Something Worth Reading: Toxic Employees Hurt More Than Superstars Help

One of the best articles I have seen this spring comes from the Harvard Business Review, entitled “It’s better to avoid a toxic employee than hire a superstar”. You can read it here.

Previously on this blog we’ve talked about toxic employees, the importance of engagement, and the value of high performers. It’s easy to get lost in each of these topics individually, but what HBR does well is capture the overlap of some of the factors involved.

Most notable from the article are:

  • The cost of a toxic employee on other staff exceeds the revenue brought in by a superstar.
  • Toxic employees tend to be productive and in many cases are high performers. They rarely fit the archetype we might have of a lazy underperformer being your biggest problem.
  • Toxic employees have staying power in many cases because of their performance and because they often also have the attractive characteristics of charisma, curiosity, and high self-esteem.

For me the most resounding quote I saw was:

“Overconfident, self-centered, productive, and rule-following employees were more likely to be toxic workers. One standard deviation in skills confidence meant an approximately 15% greater chance of being fired for toxic behavior, while employees who were found to be more self-regarding (and less concerned about others’ needs) had a 22% greater likelihood. For workers who said that rules must always be followed, there was a 25% greater chance he or she would be terminated for actually breaking the rules. They also found that people exposed to other toxic workers on their teams had a 46% increased likelihood of similarly being fired for misconduct.”

So what does this mean in the world of fundraising? For one thing it helps to explain why so many programs have difficulty or reluctance in dealing with toxic employees – they outperform their peers in a world where performance is everything. What happens when we reward that behavior, however, is the pattern of toxic behavior spreads to other team members, in many cases towards high performers who are otherwise good citizens of the organization.

Looking at this study it also occurs to me that we may inadvertently be selecting potentially toxic fundraisers during hiring. Our industry has been building a narrative of traits to look for in fundraisers that has high overlap with the qualities HBR has found are in abundance in toxic employees. In previous posts we have discussed what to look for in hiring, identifying potential, and evaluating fundraisers. While that advice still stands, it ignores one key component that we should look for in order to avoid hiring the confident, productive, yet toxic fundraiser: authenticity. Later this month I will spend some time elaborating on this key concept: how to look for authenticity, how to create an organization that fosters it, and how to leverage it for fundraising success.

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A side note: Many of you may have noticed that the blog has been on hiatus for a few months. This was due to a career move of my own. I am now back up and running. Please continue to comment, send in topic requests, and participate in the discussion.

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Something Worth Reading: Eleven Characteristics of Successful Fundraisers

IMG_4821On this blog we’ve touched on some international trends and what we’re seeing on the frontline, but today I stumbled upon a great find from our friends in the UK. This article, which is a recap of a presentation at the Institute of Fundraising convention, shows us some new emerging research on fundraising talent (consistent with what we’ve found before). Beth Breeze has been conducting a three-year research project at the University of Kent on fundraisers and success factors.

The full list of attributes is at the end of this blog post. However, what’s most interesting to me is the following statement by Breeze:

A lot of fundraisers said something similar; words like passionate, saying ‘it’s the best job in the world’ have come up a lot. It seems the only difference between major donors and major donor fundraisers is how much they have in their bank accounts.

We spend a lot of time looking at behavior and metrics that differentiate top performers from their peers, but sometimes we neglect this fundamental characteristic to even be an effective fundraiser in the first place: passion for the cause. The smoothest solicitation script will always pale in comparison to a less polished but 100% heartfelt appeal. Donors can sense who is being genuine with them and who is not. As salaries continue to rise dramatically and we pull in talent from the for-profit world it will do us well to remember to look first for that connection to the cause and then for strategic skills.

The 11 defining characteristics of Breeze’s study are also indicative of a love of people, community, and charity:

  • A high emotional intelligence, including being self-aware and aware of how others are feeling.
  • Formative experiences which mean they are comfortable asking – Breeze said fundraisers tended to come from backgrounds where it was completely natural to ask for help or to borrow a cup of sugar.
  • A tendency to engage with people and communities outside the day job – the study has found that 11 per cent of fundraisers sing in choirs and a fifth attend evening classes
  • A love of reading – the study found fundraisers were particularly likely to enjoy popular psychology books
  • An ability to read people and situations, and to understand body language
  • An enjoyment of giving – 87 per cent of fundraisers said they love to give gifts, and 32 per cent donate blood, compared to 5 per cent in the general population
  • A great memory for faces, names and personal details
  • An ability to be “Janus-faced” – fundraisers are charming, laid back and fun in front of donors, but ruthlessly well organised behind the scenes
  • A focus on organisational rather than personal success – fundraisers saw themselves as enablers and scene setters rather than visible leaders seeking recognition
  • A lack of egotism – Breeze said fundraisers understood that “the plaques are for donors, not askers”
  • A tendency not to describe themselves as fundraisers – Breeze said fundraisers rarely described themselves as fundraisers. She used the term “appreciation experts” to better describe what they do.

The article is worth a read and, for those of you in the UK, Beth is definitely a person to keep watching for new insight, trends, and strategies.

Side note: I will be with my colleague Josh Birkholz this week in Chicago, delivering the keynote session at the CASE Strategic Talent Management conference. If you will be there let me know! (cmegli@bwf.com or @ChelseyMegli on twitter)

Something Worth Reading: “3 Ways to Engage Employees Without Spending a Dime”

Piggy Bank 6For many advancement programs, the most meagerly funded budget lines—and usually the first spending category to be cut when budgets get tight—are professional development and employee engagement activities for members of its team. Regular readers of this blog will probably agree that such miserly investment in staff development is short-sighted and misguided, and it is likely to have negative consequences for fundraising results that will be far more costly in the long run than whatever benefits the short-term savings might yield.

While we have made multiple arguments in favor of increased and sustained investments in professional development—including the importance of practice and repetition, for enhancing performance, and as a retention strategy—for many organizations, skimpy budget allocations will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future. So what can an enlightened fundraising leader do in the meantime to improve performance, enhance morale, and increase employee tenure without a budget to do it?

Jennifer McClure of the TalentAdvisor at CareerBuilder’s HiringSite blog just published an article that presents three valuable reminders for managers of fundraisers or any other team of employees. You can read the full article at “3 Ways to Engage Employees Without Spending a Dime,” but here are McClure’s three recommendations in a nutshell:

1.  Connect Employees’ Work to a Higher Purpose. “To capture the hearts and minds of your employees, you must hope them understand how their specific job affects your end product or service – and how their work matters.”

2.  Enable Progress by Removing Obstacles. “The most common event triggering a “best day” at work response? Any progress made by the individual or by their team. Even a small step forward counted. The most common event triggering a ‘worst day’ response? A setback.”

3.  Celebrate Successes—Big and Small. “A simple ‘thank you,’ high-five or personal note can go a long way to increasing employees’ emotional commitment. In fact, according to Towers Watson, recognition from supervisors and managers can ‘turbocharge’ employee engagement for better workplace productivity and performance.”

The experiences of our team at Bentz Whaley Flessner, as well as research among front-line fundraisers conducted on behalf of our TalentED practice, confirm the wisdom of McClure’s advice.

Each of McClure’s suggestions is solid and cost-neutral. But that does not mean they are simple and easy to implement; on the contrary, here suggestions each require commitment, focus, thoughtfulness and persistence.  But not only are these three strategies powerful and effective, they make sense for all fundraising programs—whether those programs have an ample professional development budget or not.

Practice and Repetition Are Not Enough: Why Training and Coaching Are Essential Elements for Developing Effective Fundraisers

Shooting Free Throws (Narrow)In previous posts our TalentED team has emphasized the importance of practice and repetition in ensuring that fundraisers develop the skills and professional judgment necessary to achieve success as a major gift officer. I’m confident it’s now accepted wisdom that repetitive simulations and actual hands-on, in-the-moment interactions with donors are essential experiences in helping new gift officers master the art of fundraising—a process that includes discovery, cultivation, solicitation, negotiation and stewardship.

As vitally important to performance as regular practice is, a recent article from Inc. Magazine reminded me that repetition alone cannot guarantee long-term fundraising success.

In “4 Short Lessons on How to Learn a New Skill,” author Sims Wythe posits that individuals who pursue mastery of a skill must also possess or receive four other factors if their repetition to yield meaningful improvement: (1) motivation, (2) knowledge, (3) application of knowledge, and (4) unequivocal feedback:

  1. Motivation

To get better at a skill, we must first want to improve. As Wythe states, “the first thing you have to do is simply begin…. And now that you know you want to begin, you have to be willing to fail, to be frustrated, to be bored, and to be angry that what looks so easy for some is so hard for you.” Without these internal or external incentives for improvement, we are unlikely to apply the necessary discipline, exert enough effort, or tolerate the impediments.

What motivates fundraisers to improve? At the very least, our supervisors expect and require us to become more polished and increasingly productive. Hopefully, we also bring to the task our own personal pride and desire for success.  Nonetheless, even the very best fundraisers encounter obstacles, including objections and rejection by donors. It’s not an easy job—and these challenges certainly contribute to the rapid turnover among first-time major gift officers.

  1. Knowledge??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

For practice and repetition to make a difference, you have to be practicing the right things. As Wythe observes, if you practice your golf swing at the driving range every day of the summer but you have a lousy swing, it’s unlikely your swing will be any better on Labor Day. Wythe thus cites Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who advises that “…acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, an adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions.”

What does that mean for major gift officers? Your own ability to enhance your performance is limited. To get better, you need to observe effective fundraising in action, have access to resources that will inform you, and obtain feedback from other, more experienced fundraisers.

  1. Application of Knowledge

Practicing alone has limited value. You must also practice in front of others and in situations similar to those in which your actual performance will occur. For example, Wythe cites the process of becoming Practicing Piano 3a better public speaker: “the only proven way to become a better speaker is to rehearse under performance-like pressure…. It is hard to replicate real-life circumstances, but practicing your speech aloud to people who are familiar with your topic is—again—the only scientifically proven way of improving your speaking skills.”

For fundraisers, that means practicing the types of conversations that you must have with donors: getting the appointment, eliciting information, exploring interests, soliciting gifts, overcoming objections and making the close. As uncomfortable as it may be, live practice—and yes, even role playing—of donor conversations in front of other, more seasoned gift officers is critical to recognizing opportunities for improvement and identifying areas for further practice.

  1. Unequivocal Feedback

Once you begin performing the skills you’ve been developing and policing, it’s vital to evaluate your performance and to identify areas that require further practice and improvement.  Indeed, Wythe suggests that we all need a coach; however we cannot be our own coaches: “You can read all the how-to books you want, but then you have to implement those suggestions—which takes a huge amount of discipline that most of us don’tPracticing Violin 1 have—and then you have to be able to see around your own blind spots which, believe me, will take a lifetime.”

Of course, few fundraisers have the resources to engage a personal coach. Instead, that role should be filled by your supervisor and your peers, and ideally, your organization will offer on-site training programs or opportunities to attend off-site workshops.  But if your supervisor and peers don’t see themselves as coaches, or if you don’t have access to training programs, it is up to you to proactively seek out feedback and coaching: Ask your colleagues to provide the ‘rapid and unequivocal feedback’ Wythe says you need, or seek others to help fill that role. Just be sure that you enlist knowledgeable people who you trust to critique you without holding back.

It should thus be good news for both new and seasoned fundraisers that the imperative for pursuing a comprehensive approach to building advancement teams is beginning to be acknowledged and to be addressed. By applying tenets of “strategic talent management” to the advancement profession, fundraising organizations are increasingly looking holistically at the entire process of finding, training, developing, rewarding and keeping the best possible gift officers. And training, coaching and mentoring are core elements of this fresh, holistic approach to growing talent. In addition, consulting and support organizations (such as Bentz Whaley Flessner and TalentED) are also ramping up their offerings to help clients develop talent management strategies, provide training and coaching, and better understand the dynamics of creating and maintaining effective fundraising teams.

It’s good news, for sure. But don’t stop practicing!

Something Worth Reading: “Senior Executives are Often Unaware of Development Opportunities”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently highlighted a very interesting report on the executive leadership of non-profits. The report’s findings? That the most senior executives aren’t always on the same page as their leadership team.

Related to development and training, the following quote from the article is particularly troublesome:

Nearly all senior-most nonprofit executives believe their organizations are providing formal professional development opportunities, according to a new study, even as half of those serving immediately below them report that no such opportunities are in place…

Ninety percent of the senior-most executives said their organization offered formal development opportunities, while just 52 percent of leadership team members said such opportunities existed.

This speaks to the disconnect we’ve discussed before on this blog, but rather than managers and their direct reports in fundraising the data demonstrates that the top executives at non-profits have a parallel disconnect to their development leaders. When this relates to professional development opportunities the entire organization suffers. In fundraising a lack of executive understanding of the training needs and actual programs for development paired with ignorance of existing opportunities by leadership means that the institution is likely to (a) fall behind in appealing to and retaining top frontline talent, (b) perpetuate or exacerbate frustrations between performers and their managers, and/or (c) miss opportunities to improve both performance and engagement.

In many non-profits executives have ideas but do not engage or bring in others for implementation. A similar lack of implementation planning is evident in this report’s findings on succession planning where CEO beliefs (they overwhelmingly are in favor of it) conflict with reality (less than a third actually have succession plans).

The whole report is worth reading and looking over. For those in talent management it’s useful to know trends in leadership that affect how staff interact with and view their managers and executives. Among its findings:

Over 9/10 of CEOs believe that developing leaders in an organization is key to succession planning yet 1/2 would recommend hiring an external candidate to fill the CEO position.

Leaders 45 and under mainly prefer a salary increase whereas those over 45 mainly prefer acknowledgement as an incentive to remain with their current organization.

27% of Leadership Team members are ready to become CEO now and 38% do not aspire to become  EO at all.

So – what do you think? Is this consistent with your organizations? Have you personally seen damaged relationships or unrealized potential due to a non-profit CEO’s overlooking of a critical issue?

Something Worth Reading: Those We Lead Tend to Live Up (or Down) to Our Expectations

MFL1Although Steve Browne’s recent blog post for TheHiringSite, How We See Others: The Role of the Talent Advisor, is directed at human resources professionals, I suggest that his provocative observations and recommendations have equal relevance for those of us in the advancement field who have responsibility for the success of fundraisers and other professionals.

Browne’s post is concise and simple, but its take-away is powerful: Stop focusing on why your employees and teams might be problematic and instead focus on their strengths and possibilities:

You need to understand the Pygmalion Effect*… [It] states that people will behave how you see them. If you think someone is a problem, they will be one. If you think they are talented, they will perform.

Perhaps Browne’s post resonates with me because during my career I have both delivered and received messages that conveyed low expectations or a lack of confidence. And I know from those personal experiences that when a supervisor encourages an individual, they frequently go on to overachieve; however, when an employee receives more criticism than praise or otherwise senses a lack of support from their supervisor, they will not be motivated to expend additional effort to excel–and indeed often respond in quite the opposite manner.

MFL2I suggest that all of us who supervise fundraisers and other advancement professionals follow Browne’s advice and start thinking of those we lead not as staff or FTEs but as “talent” with untapped potential; likewise, we should also begin to view ourselves not as managers but as “talent advisors”–coaches and mentors whose objective is to empower our own team members to grow, stretch and make the most of their abilities.

And if we do that, then perhaps–just as Professor Henry Higgins’ attitude changed toward Eliza Doolittle–we will soon “become accustomed to” the unique attributes and contributions of our own employees and thus find ourselves equally downcast about the possibility of losing these valuable partners.


 * For those unfamiliar with Pygmalion, it is the 1912 George Bernard Shaw play upon which My Fair Lady–both the 1956 Broadway play and 1964 movie (source of the scene with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn posted above)–are based. Shaw, in turn, took his play’s name from a character in Greek mythology.

Something Worth Reading: “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs”

Fear 1Successful educational fundraisers know that faculty and academic leaders can be invaluable allies in building productive relationships with donors and securing funding for institutional priorities. Deans, department heads, professors and researchers possess a deep understanding of the programs they direct, as well as a credible and persuasive passion for those initiatives that few professional fundraisers can match.

Unfortunately these potential partners are often reluctant to engage in the cultivation and solicitation of prospective benefactors. Their hesitation can be rooted in a lack of understanding about how major gift fundraising is conducted, anxieties about asking for money, fear of rejection, or even concerns that a donor may attempt to exert control over their work. On the other hand, their perceived reluctance might also be a simple case of not being invited to participate.

In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “Don’t Fear Fund Raising: Matching Donor Passion to Your Department’s Needs,” Texas Tech professor and dean David D. Perlmutter does an excellent job of demystifying the fundraising process for his fellow academicians. Perlmutter’s piece provides insights into the process of setting fundraising priorities, clarifying and articulating those needs, and underscoring the uncomfortable notion that what most excites faculty members may not be what resonates with donors.

Perlmutter’s most important lesson, however, is, that effective educational fundraising is usually an iterative process and that our greatest successes often follow the rejection of an initial approach. Accordingly, faculty and administrators must be prepared to listen actively, “be willing to shift gears,” seek to “recast and redirect” their appeal, and “leave the door open” for future discussions, even when the first appeal proves unsuccessful.

So if you are a department chair, director of a center, or dean of a college, what should you do if you find that what the donor wants is not what you need? …. Be willing to shift gears. Don’t be hypnotized by your agenda. Keeping your priority list handy does not mean you should ignore out-of-the-box opportunities.

Dean Perlmutter’s terrific insights, however, are not enough to prepare academic leaders for fundraising success. Institutions committed to actively and effectively engaging faculty and academic leaders in the fundraising process must also be committed to providing education and training for these key allies.

In addition to demystifying the fundraising process, a training program for faculty, department heads and deans will also supply them with the perspectives, tools and techniques they need to hone and articulate their priorities and to successfully engage and build relationships with donors. After helping lead workshops this summer for academic leaders at several TalentED clients, I found it  both remarkable and satisfying to observe the resulting relief, excitement and resolve among our participants once they were been equipped with the tools for success.

So make the most of this readily accessible talent pool at your institution by ensuring your faculty and academic leaders receive the perspective, preparation, encouragement and support they need to maximize their chances for fundraising triumphs. Don’t leave it to chance.