Photo by Matthew Henry on Burst
I bumped into this quote by Mother Teresa again recently : "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you."
It is a powerful message that reminded me of something I've observed working with values-based enterprises and ventures; in the wholehearted pursuit to further a mission, the entrepreneur or executive director sometimes forgets to apply the principles of good to their own organization.
This can look like underpaying staff, being too busy for performance reviews, avoiding tough conversations that need to happen, not taking the time to coach staff through their missteps and mistakes, or ignoring a key staff member's behaviour that is disruptive to the organization or unkind to other staff. And then there are the much more serious offenses, such as widespread sexual abuse in international aid organizations.
When people are so clearly leading from their heart and trying to bring about lasting, positive change in the world, how does this happen?
The best intentions
A leader's poor behaviour (or allowing team members to behave poorly) often stems from a deep and good place. They are laser focused on bringing the world-altering product or service to the customers and clients that need it, funds are restricted or needed elsewhere, and time, often the tightest resource, is directed to fulfilling the higher goals of the organization.
But these leaders are forgetting the most basic principle of how love manifests. It is like a light in the middle of a room; when uncovered the light shines all around and can fill up every corner. If you block part of the light nearest the source, the shadow expands out and significantly mars the impact. Love, and all good works that are intended to flow from love, starts on the inside and beams outward; poor decisions and actions at the core of the organization will significantly reduce any benefit you are trying to bring into the world.
On the other side, team members treated with dignity and respect can be touched by the light of leadership and the venture's mission, and amplify it with their own power, keeping the output strong.
The lessons you need to learn
A similar sentiment that guides me these days is that "the perfect lesson for us to practice being who we are capable of being, is whatever is happening right now." (Marianne Williamson) In other words, the lesson you most need to learn to be your best, most powerful self is right in front of you.
I believe this is the crux of the misunderstanding; people confuse their work in the world, which can be far outside of the office, with the lessons they need to learn to fully express that work, which is the challenge immediately in front of them. It is an invitation for each of us, and we can choose to step into it or walk away.
If you recognize yourself and your company or organization in these words and want change, there are lots of places to start, articles and books to read, executive coaches to hire. And taking any honest step towards doing the right thing right in front of you is a good one.
But I have an operations brain and so my default is always to ask, "how can the system help support positive change?" And it this case, the answer is "in lots of ways." It is precisely because leaders of mission-based ventures are particularly pulled in many directions, that having a commitment to process reduces the chance of ignoring or putting off doing the right thing.
Effective systems to implement or commit to in your organization that help you know how best to support your team include: weekly 1:1 meetings; quarterly performance reviews; templated reporting; regularly scheduled evaluation of each staff member's high- and low-value tasks; and yearly research into compensation and benefits benchmarks. Even working to implement one will start to shift the energy in your company.
Of course, in business as in the rest of life, intentions matter, and no system will help unless it is implemented with love, honesty and an actual commitment to change.
It ain't easy
I feel like this will be a subheading in most of my posts; this work may be simple but it sure ain't easy.
I have boatloads of sympathy for the challenge of this work, as I also block my own light and power and the goals I'm trying to further in the world much too often, particularly through my fear of speaking up and initiating difficult conversations.
I've also been inspired by business and not-for-profit leaders that have chosen to do the very, very hard work of acknowledging the problems at the core of their organizations and being committed to improving them: listening to difficult feedback from staff and making changes; seeing when a trusted staff person is not at their best and working with them to figure out why; giving people a real chance and clear direction on how to step up; and respectfully guiding people out of the organization, even when that means losing years of institutional experience or rare expertise.
It is so easy to make excuses to not do this work; I know because I've heard them time and time again, and used many of them myself. I'm too busy, I too tired, I don't know how to fix the problem, it is only for a short period of time, I don't have time for this, we can't afford it, there are so many more important things to do, I need to focus on supporting clients and customers right now, if my team was really committed to the cause they would overlook the problems.
Each of these excuses feels valid at the time and may even contain some truth. But if at the end of the day, or at the end of your life, you want to look back and know you did your best to have impact on this gorgeous world and the people living in it, you will be brave, step into the work, and focus on the challenges right in front of you.