On Lifelong Learning

Jim-StudentInteraction
Jim McClelland shares a laugh with a graduate of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

When I was 17, I thought I knew a lot. Throughout my adult life, though, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized how little I know. I figure if that process continues long enough I will eventually reach the logical conclusion that I know absolutely nothing. (I realize that just confirms what some of you have always thought….)

Nevertheless, I don’t think we can overemphasize the importance of being a lifelong learner. This is particularly true for anyone who works or wants to work, as changes occur at such a rapid rate we have to keep learning just to stay current in whatever field we’re in or, in many cases, be employable at all.

I’ve had the same title at Goodwill for forty years, but the work I do today is vastly different from what it was even a few years ago. In part, the changes in what I do and how I go about my work are reflections of how we have adapted to enormous changes that have taken place over the years in demographics, technology, the economy, competition, laws and regulations, and American culture. Goodwill has also changed in response to what we’ve learned from our own experiences, from the experiences of others, and from research. And we’ve changed as a result of the different perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills of people who have become part of our organization and caused us to question old assumptions, ask different questions, and consider new approaches.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned an enormous amount over the years from being in a position to work with people at nearly every level of society and in all parts of a community. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a lot of people at national and international levels, try to understand their experiences and perspectives, and learn from them. The variety is tremendously appealing to me, and having those experiences has caused me to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

I also read a lot. I read to stay current with what’s going on in the world and in my community. I read in hopes of learning something that will help me do a better job or be a better person. I read for insights and to learn about topics I’m interested in. And sometimes I read simply for pleasure and no other purpose.

My regular reading includes publications with different perspectives, as I do not want to confine myself to being exposed only to the thoughts and opinions of those who have one particular point of view. Gary Hamel’s book, Leading the Revolution, (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) reinforced my desire to try to understand and learn from people with different experiences and perspectives. My notes on that book include:

  • Most people in an industry are blind in the same way. They’re all paying attention to the same things and not paying attention to the same things.
  • Insights come from new conversations. All too often, strategy conversations in large companies have the same ten people talking to the same ten people for the fifth year in a row. They can finish each other’s sentences. You’re not going to learn anything new in this setting.
  • There is so much individuals cannot imagine simply because they are prisoners of their own dogma.
  • The more you pay attention to information that supports your world view, the less you learn.
  • You can’t use an old map to find a new land.

While Hamel was writing primarily for leaders in business and industry, perhaps his admonitions could also be helpful in other aspects of a society that has become dismayingly polarized over many issues.

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Some Implications of Becoming a Large Organization

Over the last decade, we’ve had enormous growth in our organization. We now have over 3,000 employees, nearly two-thirds with limited vocational options because of a disability or other barrier. We also have over 3,100 students in the ten schools we operate and 450 first-time moms and expectant moms enrolled in Nurse-Family Partnership. Our total revenues this year will be approximately $130 million. For a not-for-profit, we are a big organization.

Our size has many positive aspects. We have been able to attract a higher level of managerial and professional talent than was possible before, and this has enabled us to become substantially more productive and decrease the percentage of our revenue we spend on overhead.

Even more importantly, our heightened capabilities have also made it possible for us to greatly enhance the scope and quality of our mission-related services and develop new approaches that have substantially increased our long term impact in the lives of people and in the communities in which we operate. The work we are doing today is by far the best in our history.

But there’s also a downside.

The bigger and more visible we are, the bigger target we become. In addition to having a lot of employees, students, and people served in various other parts of our organization, we now have 2 million donation transactions and 5 million customer transactions a year. Bottom line: We have a lot of opportunities to make people like us or mad at us. And nearly all of them have access to social media.

We are also a complex organization that has been changing rapidly – especially over the last five years. Regardless of how much we’ve done to tell our story, most people have no idea of much of what we do. Perception always lags reality.

Moreover, while we have a lot of wonderful people doing terrific work, our organization is composed of 3,000 human beings, and not one of us is perfect. All institutions have flaws, and despite all the good work we do and all the improvements we have made, there is nothing we do that can’t be improved even more.

We always hope that those who talk or write about us – for example, through social or mass media – will treat us fairly. Our positives far outweigh our shortcomings, and we hope for perspective, a sense of context, and balance. If someone publicly calls attention to a flaw or a mistake someone in our organization has made, we hope they will give proportionate attention to the good things we do. We also know, though, that in this day and age such hopes are usually unrealistic. As negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive emotions, negative stories seem to attract a lot more attention – viewers, listeners, readers – than positive stories.

So what must we do? Obviously, we need to find more effective ways to increase awareness of our mission-related services and impact. But there’s more. With greater size comes greater responsibilities, and we must hold ourselves to an ever higher standard. While continuous improvement has been one of our Five Basic Principles for 20 years, we have to do more to improve every aspect of what we do. There is never any room for complacency. We must constantly work to raise our game.

And regardless of how others – individuals or media outlets – might treat us, we must continue to treat others as we would want to be treated. We must keep our focus on the work to be done, acknowledge and correct our mistakes when we make them, and continue to uphold our values and the basic principles by which we operate. And we will continue to become ever better stewards of all our resources as we work to help improve lives and strengthen communities. Because – even if others don’t recognize it – that is who we are.

The gap between public perception and reality

I once heard a newspaper publisher make a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that people didn’t really understand the newspaper business. I thought about this a bit and came to the conclusion that any of us could probably say something similar about the businesses we are in. Even if we once thought we understood someone else’s business, organizations that survive over long periods of time aren’t standing still. They’re changing in ways that are often not visible to the general public. Public perception often lags reality, and the faster the rate of change within an organization, the greater the gap between what the organization actually is and public perception of it.

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved at such a rapid rate that even people who have been relatively close to the organization are not aware of some of what we are now doing, the approaches we are taking to our work, or the impact we are having in the larger community.

For starters, most people have no idea we are as large as we are. With 3,000 employees – two-thirds with a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other barrier – we are still doing what the founder of Goodwill set out to do more than 110 years ago – provide work for people with few options. We’re just doing it for a lot more people.

We have also become significantly involved in public education – especially of older youth and adults. This fall we will operate 10 schools with a total of more than 3,000 students. Nine of those schools are Excel Centers – a unique concept we created three years ago that enables adults to complete requirements for a high school diploma and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will enhance their earnings potential.

More recently, we have begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective home visitation program that helps first-time mothers in low income households improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development, and the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Our nurses are currently working with over 350 expectant moms and new moms to whom 220 babies have been born. It’s a 30-month program with lifelong benefits.

Equally exciting is the extent to which we are now able to link individuals and families with education, employment, health and family services in a holistic approach to help people move out of poverty. We don’t provide all of the services ourselves. Rather, we work with many other organizations whose capabilities and resources complement Goodwill’s. As this approach has grown in recent years, our organization has begun resembling a network of networks – an approach that makes better use of overall community resources and is much more effective than the more common fragmented approach.

The financial base for what we do is provided by our donated goods/retail operations, which also employ two-thirds of our 3,000 employees. Thus, we are dependent on hundreds of thousands of residents who donate goods and shop in our stores.

All of this is a lot more than meets the eye of the general public. Lack of knowledge or – worse yet – misleading information or misinformation that can arise from taking small pieces of what we do out of context can be damaging. One of our challenges is to find ways to improve public knowledge of Goodwill’s wide array of services and the impact of those services in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. The better we can do that, the better we will be able to reduce the gap between perception and reality.

Networks – Part II

In my February 15, 2013 post, I wrote about Goodwill’s implementation of Nurse-Family Partnership as an example of a “network” approach to better align and leverage resources to improve lives and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that teaches and reinforces good parenting skills, helps improve pregnancy outcomes and the health of the child, and results in changes in parental behaviors and the environment in the home in ways that are highly conducive to the proper nurturing and development of the child.

Goodwill and other members of the Nurse-Family Partnership network also offer education and employment opportunities for the parents and provide assistance in dealing with housing, transportation, and other issues that are common in low income households. Overall, this approach is helping build stronger families and preventing a lot of social problems from developing later.

The network we have developed that supports and enhances Nurse-Family Partnership’s effectiveness in central Indiana is one of several networks Goodwill has been developing in recent years. In fact, our organization is evolving into a network of networks that are supported by and often linked by shared services.

We have a business development/employment network that includes a number of companies that contract with Goodwill for services that are performed in large part by Goodwill employees with disabilities, criminal histories, and/or low education levels – people who, in many cases, have few vocational options. We also have relationships with companies that hire individuals who are prepared and want to move into situations elsewhere that might offer better long term opportunities for them.

In addition, we are developing two new networks that will further enhance education options for young people and adults. One of those is a network of organizations in other communities and states that will operate Excel Centers under a licensing arrangement with us. The Excel Center model is unique, and those that become part of the Excel Center Network will have access to a lot of materials and services we have been developing over the past three years. They also will be able to shorten their learning curves and become effective more quickly as a result of our experiences.

Finally, we have recently launched the Indiana Network of Independent Schools (INIS) to offer services to other schools that do not currently have access to the level of academic, data analysis, and back office support services we have at Goodwill. By using services offered by INIS, the staff of those schools will be able to utilize their time more effectively to help children succeed.

Supporting all of these networks is an infrastructure that has developed to support Goodwill’s retail operations, commercial services, community-based initiatives for individuals and families, and the growing number of schools we operate.

This development of this “network of networks” is largely a result of two factors. One is the number and quality of relationships we have with many organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. The other is a lot of talented staff who see how the resources and capabilities of others can be

combined or leveraged, sometimes in very creative ways, with our in-house resources and capabilities to substantially increase our overall effectiveness and impact and make better use of the total resources available in the communities in which we operate.

Forty years experience summarized on one chart

Forty years after starting my Goodwill career, I attempted to summarize on one chart the essence of what I have learned about the ingredients necessary to sustain organizational success over a long period of time. Here’s a brief explanation of what appears at the end of this post.

  • Every organization exists in a larger context and is affected by many external factors, including changes in the economy, demographics, technology, competition, laws or regulations, the political climate, and external shocks, which can be natural or man-made disasters. Organizations must be able to adapt quickly and effectively to such changes or risk becoming ineffective, irrelevant, or extinct.
  • It can be useful to keep in mind that organizations change for three reasons: They see a need or an opportunity; they have a sense or fear of something that might happen; or they change in response to something that’s already happened.
  • Organizational leadership in the not-for-profit sector is a function of three components: governance, management, and aspirations (or vision). The organization’s leaders should begin with the end in mind, i.e. by asking how they will measure success. They should translate the aspirations into concrete, measurable goals and align everything toward the goals, including organizational structure, business models, products and services, resource development and allocation, recruitment and hiring, training and development, performance reporting, recognition and reward systems, policies and practices, internal and external communication, and organizational culture. The leaders should be aware that most organizations are perfectly aligned for the results they are getting, and if any major factor is significantly out of alignment, it will be nearly impossible for the organization to excel.
  • The leaders must also recognize that none of the above is static. Everything is subject to change as new opportunities or challenges arise and as the external environment changes.
  • Success is a function of three elements: (1) impact, which is a function of mission-related results, (2) sustainability, which is a function of financial strength, and (3) adaptability, which is a function of the organization’s culture. An organization can be successful for a time with just the first two, but it will cease being so if its culture does not enable it to adapt effectively as the world in which it operates changes.
  • A good overall objective for a not-for-profit organization is to maximize mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that enhances long term viability.
  • The leaders of a successful organization must constantly be aware that sustained success can result in succumbing to the demons of inertia, complacency, myopia, or arrogance. They must remind themselves of the old proverb, “Whom the gods would destroy they give forty years of success.” Today, though, it doesn’t take anywhere near forty years for any of those demons to cause an organization to be destroyed by outside forces or to self-destruct.
  • In the final analysis, the most important factor determining the success or failure of an organization is the quality of its leadership or lack thereof. Successful organizations have leadership that:
    • understands its context
    • knows what it wants to accomplish
    • aligns everything toward that end
    • is never content with the status quo
    • and continues to learn, adapt, and evolve

This is one model of the ingredients necessary for sustained organizational success. But it’s good to keep in mind George E. P. Box’s admonition, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.”

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