might think, “well, big deal, that’s one thing.” It isn’t. I also learned to play tennis and golf with him. Within a few lessons or rounds, he had exceeded the skill of the teacher or best player in the vicinity. My brother is what you call a “natural athlete.” But more importantly, he has a naturally strategic eye.

Standing at the opposite end of a tennis court, I could see it at work, though I couldn’t catch up to it. The moment he had committed to serving the ball, he saw three steps ahead to where he was going to place the ball so I couldn’t return it. The worst part is that I could see him doing it, but was powerless to stop it because I couldn’t see three, let alone, four steps ahead.

Being able to envision the steps of a strategy multiple steps ahead of those with whom you interact is an incredible gift. This gift gives you the ability to anticipate, prepare, and respond (rather than react) using your best tools or offering your best response rather than just any tool or response.

But not all leaders have it. And in my lifetime, I haven’t come across many ways to gain it.

So, what do folks like you and me do? Three things.

We study. In chess, there are books written ad nauseam about the strategies for chess that one can research and memorize. The better we know the options in our field or about a situation, the more we can learn about all of the possible strategies ahead.

We practice. I have this same strategy problem with the game of bridge–especially knowing what card to lead when playing in no trump. I practice by watching and analyzing my husband’s play. He knows precisely what card to play when in order to make his bid. Same principle. Talk through scenarios with those you trust until you feel confident.

We get advice. The smartest people in the room are smartest when they acknowledge what they don’t know, and ask others for their advice. It’s surprising sometimes to find that the people around you are sometimes wiser than you think. Talk to the parents, participants, other staff about the situation. Listen to the stories of how they responded in a similar situation, and learn from those.

Three steps to getting ahead: study, practice, and advice. Do all three and you may increase your chances of returning a serve or expecting the unexpected challenge in your ministry.

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

Flow of Change

Death and taxes–and now change–are life’s constants.

How we identify potential changes and deal with them often spells the difference between a growing and a stagnant ministry.

There are four approaches to change. Which one describes you?

  1. Change is constantly happening and you are able to change with it.
  2. Change is taking place, but you’re able to keep doing what you are doing without changing.
  3. You aren’t changing with the times, everyone knows you should, but no one is willing to confront the fact of change,
  4. You can see the change ahead, and adapt what you are doing before the change is inevitable.

If you identify with #1, I want to be a volunteer in your program or buy stock in the company you lead! You are comfortable with change, aren’t intimidated by it, able to see it when it is anywhere around you, and able to respond. “Able” meaning ready, having the ability, even the desire to respond.

If #2 is more similar to what’s happening in your ministry, do not be afraid as the St. Louis Jesuits wrote. It looks like change is happening, but perhaps you’ve planned far enough in advance, chosen really rich programs and resources that can withstand a certain amount of change before you have to face a shift. It’s a nice place to be, but don’t get overly comfortable because you may be #3 soon.

We probably all have nightmares about being aligned with #3. It’s the old “head in the sand” approach. In most situations, you haven’t faced the choice of change or die yet. Best case, someone of their own free will confronts you. Worst case, everyone around you reinforces that everything is fine as it is. Who loses? Usually those with whom you minister. Is that really what you want to happen?

And #4 is the “healthy” approach. We’d all like to be there, but life sometimes interferes. Confirmation has to happen. Have to keep the five service programs going so that all of those service hours get completed. Etc. Etc. Etc.

How do we keep the spigot of change open and flowing? A few thoughts.

  • Look for improvements in what you are already doing. Are you marketing it enough? Is your message strong or clear enough? Are you attracting other leaders who can help you implement the improvements and other potential changes?
  • Identify the expectations people have for you and your ministry. What end do they expect you to achieve? Ensure that their children go to Mass? Make sure that they stay Catholic? Diversify the ministry? Have more outreach to more people?
  • Schedule regular opportunities to step back and scan the environment to see what changes are ahead in order to prepare for them. Invite your best allies and some of your biggest challengers. Do it quarterly, but do it, lest the change overtake you.

4 Reasons Why Ministry People Need Reviews

It’s the end of the year, and with it comes the dreaded performance review.

If you think performance reviews are just for Fortune 500 companies and for-profit firms, think again. Appraising our ministry is part and parcel of what Jesus has called us to.

So, here are four reasons why ministry people need performance reviews.

Reason #1: We got here because we discerned a call.

Your decision to pursue a vocation in ministry was an action point along a long and continuous road of discernment. Notice, your decision was not the endpoint. Because there isn’t an endpoint. We continue that process of discernment throughout our ministry–rediscerning the call, refining the direction of the ministry, maybe even changing ministries.

The call to discernment requires us that we assess who we are, where we are, what God is calling us to, and how we could/should respond. Sound familiar? Discernment is probably the best process of performance review we know, so use it.

Reason #2: Frequency counts — a lot!

Most performance review processes go awry because they happen once a year. Who likes hearing about their strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement all at once? It isn’t like ripping a bandage off. It’s just unhelpful.

Let’s take our clues from Jesus and St. Paul. Jesus showed us through his actions that we should be present with and pray to our Father regularly. St. Paul was even more specific, “Pray always.” So, let’s talk about progress on a more frequent basis, quarterly in a formal setting, more frequently in informal ways.

Reason #3: “Who do people say that I am?”

This was a pivotal question for Jesus and his disciples, and it should be for us too. We need to know who others perceive us to be. We need to know what it is that we communicate through our ministry to others before we can begin to analyze it and identify areas for improvement.

Reason #4: Give Ceasar his coin, but give God what is God’s.

There are always things that others are going to want of us–our co-workers, our bosses, our volunteers, our parishioners. And it’s important to know what those things are, but do they align with the goals that you have for your ministry?

Start your review process with your goals. They define the boundaries around what you are expected to accomplish, but also what gifts and talents you need to bring to the ministry. If you can do that, you will be more successful in your ministry and be able to pursue better relationships with all of the people who are tugging at your time.

What’s Your pH Level?

Outside my window, we have hydrangea bushes. Being a casual gardener, I was amazed to find out that the color of the blooms changes from blue to pink depending on the pH level of the soil. Such a dramatic response to such a small change in the ecosystem in which the plant grows.

How would you describe the ecosystem where your ministry takes place? What is your ministry “soil” like–rich and well-fertilized, tilled but untended, left to the elements, weak and even toxic?

As the gardener (don’t worry–I’m not going to dive into a deep metaphor on the parable of the Sower and the Seed!), we are responsible for the condition of the soil of our ministry. We may inherit an untended field, but it is our job to decide how to turn that field into something that flourishes.

In our Advent preparing, let’s take some time to dig into our ministry environment, and assess honestly all of the elements that go into it–volunteers, schedule, programming, printed resources, online resources, even your professional leadership. These are but a few of them.

Take some time to ask yourself the hard questions, the questions you really don’t want to answer or the answers you really don’t want to hear. Maybe you need to stop relying so heavily on printed resources. Maybe your ministry needs to have a stronger online presence through the parish website, Twitter account, or Facebook page or on Snapchat or Instagram. Maybe it’s time to take a class or two to update your knowledge of the ministry or just nurture yourself as a better minister. Perhaps it’s time to bring on an associate or intern who has different ideas.

Whatever you find in your reflection, choose one action. Yes, one. To change the color of hydrangeas from blue to pink only requires adding a little lime to the soil. One element. So, what is the one change that you can make that will impact your ministry in a positive way?

And whose help do you need?

Do Your Homework

crownThis leadership tidbit comes courtesy of Netflix’s original series, “The Crown,” which I binge-watched this weekend. (Very good show; John Lithgow is particularly impressive as a very aged Winston Churchill.)

Here it is. Do your homework. Always.

Twice in 10 episodes, we saw Queen Elizabeth as portrayed by Claire Foy struggle with situations in which her lack of knowledge created an obstacle to making a good decision for her country.

In the first, we see her trying to be both monarch and sister as she searches for solutions that will allow the Princess Margaret to marry the divorced man she loves. Her advisors tell her only the first part of a law which would allow the Princess to marry anyone she chooses once she turns 25. And so she waits.

Surprisingly (at least, to me), the Queen accepts the advice without any further questions or research. Only to find out that when her sister turns 25 that there is a second part to the law.

In another episode, the Queen faces head-on the fact that she received an education that seriously lacked any of the content of a normal course of studies for a normal child, teen, or young adult. So, as a young woman, she feels like she is at a disadvantage when speaking with other very knowledgeable men in her cabinet and commonwealth. She employs a tutor to fix that problem. In the end, her encyclopedic knowledge of the constitution of the Britain is all she has and all she needs.

In the first example, a lack of curiosity and an abundance of trust led down an ugly road to a decision that was a lose-lose between sisters. Would the decision have been any easier had she explored in more depth the law that was governing this situation more fully? Possibly not, but it would have meant dealing with the implications earlier when less pain might have been inflicted on everyone involved.

The second example illustrates the kind of humility it takes for any of us as leaders to see what we lack and address it.

I remember an older person I know telling me that the older he got, the more he realized how little he knew. That shouldn’t be a self-aware statement for the elderly, but for all of us. Whatever we think we know, we probably don’t know. And whatever we want to know, we need to take action to find it.

The Twin Problems of Noise and Bias

pebblesEveryone wants to make good decisions. But the “good” part is often the challenge.

We make decisions all the time. Some are terribly inconsequential like which flavor candy so I want, cherry or sour apple. Some are not so inconsequential and can have long-term and long-lasting impact.

October’s Harvard Business Review includes an article on the cost inherent in bad decision-making because of the impact of noise and bias in the process. So, where do we see noise and bias in ministry decisions and what impact can they have?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. “Noise” prevents us from looking at the problem or situation accurately; it creates diversions and scatters our vision and thinking. “Bias” shifts our focus, and it is usually a shift in everyone’s focus.

Some examples? Bias is the committee thinking that we can hire a part-time youth minister because we only see 20 or 30 teens involved when the facts are there are more than 150 teens engaged in various ministries and activities (real life example.) Noise is asking 5 different people what youth ministry at the parish like and getting 5 totally different answers.

How do we correct for these?

Bias tends to reflects what we “know” (or think we know) about people and situations. Letting go of the “thinking that we know” moves us toward a solution. Before making a decision, list what are the things that we think we know about the person and/or situation (think about those assumptions.)  Identify what is irrelevant or prejudicial to making a sound and open-minded decision based on fact. Deeply consider the question, “What don’t we know about this person or situation?” before going any further. What remains is likely closest to the unbiased truth.

Noise is like throwing pebbles in the air and watching them drop to the ground–they fall all over the place. But we can control the noise just like we can control the trajectory of the pebbles by putting them inside one container before we toss them. Noise requires that we ask what the traits, characteristics, or qualifications are that we are looking for. What should be on our checklist of things that would make the decision the right one for this parish or school or organization?

The road to good decisions leads through reducing bias and noise so that we end up with the reasons and needs that are truly at the core of who we are and what we believe–usually our mission or in the service of the Gospel.

“Assuming makes a . . .” (Rule #4)

egg“Assuming makes an . . .” Yes, we have all heard the phrase. And I can attest to its veracity.

With the end of a contentious election season, this particular rule seems to apply more than any other.

Based on what we have seen and heard, there are many assumptions that we can conclude. But are they true?

To avoid the proverbial “egg on your face,” the best path is to test assumptions and inferences that we might make before jumping to conclusions. Ask questions–lots of them. Clarify what the intention is and what the intended outcomes are. Agree on the answers to the questions, the intentions of the actions, and the accountability for the outcomes.

Then start all over again. Our agreements and understandings can quickly turn into assumptions again. Or assumptions about the “next time” or next situation.

Because the truth is, the answers, intentions, and outcomes for each occasion or situation may differ for a variety of reasons, sometimes reasons out of our control. To avoid the potential conflict, keep asking, keep clarifying, and keep reaching agreements.

The energy, especially emotional energy, that you save in testing your assumptions can then be channeled into nurturing successful ministry.

4 Leadership Fit-Ness Tests

officeOn a somewhat regular basis, I receive notifications of open leadership positions which got me thinking about what are some of the key leadership questions I ask as an employer and a potential employee.

Here are 4 of them. A word of caution. They may overlap, but it is rare that any given individual possesses all of the qualities.

  1. Are you an “ambassador” or an “administrator?” My experience has been that most top leaders, especially those with decision-making authority, fall into one of these two categories. An “ambassador” is the type of leader that prefers to be outward facing, e.g., is good at being the face of the ministry or field, is in demand as a speaker, and wants to out in the field pushing the mission of the organization. An “administrator” tends to be the leader whose strengths are focused in-house, on staff, implementing vision and mission, and engaging members in the best possible way. They prefer that others are the face of the organization–perhaps the president or chair of the board or the admired “all-stars.”
  2. What part of the lifecycle of a ministry or organization is the most life-giving for you? Marketing people talk about lifecycles of products, e.g., it’s created new,  it hopefully rises in awareness and popularity, then steadies off when it is in its prime, and starts to level off or weaken as other products enter the category. Ministry and organizations are like this too. And use the number of years that the ministry in the parish or the organization has been around.Ministries and organizations have multiple lifecycles, especially if they are attentive to reinventing themselves as the field and marketplace changes. I work for a 26-year-old organization that is really in start-up mode. We have been in a 5-6 year process of reinventing what benefits we offer and how we want to support the Catholic publishing industry.Most importantly, though, know what part of that lifecycle gives you life. Do you like the challenge of making a dream reality or are you best at keeping the boat moving in the right direction?

    And this leads to the next question.

  3. Is your strength in creating things or implementing them? This question could be rewritten in a Myers-Briggs way (a personality inventory), and read, “Are you a P or a J?” We all possess some of both, but the question is where is your home base? Every aspect of the lifecycle requires each of this, but some require more of the other from the leader. In start-up mode, creativity may be key to taking a new vision and putting it into action.
  4. Lastly, what personal, professional, and emotional need will this leadership role fill for you? I admire veteran ministry leaders because most have chosen their field because it fulls something in each of these categories. But here’s the thing. I’ve seen people (and been one) who have moved from parish ministry to diocesan ministry who eventually felt like their new role didn’t really impact the lives of people like their old job did. I’ve been, and this is tough. That’s why the “emotional” part of it is key. It may be that you had a personal and professional goal to work at the diocesan level, but once you get there, you may find that it does not fill your emotional need. Watch out for that! And it you run into it, fix it. Trust me, you won’t be satisfied if you don’t.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

seniorIn the last year, there has been a veritable procession of departures at the top leadership levels among my member publishers. Based on the beautiful “good-bye” emails that I’ve received, I compiled a list of issues that were considered in answer to the question, “Should I stay or should I go now?”

  1. Age: For those who have retired, age is an obvious marker. When we reach our 60s and even 70s, retirement is definitely on the radar screen, and hopefully has been part of the plan for a while. But I’m seeing more and more people leave a job in their late 40s and 50s. There are personal and family reasons, and then there is the issue of . . .
  2. Tenure: And I’m not talking like in the academic world. Many companies and organizations have a “Rule of XX” for retirement which is usually a combination of age and years of service. I’ve met a number of people who started with the organization out of high school or in their early 20s, and are now in their mid- to late 50s and they meet that rule. For some, they may see a change in leadership or direction that is more than just a gentle bend in the road. For others, they may see that they have dedicated a significant portion of their professional career to one thing, and it’s time to find a new “thing.”
  3. Balance: We’ve been bombarded with work-life balance articles and how-to’s, but balance is a key criteria. Whether you want to spend more time with your grandchildren, children, spouse, or community, balance is a good lifetime practice. No minute of any day can ever be replayed, so making choices that make each moment rich and fulfilling is key.
  4. Goals: When you made your current choice, what did you set out to accomplish? Have you met those goals? Now, what else do you want to accomplish? And where? What other opportunities are there out there that interest me?
  5. Call: Have you been faithful to God’s call to you and generous in using the gifts He has bestowed on you? Is there something you have been unable to respond to for whatever reason? How and where can you respond, or is there a new call that is leading you in a different direction?