We hope that these last few days of 2014 find you well rested, grateful, and ready for a great new year. With 2015 just days away, our thoughts are turning to what we want to accomplish in the months ahead.
As you contemplate what you want to achieve both personally and professionally, here are four ideas for what to promise yourself – and your team.
1. I resolve to talk less and listen more. As leaders, our job is to create alignment around a shared vision. That sometimes means communicating outward: painting a picture, giving direction, providing context. But often the best information is not sitting in your head – it’s in someone else’s. And the truth is, it is hard to hear other people when you are talking. In the new year, take more time to listen to what other people are telling you.
Several years ago, Diane Schilling wrote a great post on Forbes about active listening. Among her tips for improving your listening skills:
- Maintain eye contact. Put that phone away!
- Stop rehearsing. Schilling says, “Don’t spend the time planning what to say next. You can’t rehearse and listen at the same time.” Focus on paying attention to the speaker.
- Visualize what your counterpart is saying in pictures. Make a mental image of the concepts the other person is talking about.
- Summarize agreements you’ve made and other important points from the discussion.
2. I resolve to ask more and better questions. Getting people to talk to you is easier than you may think, just ask them questions! Questions like “How are you?” are nice, but questions that accomplish deeper goals are even better:
- Encourage your team to share;
- Challenge them to think past obvious, short answers; and
- Uncover information you might not otherwise hear.
A fantastic resolution for leaders everywhere is to push ourselves to go beyond banal small talk and into questions that are provocative and insightful. Susan Scott's excellent book Fierce Conversations is a goldmine for powerful, relationship-building and truth-revealing questions. In 2015, try these:
- What is the most important thing we should discuss today?
- What have we learned from this project that we didn’t expect to?
- What is the one thing we need to accomplish this week to stay on track, and why?
- What do you think I am ignoring that I shouldn’t be?
- What are we pretending not to know that we should discuss?
3. I resolve to get out from behind my desk. One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb: “Don’t listen to what they say. Go see.” Think of how much time we spend thinking and wondering about our staff, our fundraisers, our donors, our volunteers, our partners, and our board. What do they want? What do they need? Why won’t they respond? How can we better work with them?
The reality is, our own interpretation of our constituents’ needs will never be as accurate as simply asking them directly what their needs are! There is a lot of knowledge in the field, but we have to be out in the field to get it.
About ten years ago I was on site for one of the large-scale events my previous company managed. I remember looking at the sky and thinking, “Those clouds look pretty bad – we’ve got a huge storm coming.”
I walked in the command center to see if we were preparing for foul weather. When I asked, my staff told me, “We’re looking at the radar picture and everything looks fine.” Not one person had been outside in the last several hours.
I said, “Forget your computer screen – get up and look out the door! It’s going to pour!” Sure enough, fifteen minutes later we were in the middle of a violent downpour. Luckily we had enough time to get everyone to shelter. But I had learned my lesson: the best way to understand the weather is to look at the sky.
In the same way, the best way to understand what our constituents want is to go out into the field and ask them.
4. I resolve to reconnect with our mission. Working to raise money to change the world is hard, demanding work. In the stresses of the routine it is easy to focus on the “raise money” part and forget the “change the world” at the end of it. Money is never the end goal; the end goal is a better world.
This year, take some time to reconnect with what happens to the money after you raise it: healthier kids, impactful research, educated families, and supported loved ones. Spend some time with your program staff; ask them how your work has powered a positive impact. Talk to your beneficiaries and recipients to hear their expressions of gratitude. Whatever the mission of your organization is, connecting to it is what matters most. It just might provide the inspiration you're looking for in the new year.
Whatever inspires you and whatever goals you set, we wish you a healthy, hopeful 2015!