A Cohort Leadership Experience: Reflections on LMR2019 First Weekend

No. 1: September Retreat Weekend

You cannot live in the Richmond region without awareness of LMR. Their Leadership Quest program is entering its 39th year of cohort leadership development. I was excited to join this year’s class and kick off our experience this past weekend. To fully live into the experience I have made three commitments:

  1. Unplugging - I left my phone in my purse and didn’t do work during our 3 day retreat. I let family know I would be checking in after dinner each night. This was an unusual behavior on my part as being a relationship oriented small business owner means I try to be accessible to clients.

  2. Journaling - With a tiny bit of ADD I discovered a few years ago that in order to really dig into a full day experience I had to doodle and journal my way through it. The new iPad and pencil really opens up this experience. This way I could capture tools, techniques, and my observations. Just a warning - I can’t really draw!

  3. A Blog Series - I wanted to capture my journey in a way I can revisit. I am sensitive to not “give away” any of the magic of the cohort experience for anyone interested in being part of the 2020 class.

Humbling Moment

At one point during the retreat we separated into two groups - for and against the death penalty. It was an exercise designed to get us thinking about the difference between dialogue and debate. I was surprised to observe different people on each side - people that I had made assumptions about based on their job or a conversation we had engaged in earlier in the day. It was a reminder that I walk into the space with my own biases.

Insights/New Facts

In 2017, out of 46 schools, 24 Richmond schools had less than 20 white students.

In reviewing the regional data presented by Matthew Freeman of Dialectix Consulting I was surprised by very few items given our role in data collection and synthesis through strategic planning for over 50 organizations a year. The one data point that really jumped out was the number of schools in Richmond with 20 or fewer white students. In 2017, out of 46 schools, 24 have less than 20 white students. I think it was less surprising than sobering. It certainly underscores our work in the city specifically to desegregate our schools a legal decision that took place 64 years ago.


It was exciting to know 10 or so people in the room of 70. While I loved spending time with them I also enjoyed meeting a few people and digging below the surface including time spent with:

Jess Powers - ACLU of Virginia, Josh Fararr - Town of Ashland, Christopher Rashad Green - VCU, John Richardson-Lauve - ChildSavers.

Parting thought Session No.1


I left with one amazing piece of wisdom from Jonathan Zur of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. When engaging in these experiences always remember to ask yourself:

Does it need to be said?
Does it need to be said right now?
Does it need to be said by me?

Lessons from the NFL: What they can teach us about Strategic Planning and Community Engagement

Strategic Planning Community Engagement Ideas

It’s no surprise that the NFL is going through some major changes, ones that are forcing the organization to think more consciously and critically not only about their bottom line, but also about who their key constituents are, both on and off the field. Although professional football players of color have long used their platforms as a way to bring attention to social justice issues, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem in 2016 in protest to the treatment of African Americans and other minorities in this country, he brought to the surface a flood of controversial issues regarding, race, class, police brutality, and the commodification of black athletes. It’s fair to say that the NFL has been pretty tepid in their response to this issue, offering very little by way of making a statement that shows they understand what Kaepernick is really protesting. And quite frankly, when 70 percent of the league’s players and only 7 percent of head coaches are black, and 94 percent of franchise owners are white, now would be the perfect time for the league to gain insight on their strategic direction.[1]

Throughout any strategic planning process, we never promise our clients that it will be easy. In fact, we often warn them that the process will likely be uncomfortable as it deals with issues of race and class and that the information gathered may force them to grapple with key issues as they pertain to their work and the communities they serve.  It is also our practice to encourage our clients to be intentional about the voices they include in the strategic planning process in order to ensure that all of their key constituents’ needs are heard and valued.

If we could do Strategic Planning for the NFL

For the NFL, this would mean making a decision to not only speak to franchise owners or head coaches about the direction of the organization. It would mean ensuring that the 1,187 black players in the league[2] are included in the process and have their voices heard. It would mean seeing them as actual human beings who have the right and ability to use their spheres of influence to bring attention to social justice issues, and most importantly, it would mean seeing them for who they are: black men who, despite their professional athlete status, still have to deal with the inequalities that come with being a minority in this country.

The Possibilities

There are middle of the road strategic plans, ones that encourage an organization to stay the course, and there are transformative plans, those that not only force an organization to move beyond the status quo but force them to really lean into their goals and strategies in a way that makes clear who and what the organization stands for.

Perhaps your organization is not at a turning point as pivotal as the NFL. But, it’s fair to say that as the political and social climate in this country change, it is important to constantly be thinking about how issues of race and class play a role within your organization. Look internally at your workforce, or externally, out into the communities you serve. What are they saying and how are you choosing to listen or not listen to their needs? How are you choosing to value their voices as you plan for the future of your organization?




[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/24/there-would-be-no-nfl-without-black-players-they-can-resist-the-anthem-policy/?utm_term=.3147ab326c54

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/wade-davis-jr/a-numbers-game-making-an-nfl-roster_b_5731630.html

The Art of Listening: Ideas for Leaders on the Impact of Being Present

RPEC Conflict Resolution Training – A “4 Part Listening” Recap

The Art of the Deep Listen.png

My colleague Lindsey and I recently had the opportunity to attend Richmond Peace Education Center’s Two-Day Conflict Resolution Training, designed to strengthen communication, active and empathetic listening, and conflict problem-solving skills. It was an insightful and engaging 2 days, but one of the activities that resonated with me the most was an activity called “Four Part Listening.”

Now, in general I’d like to think I am a pretty good listener. I stare down at my phone or computer while someone is talking from time to time (you know, millennial multitasking) but for the most part, I am actively listening and engaged in a conversation, body language and all.

What I loved most about 4 Part Listening is that it forces you to actively and closely listen to what someone is saying by giving you the opportunity to listen for something specific. In a nutshell, one person is assigned the task of answering a question (speaker) while the three other group members listen for one of the following: content (listener A), facts and details (listener B), or values and needs (listener C). It may seem simple, but how many times are you engaged in a conversation but walk about not truly understanding what you’ve heard? Or, how many times have you spoken to someone and realized they understood none of what you said?

3 keys to close listening

  • it is not just hearing the words

  • it is about discerning what is important TO THE PERSON SPEAKING

  • it is about understanding what they value and need

4 Part listening is important as we engage daily in conversation with those around us, but it is particularly important for those in leadership roles who desire to really understand the people they work along side, both staff and leadership. At The Spark Mill, when we are helping clients through organizational change, we often ask them to look at how they engage with their staff and ways these encounters may be strengthened. One way to do this is to consider the ways in which you listen to employees in your organization – by not just hearing what they are saying, but working to discern what their true values and needs are.

During this activity, I shared my personal story about being a black woman dedicated to bringing the narratives and experiences of other black women into urban planning and why this mattered to me. For about 3 minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the community I belong to. Afterwards, my group members had to repeat what facts, values, and needs they heard me express. Although a short exercise, hearing what they said made me feel seen and acknowledged; I appreciated their investment and time in closely listening to my experiences.

During this activity, I shared my personal story about being a black woman dedicated to bringing the narratives and experiences of other black women into urban planning and why this mattered to me. For about 3 minutes I had the opportunity to share the story of the community I belong to. Afterwards, my group members had to repeat what facts, values, and needs they heard me express. Although a short exercise, hearing what they said made me feel seen and acknowledged; I appreciated their investment and time in closely listening to my experiences.

As a leader of an organization, you are often faced with a million and one tasks, and while it may seem daunting, included in those tasks should be taking time to hear your employees. Not just listening to them talk about their experiences at work, even though this is important. Take some time to hear who they are, where they come from, and their personal stories and journeys. Many times, it actually informs why they do the work they do, and as a leader you may be able to discern their values and needs and use that as an opportunity to understand how they align with your organization’s work.

Need some guidance on better connecting with your employees? We are here to help!



Lessons for Leaders on Strategic Planning, from a Quitter

lessons for leaders in strategic planning quitting

Most of the best decisions in my life were the result of quitting. I’m a big believer in quitting. I’ve always been someone who makes decisions instinctively. I don’t spend a lot of time going back and forth. This isn’t always a good thing, but I believe it’s enabled me to be a team member and leader who can move things forward quickly and not muck up the process. Sometimes my great ideas don’t end up being all that great or I’ve hit my capacity and I need to reconfigure my workload, and I find myself in a position where I need to be a quitter.

One of our facilitation activities for retreats is called “Start, Stop, Keep, Need,” where we ask small groups to map out what additional resources they may need and what they will need to start, stop, and keep doing to make their big and exciting dreams come true. Without fail, every group struggles to fill in the “stop” quadrant on their flip chart paper. So much so, I’ve started asking groups to fill out “stop” first and still most struggle. While I know capacity is an issue for most everyone we work with (who can really say they have enough time to do everything?) I don’t actually believe everything we do is necessary to continue to reach our overall goals. Many times I end up giving groups “permission” to stop doing things that haven’t been working for a long time, or take up more time than they are worth.

Let’s be honest - we can only do so much.  We owe it to ourselves, and the people we work with and for, to make sure what we are doing is the very best use of our time and resources. Typically that requires quitting things that no longer check that box. To be effective, we have to work toward being savvy at pivoting and changing things up.

I encourage you to look at how you are doing your work, and think to yourself, “what could I stop doing?” Maybe you don’t actually need to have 3-4 hour board meetings (trust me, you don’t) or perhaps that really awesome program you mapped out on paper just isn’t as successful in real life, or maybe you really need to quit grad school (just me? Oh, okay). Quitting can give you space to try new things, which is vital to staying relevant and growing, it can also carve out enough space to breathe and dive deeper into the areas that matter most.  

One of the things that sets The Spark Mill apart from other strategic planning and organizational development firms is that we don’t add more without working closely with you to flesh out your overall capacity.  If plans are too vague or lofty or impossible they are ineffective and you will just file them away on a shelf or in a drawer.  They should be a guide and a roadmap to how your organization can effectively and efficiently accomplish the necessary work that will enable you to have the biggest impact. Contact us if you would like help in figuring out what you should start, stop, and keep; and what else you might need to do your very best work.




The Aftermath of Strategic Planning: Pitfall Lessons for Those In Charge of Implementation

strategic planning implementation

Recently, I wrote about my confidence in our clients and their work.   Now, just because I'm confident in them doesn’t mean they’ll actually implement their plans. Here are two pitfalls that can easily derail implementing a strategic plan. I’ve seen both of them at work in several organizations – some I have worked with, and some (in full transparency) where I have been in leadership:


First, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day work that we forget about the bigger picture.  Perhaps you have heard the story about the two stonemasons who are working together on a stone wall for a sanctuary.  One brick mason, as he shapes the stone grumbles and complains. When asked what he does, says, “I’m chipping away at stone.”  The other mason has a relatively upbeat outlook and when asked what he is doing, he says, “I’m building a space where people will encounter the divine.”  Both of their responses were accurate, only one saw his work in terms of the bigger picture.  If we aren’t regularly checking and organizing our daily work against our goals and strategies, we can easily lose sight of the big picture.


Second, in the midst of getting bogged down in the day-to-day, organizations become inward focused, putting internal needs in front of their mission and losing sight of why (and for whom) they exist.  They begin to design processes that make life easier for them and not for their clients. This isn’t just an organizational challenge – it’s a human challenge, too.  And guess what, our organizations are full of humans!

Here’s the thing - both of these pitfalls are SO easy to fall into.  The best way to avoid them is to build regular reminders of why you exist and whom you exist to serve into your regular work, board meetings, and staff meetings. 

If we are not intentional it is easy for us to merely push rocks. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to merely work with stone.  I want to be involved in building beautiful things.  

How about you, what pitfalls have you encountered in implementing strategic plans?


Where Do You Live? The Importance of Listening to the Community

Guidance for Strategic Planning, Community Planning, and Change

As humans we often identify with where we live as a way to tell part of the story of who we are. So do you live in Richmond or RVA? Do you live in Northside or Southside? If you have a preference, where does that preference come from? What if your name had a negative connotation to it - informed by the feelings of others?  Below read three short stories on the importance of honoring the community voice in any kind of work. 

Listening to Youth: Changing The Name of a Program

In 2017, Richmond Peace Education Center launched the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team. This innovative project took the amazing goodness of the Richmond Youth Peace Project and deployed it into a place based initiative to teach peer conflict resolution skills to teens living in and around Gilpin Court, one of Richmond's Public Housing Neighborhoods. Within the first few meetings the teens gathered objected to being called the Gilpin Court Youth Peace Team and renamed themselves the Jackson Ward Youth Peace Team. To them, their home was Jackson Ward.  RPEC made the shift, honoring the voice of the teen leaders. 

East End or Church Hill: Impact of Gentrification on Neighborhood Names

Earlier this year as part of a larger project for a nonprofit working in the East End we gathered neighbors, staff, board, and community partners together to explore the brand and words being used by this nonprofit. While we explored the brand of the nonprofit and began a list of words we liked and those we didn't like, the idea of where the organization did its work and the boundaries of that work came up. One of the neighbors said something along the lines of - "What image does everyone have when we say East End?" This launched into a great discussion on the boundaries of the East End and the negative connotation that it has in the city from other people. We explored why people who live in Church Hill might not identify with East End and how East End is most often improperly associated with low income and poverty, when in fact it encompasses many diverse neighborhoods. The organization ultimately decided to own the expansive definition of East End to describe their program location. 

Manchester or Blackwell: The Story of Historic Tax Designations and The Role of Neighborhood Voices

 Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Used with permission from Leaders of The New South - Council on Community Housing. For more information, please visit their Facebook page. 

Manchester is seeing a significant amount of investment from outside groups. There are restaurants and new housing being added regularly. To leverage this investment to its fullest, developers are seeking to take a current Historic Designation that is active in Manchester and expand it into parts of Swansboro and Blackwell. Over the last few days I have seen some significant pushing back from neighbors in those communities about the re-naming of the neighborhood without consultation. If you want to follow along, Leaders of The New South* has a series of Facebook posts that provide some historical context, official maps, and a platform for community voice. This is a great example of needing to include the community in any major change. I would expect more community unrest and pushback the longer they are excluded. If the developers involved in this project want to practice community engagement, they need to take a deep breath and listen. 

What Can We Learn

As we have read above, names matter. Community engagement, when done well looks more like listening than planning. Great community engagement leads to vibrant change and supportive communities - it involves everyone being heard and deciding their fate as a group. We are happy to help you think through best steps as you navigate change. 


* Leaders of the New South - Community Council for Housing describes themselves as: The Community Council on Housing leads the demand for the implementation and enforcement of fair housing policy for renters in disenfranchised communities.

HR MATTERS: Creating the Very Best Job Description to Shorten Your Hiring Process and Find the Ideal Candidate

hiring and job search consulting.png

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time hiring people - because of growth and turnover it felt like we were constantly hiring.  Since then I’ve consulted many people on hiring. As a result, I’ve written and read a lot of job descriptions and I gotta tell you, most of us could use some improvement in this area. If the goal is to have the best of the best apply for your jobs and have a relatively seamless interview process, you have to create a strong job description.

5 Tips to Writing The Very Best Job Description

Describe yourself and the workplace. Future applicants want to see how you describe yourself, you might not want to simply copy + paste your “about” section from your website. Anyone worth interviewing will do a search on the internet before they apply so use your job description as an opportunity to use your internal office voice to describe the impact you make with your work. 

What’s the job?  This is the nitty gritty of the job you are hiring for, be concise but don’t skimp here. What will this position be doing? Feel free to categorize and break down responsibilities. What are the non-obvious aspects of the job that would be important for an applicant to know, examples might include travel, atypical schedule, supervisory roles etc. Be realistic. No really, you are setting everyone up if the job is impossible to do.

In my experience this is where most job descriptions are the strongest. It’s important to paint a clear description so applicants are very clear what they are applying to do.

In order for this new hire to be successful what do they need to walk in the door with? Fair warning, this is where I’ve seen lots of applications fall short. I’m going to be upfront—unicorns don’t really exist and you can’t have it all. Be clear with yourself about what are absolute musts and what would be an added bonus and make it crystal clear on your description. If you are hiring for an administrative assistant, experience in Excel might be non-negotiable, great, make sure you make that clear in the post. On the flip side, if you can envision a scenario where you hire an applicant who has every single other thing on your list besides Excel, it’s not a requirement, it’s a desired qualification. It’s okay to have mostly desired qualifications.

A good rule of thumb is that if you read the required qualifications and start to feel incredible dread in your gut because finding the right person seems impossible, it probably is and you should either cut down your list or plan to hire an outside consultant to do your outreach and hiring.

Sell yourself. Why would I want to apply for your job? Do you offer great benefits? A fun workplace? Remote working? Free meals? A discount? Non-profits, I love you, but “working for a good cause” is not enough! You want the very best applicants to apply to work for you, be competitive in your description.  You are selling them as much as they need to sell you.

Be transparent about the process and salary up front. Save yourself time and energy and just tell people how much you plan to pay and how they need to apply. How many interviews have I sat through where I wasted my time and the applicant’s time because we were on totally different pages about salary? TOO MANY. Let’s be honest, we work for pay, why wouldn’t you be up front about that from the very beginning?

As you can tell, writing job descriptions takes time and requires review before you post them publicly. A thorough job description can serve as the base for a work plan once your new hire is onboarding which will save you time and ensure your new hire hits the ground running. It’s worth it to do the work upfront—it will save you time in the long run. I promise!

We’re experts at writing winning job descriptions at The Spark Mill and delight in helping our clients find the very best person to hire. Contact us for all your hiring needs.

*This blog post is the first in a series about hiring—look out for the next installment discussing how to put equitable hiring in practice. If you have a topic you want to hear about, let us know!