Category Archives: Resilience

Why Take a Vacation?

Many Americans don’t use all their vacation days because coming back to piles of work is so stressful—this according to a recent study. The understandable decision not to take a vacation has got me thinking.

  • As a leader, do you model taking time off?
  • Do you unplug or restrict email use when you are on vacation?
  • During the summer months, how can you make work time more seasonally appropriate—stretchier, sunnier—in some way more relaxed?

One of my clients surprised his staff when he stopped the practice of his CEO predecessor, who had sent emails to staff members day and night, year round. As the new CEO, Paul modeled work/life balance by attending his children’s school activities and going on vacation. Staff followed suit, and satisfaction with work/life balance quickly shot up.

Once when I told a client that I’d check email a couple of times a day while I was vacationing in France, my consulting partner spoke up and said, “oh no you don’t; I’m here and working; you are going on vacation.” I needed that curb on my control-freak tendencies.

Whether or not you take time off this summer, here are ways to model making summer stretchier and sunnier. I invite you to post more ideas in the comments section of this blog.

  • At least once a week, invite others to join you outdoors for a bag lunch.
  • Use staff meeting check-in time (5-10 minutes of an hour-long meeting) to share summer memories, like mine below. (Yours don’t have to be poems—but they CAN be. Try haiku!)
  • Bring the outdoors into the office—flowers, homegrown herbs, vegetables and fruits
  • Encourage folks to learn more about each other. What’s a summer activity they enjoy? When they were a kid, what did they most like about summer?

June 30 may be the mad end of your fiscal year. Or maybe it’s hard to divvy up work when people take time off in July and August. At the same time, just as our muscles work at full strength only if they can let go of holding, we have to learn how to relax.

First Fireflies

Early June, and I stare into dark
Wondering where and when they’ll come,
These delightful beacons of summer.

Was it a porch light through a quiver of birch
Or—over there–a trick of the eye?
Another flash, and then a third—

Ah–the tiny fellows have come
To celebrate their love and bring
Me back to nights in Arkansas

When we sat on our grownups’ laps, lulled
By the to and fro of rocking chairs,
The summer heat, and family voices

Lowing, like the cattle beyond the fence.
In the deeper dark, the lightning bugs
Arrive, and we cousins rush among

The stardust to cup them in our small
Hands, so they will make our fingers
Glow and we can feel them tickle

Gently, like my mother’s feathery
Eyelash brushing my kissed cheek.
Opening our hands, we let them go

And spreading my arms like wings, I tilt
My head skyward to the bigger lights
That spin around our haloed heads.

poem ©2013 Merryn Rutledge

For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.


The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.

Leadership IS Learning

Each of us can boost our leadership by making learning a way of being. As Peter Vaill said in his book by that title, when learning is a way of being, “leadership is not learned;” leadership IS learning.

Start by trying on the notion that everything you do at work is a platform for learning. When you make a decision, face a challenge, wonder how to work with an employee, create something new or solve a problem, you can learn something new. Ask questions like,

  • What do I notice about the work experience I just had? What do I notice in myself? In others?
  • What choices did I make—whether or not I saw them as choices at the time? Did I get stuck? If so, how?
  • What were the results of my actions and thought patterns?
  • What could I do more of, less of or differently?
  • What will I do now?

tiki_questions2Reread my blog post on the Learning Compass (c) and you’ll notice that these questions take you around the learning cycle: experience; reflect; analyze by finding the significance of what just happened; think of choices; make choices that lead to action.

I recently read Sonali Deraniyagala‘s memoir Wave, which is about losing her family to a tsunami. Sonali decided to write about her loss as learning. No, there are no lessons; to distill lessons from the tragedy would have cheapened it. Instead, as she experiences waves of grief, she learns a process. She slows herself down, asking how the grief shows up in body, mind, emotions and spirit. Then she reflects, observing herself from inside and outside. By “outside,” I mean she sees herself in relation to her context– colleagues, community and the family she lost.  Gradually, over a period of years and in the reflective, analytical and active practice of writing, Sonali literally remakes herself.

We could follow a similar process both to learn about specific experiences and to learn how to learn better. Try this experiment. A couple of times during your work day:

  1. Look up from your desk. Take several long, slow breaths.
  2. Notice your thoughts, feelings and your body. You are gathering information, like a researcher or artist.
  3. What contextual things are influencing your work and your experience of it right now? Examples might be deadlines, physical surroundings, the technology you are using and the time of day.

Notice that this little exercise does not take much time. You are creating awareness as a step in learning. Without trying to change anything, notice whether there are shifts just because you are paying attention.

More on learning as a way of being in future posts.  Meanwhile, let’s all breathe.