On Lifelong Learning

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.


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.”


Thoughts on Culture – Corporate and Societal

In an October 25, 2011 article titled, “The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture is Key,” published by Booz & Company, the authors (Barry Jaruzelski, John Loehr, and Richard Holman) write, “Studies have shown again and again that there may be no more critical source of business success or failure than a company’s culture – it trumps strategy and leadership. That isn’t to say that strategy doesn’t matter, but rather that the particular strategy a company employs will succeed only if it is supported by the appropriate cultural attributes.”

From my observations and experience, a corporate culture is defined largely by five factors:

  • Who you hire and retain and the way and extent to which you develop people
  • What you measure
  • What you recognize and reward
  • How the leaders act
  • How you allocate resources

Not surprisingly, the bigger the organization, the harder it is and the more time it takes to change a culture. Of course, if the leader of a unit has too many limitations on his/her ability to hire and fire, change the reward system, or allocate resources, significant culture change within that unit can be nearly impossible.

I think about this from time to time in relation to the culture of our society. To what extent do similar factors apply? Certainly, the way we educate and train (i.e. develop) people is hugely important. The kind of performance and behaviors we reward or punish also heavily influence a society’s culture.

How a society chooses to allocate resources also has a bearing on culture. For example, using resources to help people develop and productively utilize their talents will tend to create and reinforce a very different kind of culture than if we use resources largely in ways that reinforce dependencies.

How leaders act can also be a major factor. Unfortunately, we live in an era when respect for institutions of all kinds is at perhaps an all time low. While at times there are good reasons for lack of respect for an organization, other organizations in the same field that have not acted improperly are often tarnished by association. Consequently, even those leaders of institutions who demonstrate admirable behavior and performance often have few followers outside the institutions they lead.

If we use a basic definition of a leader as one who has followers, it seems that a lot of celebrities have far more followers than do most leaders of business, governmental, religious, or not-for-profit organizations. Often, those celebrities and , seemingly, all of their actions – especially the less admirable ones – are widely publicized by various media. We can at least be grateful for those celebrities who consistently demonstrate attributes that are worth emulating.

For those of us in positions of influence in an organization, it’s obviously important that we do all we can to cultivate a culture that optimizes the potential for success of the organization and its people. Part of that involves reminding ourselves that, whether we like it or not, others are watching what we do and how we act in various situations. All of us need to do our best to conduct ourselves in ways that are worth emulating and that will enhance rather than detract from, not only the kind of organization we want, but also the kind of society we want for our children and grandchildren.

Three Essential Characteristics of Good Organizational Leadership

Organizations that excel over long periods of time typically have been able to sustain strong leadership over a relatively long period of time. They have good governing bodies and effective chief executives, and they aspire to become something better than they are. They are constantly learning, building on their experiences, developing their people, and improving their results. For them, “good enough” never is. The most effective boards and the most effective executives go hand in hand. You won’t find one without the other for very long. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. The perpetually troubled organizations have neither effective boards nor effective executives.

While the public, for-profit, and not-for-profit sectors differ in some significant ways, I believe there are some characteristics of good organizational leadership that are applicable regardless of the sector. These include:

Good Governance– the role of the board of directors or other official governing body.

    In any institution that excels, there will be a framework of values and principles that foster a culture of achievement and adherence to high ethical standards – that tend to bring out the best in people, discourage negative behaviors, and improve the ability of people to work well with each other. An effective governing body will ensure that such a framework exists and will also ensure that structures and mechanisms are in place to help people develop and utilize their potential as fully as possible to optimize the organization’s performance in furtherance of its mission.
    In addition to performing the governance functions required by law or dictated by best practices, the best boards focus more on the long range and strategic than on the short term and tactical. They are concerned more with matters of paramount importance than with the ordinary and with policy rather than operational procedures.
    A good board generally has some responsibility for the allocation of resources – primarily through the budgeting process and review of large expenditures that fall outside the approved budgets or that would create significant long term obligations. The board will also monitor key metrics and have a mechanism for reviewing how well management is doing its job.

Good Management

    It is the job of the CEO and other paid leaders to translate goals into action and make resources productive.

High Aspirations (Vision) – in many cases articulated primarily by the CEO, the aspirations must be embraced at all levels throughout the organization.

    An organization that has a good board and good management will also have high aspirations for what the organization strives to accomplish over time. To be meaningful, however, those aspirations must be translated into actionable goals toward which the organization’s resources can be aligned.

The need for these three elements – good governance, good management, and high aspirations – applies at every level and in every sector of society – in companies, not-for-profit organizations, schools, communities, states, and countries. Unfortunately, in too many places, these elements are conspicuous by their absence.

Three essential characteristics of a highly successful social enterprise

Over the years I have read countless books and articles on topics related to organizations, leadership, and management, and I have learned more from the writings of Peter Drucker than any other author.  In part, that may be because he wrote for so long. In fact, in 1997, when Drucker was 87 years old, Forbes magazine featured him in a cover story titled, “Still the Youngest Mind.”

Despite all that I’ve learned from Drucker’s writings, though, the one book that has (so far) been the most helpful to me is Built to Last – Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, published in 1994.  In it the authors described the commonalities they found among companies that had managed to thrive over long periods of time.  One of those commonalities was that the visionary companies did not brutalize themselves with “the tyranny of the OR – the view that you can be ‘A’ or ‘B’, but not both.  Instead, the visionary companies embraced “the genius of the AND – the paradoxical view that you can be ‘A’ and ‘B’, even if they are seemingly contradictory notions.  This insight helped me solidify my view that to excel in our organization, we had to be outstanding from both business and mission perspectives – not one or the other.

From that view, we arrived at an overall objective of maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that enhances the organization’s long-tem viability.  In other words, we must have significant impact and be financially sustainable.

IMPACT is a function of your mission-related services.  How many people are benefiting, and to what extent are their lives being changed for the better?   Measures of real impact are much deeper than activity metrics such as “number of people served”  which may indicate you were busy, but tell us nothing about whether you actually made a difference.

SUSTAINABILITY is a function of the organization’s financial strength.  Do you have sufficient strength to be able to weather periodic downturns and occasional external shocks?  Organizations that are constantly struggling to keep their heads above water financially rarely do a good job accomplishing their mission.  They are too focused on simply surviving.  Neither are organizations that lack adequate financial strength likely to be able to invest in initiatives that might improve their impact and/or accelerate growth.

Even if a successful social enterprise such as Goodwill is having substantial impact and is strong financially, to remain successful over time a third characteristic is necessary:

ADAPTABILITY, which is largely a function of the organization’s culture.  Can you respond quickly and effectively as new needs, opportunities, or threats arise and as the external environment changes?  Organizations that cannot adapt well enough run a strong risk of becoming ineffective or extinct.  Actually, it’s better if they become extinct rather than ineffective.  At least when they’re extinct they no longer consume resources.

Even if you’re highly successful today, it’s wise to remember an old proverb Drucker frequently quoted, “Whom the gods would destroy they give 40 years of success.”  Organizations with a long period of success may be particularly vulnerable to the demons of inertia, complacency, myopia, and/or arrogance that could eventually lead to their demise.   With the pace of change today, this can happen much quicker than forty years.   The wise leader is aware and alert, as well as adaptable.