Fix it, Give Advice, or Listen - The Communication Acts of Problem Solving

In every self-assessment tool I have ever completed I have gotten feedback on my proclivity toward fixing. Bring me a problem and I will immediately brainstorm a list of solutions. This is at times amazing and at times very frustrating for those I work for, with, and my family. I have worked on self-awareness around this, especially since my day-to-day job as a strategist and visionary puts me in the problem solving mode very often. 

Last week we worked with Hanover Safe Place as part of a multi-phase project to identify opportunities to improve their internal culture and manage the assets and issues that come with rapid growth. As part of that process we talked about communication styles and our own self-awareness around managing conflict and diverse opinions. I disclosed to the group my natural problem-solving state and we brainstormed ways to work with people whose default is one of the three major styles to problem-solving. 

When a co-worker, child, or partner brings you a problem, take a moment and ask: 

  1. Do you want me to listen to you?
  2. Do you want me to help brainstorm a solution?
  3. Do you want my advice? 

I instituted this a few months ago at home and my 8 year old and my partner both noticed immediately and took a huge breath and picked what they needed. This was a wonderful moment of clarity for them and I ended up feeling much more helpful in the end. They both have come to me with different issues and chosen direct paths. But the magic is that I could give them exactly what they needed in the moment. 

I challenge you to try this at work and at home and see how it goes. 


Playing Games with Clarity - What Happens When The Rules Change

The other day I was playing a game with my boys.  They love to make up games and try them on me.  Yet, after awhile it’s hard to play the game with them - they keep adding rules and changing what it looks like to win.  It’s hard to play a game when you aren’t sure how to play or how to win. It struck me that this was not all that different from feedback we get from employees and volunteers of some of our clients.  Or for that matter, from some of the personal experiences of our own Spark Mill team with the churches, boards, and organizations we serve.

It’s hard to volunteer for a place when it’s not clear what is wanted or if you are even needed?  It’s hard to show up each day and bring your best to work when you don’t know from day to day what success looks like or how your work directly contributes to that success.

I don’t think organizations and companies start out with the intention of leading with a lack of clarity.  Life happens.  Business happens.  The schedule gets full and we find ourselves working so hard to manage the day to that we struggle to take time to look at the big picture.

In their 1998 book, Leadership on the Line, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky use the analogy of a dance.  They suggest that sometimes we have to “stop dancing” and go up on the “balcony" to be able to see the whole dance floor.  Organizations need that perspective.  It helps to align our resources and structure.  It allows us to make sure we are focused on the most important aspects of our business.  It creates space for us to be able to describe with clarity for our volunteers, staff, clients, and guests what success looks like and how their participation directly contributes to that success.

 Likewise, if our employees or volunteers don’t feel like their work helps contribute to a clear goal, they will become disengaged, make up their own goals which may or may not align with the organization’s goals, or choose to walk away.

Why is this clarity important?  I continue playing my boys’ crazy games despite the lack of clarity around rules and winning because I love them and love to spend time with them.  We don’t necessarily have that natural connection with our guests or customers. If it’s not clear how to participate in our organization and people have a bad experience, they will rarely give us a second chance.  Likewise, if our employees or volunteers don’t feel like their work helps contribute to a clear goal, they will become disengaged, make up their own goals which may or may not align with the organization’s goals, or choose to walk away.  

Our organizations and companies are more than just a made up game.  They are created to do good work and make a difference in the world.  How much more important then is it for us to be clear about how volunteers, clients, and guests engage our organization?  How much more important should it be for us to be clear about our vision and how volunteers’ and employees' work directly contributes towards making that vision a reality?

We are responsible for making sure that from time to time we climb to the balcony - to see the bigger picture, and then, with clarity, tell everyone what we see.  If we aren’t willing to put the hard work in to do that, well then we might as well just be playing games with our people - at least they are clear about rules and winning…unless, of course, my boys made them.

How to Create a Strong Internal Culture When You Don't Have Lots of Money to Spend

Some of the work we do here at The Spark Mill is to help organizations create workplaces that are simultaneously high functioning and fun! We frequently work with clients that may not have the budgets to offer fancy offices, expensive benefits, or the highest salaries to their employees. Luckily, there are many workplace perks that contribute to a healthy, happy, and productive work environment that don’t necessarily cost a thing.

We’ve put together a few ideas on how you can cultivate a fantastic work culture.

1.     Paid Time Off. Lots of time. Allowing your staff to take a break from work; to play, take care of themselves and their families, volunteer in the community, and to take a much-needed mental health day is essential. Create a workplace expectation that employees WILL take time off, and WILL be unplugged while they are off.  That is a much healthier environment than the office where employees wear unused sick and vacation days as a badge of honor.  Well rested employees come back with a fresh outlook on their work and are able to avoid burn out.

2.     Flexibility to do life. Sure, there are some jobs where flexibility might be hard to offer, but for the most part there’s at least a little wiggle room for employees to work from home sometimes, pick their kid up from school twice a week, or go to that great yoga class in the afternoon. Perhaps you could even have an organization-wide policy that let’s everyone have Friday’s off in the summer? If you have high performing staff you really don’t need to micro manage their schedules.

3.     Create a fun and functional work space. It doesn’t hurt if it’s pretty to look at, too. Encourage staff members to bring in pictures and art work that brightens the office and makes it feel more personal and less neutral. Haul that shelf you aren’t using out of your basement and give it a new coat of paint to store office supplies.  Keep those blinds open to let in all of the natural light, this will also help your office plants do have office plants, right?!  Set up a table and chairs outside for lunch and inter-office meetings. Encourage walking meetings. Bring in a yoga mat for mid-day stretch breaks. This one sounds crazy, and for every boss that is out there right this second listing off reasons this wouldn't work in their office, there are 10 of their employees cheering...let staff wear clothes for their day – i.e.: important meeting? Dress up. Data entry and email replying? Wear jeans.  Work together with your staff and your policies and procedures to figure out a model that will work for you. 

4.     Invest in one likely see each other more than you see your families.  You don’t need everyone to be best friends at work and this doesn't mean additional social obligations outside of work hours. (Many people truly prefer to keep their work and personal lives separate.) But you do spend an awful lot of time together...getting along will make life better for your office culture and your mission. So, make an effort to get to know one another—celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries, start your staff meetings with personal check-in’s, and make an effort to say hello and check in on Monday mornings (even when your to-do list is a mile long). Maybe host monthly potluck lunches or even have an ultra-competitive March Madness bracket competition (especially if you know your staff is already secretly streaming the games).

5.     Show gratitude and appreciation for hard work and dedication. People like being recognized for their work—it doesn’t have to be glitzy and glamorous, it just needs to be heartfelt and genuine. Showcase an employee of the month or quarter, host a competition for the most amount of follow through on an important project or campaign, shoot out an organization-wide personal thank you email, end staff meetings with time for staff appreciations. Don’t forget the simple act of adding gratitude to your daily interactions with employees. Good organizations take extra special care to thank volunteers, donors, clients, and board members but often fail to take the same consideration for their most valuable asset—their staff!

Most people who work with/for nonprofits, faith communities, start-ups and small businesses, or as civil servants certainly aren’t in it for the mega bucks.  That doesn't mean they don't deserve a positive work environment, an encouraging word from their supervisor, or a day off "just because" sometimes.  It may take a little extra time and effort, but the outcome will be well worth it.   Because, seriously, who doesn't want to work in a place with a thriving culture? 

If you are already doing a bunch of these suggestions, that's awesome!  If you have been thinking about improving your work culture, office environment, or have some general organizational development "stuff" going on and aren't sure about first steps or next steps, we'd be happy to chat by phone or over lunch.






Down with Generic Mission Statements - Up with "Essential Intent"

I’m over generic broadly-stated mission statements.  Aren’t you?  

I  mean, come on.  How many of us have come across (or perhaps even written) mission statements that say:  “We want to be the premier service provider in our industry as we serve our customers with integrity, innovation, and  quality.”  Ugh.  That doesn’t articulate mission - it generically embraces mediocrity!

On the other hand specific quarterly goals don’t always float my boat either.  While they may be clear, they don’t always help see the big picture about why you exist.  Wells Fargo gave their banking employees very concrete goals - we saw how that worked out for them!

What if instead of generic mission statements and disconnected goals, we created an "Essential Intent" for our organizations that clearly spells out what it looks like for our organization to “win."

Some examples of Essential Intent might be:

  • Every opioid addict in the City of Richmond to have access to treatment by 2020
  • Every veteran to have access to quality housing by 2022
  • Every Richmonder will be within 2 miles of healthy food options in the next 10 years
  • Every start-up in Virginia will have a stage appropriate place to go for help in 5 years
  • High-speed internet is available to every Virginian by 2025

In his book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says “essential intent” is a clear statement that is more specific and measurable than a mission statement and at the same time more inspiring than quarterly goals.  When we boil our work down to essential intent, we make the “one decision that makes 1,000 decisions.”

Essential intent offers clarity to our work and teams that both inspires and focuses us on that which is essential.  Essential intent clarifies what it looks like for our organizations to “win.”

Imagine how that kind of clarity would transform your daily work! Not only does it give clarity to what is essential, it also gives permission to STOP DOING that which is NOT essential.  Yeah, those TPS reports that don’t contribute to the “win,” stop doing them and stop making your employees do them.  Why pay people to do work that isn’t essential to your organization’s “win?"

Just imagine how your work, your team, your organization would be different if we made "the one decision that makes 1,000 decisions”.  When we articulate and then act on our Essential Intent, not only does the organization “win”, but our clients our customers, our guests, our community wins.

Client Spotlight: The Story Behind a New Brand

Congratulations to Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission for the unveiling of their new regional food brand. Purely Piedmont was a collaborative project of The Spark Mill and Polychrome Collective. Magic happens when you align brand strategy and beautiful thoughtful graphics. This was a ConsultCorps project that sprang out of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, VA. ConsultCorps is a group of experienced nonprofit consultants partnering with CNE to help clients solve problems and grow effectiveness. I am proud to be one of the founders of ConsultCorp - an innovative solution to finding the best consultant for your project. 

The Ask:

The Spark Mill was asked to investigate a brand for the Rappahannock Rapidan Food Council for the promotion of their locally grown agricultural products and make recommendations for the naming of the campaign. Results of this study were shared with the graphic designer to incorporate into a new visual identity to use to market the products grown and created within the region.

The Process:

We began by conducting a stakeholder survey and data review. This lead to two open Community Visioning Sessions where we sought information on audiences, brand voice, and purpose. All of the information was used to create a brand strategy including a proposed name!  

The Result: 

The brand should be balanced between simple and sophisticated and highlighting farming as a craft. It should feel comfortable to the residents but target the core audiences of the brand. The key to remember in branding is that it should resonate with customers most strongly, rather than describe the farmers and producers of the region. Visual cues included the Blue Ridge mountains, foothills, and the red clay soil. Tone of voice characteristics should include: genuine, trustworthy, and a little fun. A brand with a little dirt on it. 

We passed our comprehensive brand study over to the fine folks at Polychrome Collective who translated our recommended brand into an awesome graphic logo. 

Nonprofit Execs: Don’t Forget About Your People

The Spark Mill is dedicated to nonprofit sustainability. We understand that while mission and impact are the heart and soul of a nonprofit, there are many integral parts behind the scenes that make the magic happen.  Beyond defining your mission and establishing metrics to measure your impact, it is essential that you nurture your people. Yes, your people are your volunteers, donors and supporters, but your people are first and foremost your staff.

The hardworking nonprofiteer that is daily putting your mission into action – teaching parents financial literacy, educating teens on healthy lifestyle choices, providing meals to hungry children, answering phones, or writing grants. And yet, many nonprofit executives neglect or lack any formal strategic talent development or career progression plan for their staff – and to their loss:

  • Development attracts and retains – employees will stay longer, saving on expenses related to turnover and loss of productivity.
  • Development increases performance – employees will contribute more and in different ways.
  • Development boosts morale and engagement – a key performance indicator for organizational success.

Locally, we have an amazing resource!  YNPN RVA seeks to fulfill the professional development and leadership void experienced by young and early career nonprofit professional by providing them with:

  • a better understanding of the nonprofit sector in which they work
  • connections to peers and seasoned professionals
  • career planning and advancement insights
  • resources and tools to develop as a professional

We recently loved being at YNPN RVA’s Ask an Expert Social on Thursday April 27th from 5:30-7:30pm at Triple Crossing Brewery in Fulton.

YNPN RVA, powered by ConnectVA, is the local chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network that works to promote an efficient, viable, and inclusive nonprofit sector that supports the growth, learning, and development of the young and early-career professionals.  These are all attributes that The Spark Mill values, which is why we were excited to support and participate in this event.  

Check them out for more information. 

10 Things in 10 Years: Lessons from a Nonprofit Executive Director

Mira Signer NAMI Virginia Client Spotlight

**This is a special guest post from Mira Signer, Executive Director of NAMI Virginia, one of our long term clients.

When I started as the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia in 2007, it was just four months after the Virginia Tech tragedy, where 32 students and faculty were killed and many others injured, by a young student with untreated mental illness. The mental health advocacy community was raw, hurting, and unorganized. NAMI Virginia had not had an executive director for several years. On my first day, I walked into a small office that had an old computer, two telephones, two part-time staff members, and a budget of $170,000. I loved the organization’s mission and knew there was a lot of work to do to repair wounded relationships, build the grassroots affiliates, strengthen the organization’s advocacy work, and grow new education and anti-stigma initiatives.

Ten years later, as I depart the organization for a new venture, I look back with a lot of pride on what I was able to accomplish: nurtured the Board through growing pains and ultimately supported their growth into a strong, sustainable Board; grew our budget nearly 300% and diversified funding sources; expanded our educational initiatives that reached 23,000 Virginians in 2016; led campaigns to change laws and increase funding to transform the mental health care system, and hired an amazingly dedicated cadre of talented staff. In the ten years I was with NAMI Virginia, I learned a lot, did a lot, grew a lot, and made a lot of mistakes.

The Top 10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years

1.    Thank people. In person, on the phone, in writing. It doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive. It needs to be genuine. Thank the volunteers, your staff, the Board, your donors, people who help you out when you’re in a pinch. Make time every week to say thank you. I carve out about 30 minutes each week to thank people with a handwritten note. This doesn’t include the time I spend on the phone making regular thank you calls to donors, board members, and other supporters. It’s like voting- do it often and do it early: thank the people who are helping you be where you are and giving their time and efforts to the organization’s mission. Sometimes you will even get a thank you note for your thank you note and it’s the best feeling ever.

2.    Be careful of how fast you grow. On my first day, we had two part time staff, two phones, and a computer. Within three years I had hired two full-time staff members. Within another three years, we had grown to a staff of six. That’s a lot of growth in a short period of time. Growth is generally good but smart growth is even better. Make sure the way you are growing makes sense. We waited until my 7th year to hire a Director of Development - should have done it sooner! When you do grown, make sure you have the infrastructure in place to support the people who are doing the work. Adequate phone lines, good personnel policies, and a small budget for professional development make a world of difference.

3.    Know that there will be ups. Funding will be up. Programs will be great. You will have great times and do great things. Savor those moments. Keep a folder in your inbox for positive, feel good emails that you can go back and read on the hard days. Because…

4.    There will be downs. Staff will struggle. Your Board will have issues. A new initiative that was going to be amazing will fail. You will be criticized. You will feel ineffective. You will lose funding. Expect that bad times will hit during the course of your tenure. We lost funding at the very end of a fiscal year. It was unexpected and really shook me. An organizational restructure I was planning had to be postponed. I let a vacant position stay vacant for awhile. It was a tough time and I felt disappointed in myself, and I worried that I was letting my staff and the Board down. Which leads me to my next point.

5.    Be willing to be vulnerable. Executive directors are often expected to know everything. After all, we are in charge! People look to us for answers. We know a lot but there is no way we can know everything. I learned that it’s incredibly important to be willing to be vulnerable - to fall on your face and make mistakes. We are pretty talented, hard working, and versatile but we’re also human. Be willing to admit what you don’t know, and seek out guidance from those who do. It’s a sign of authenticity and others will appreciate it.

6.    Ask people what they think and what they want. Then, listen. People want to be heard. They want to share their ideas, tell you what keeps them up at night. Let them have a voice. Ask others what they want, what they don’t want, what they like about what you are doing, what they don’t like. Even if you disagree or ultimately have to go in a different direction, ask and listen. You will learn something from those exchanges. And if nothing else, there is great value in genuinely giving a voice to others.

7.     Take care of yourself. I sometimes say, “I love the first 40 hours of my job. After that, not so much.” Often our work is a calling. We do it because we love the mission, we love the work. We are asked to lead this effort, to join this committee, to attend that event. You are constantly on call and being asked to help out. In short, nonprofit work is not a 40-hour a week job. Even so, there are things you can do to not burn yourself out. First, figure out what your boundaries are (No email on the weekend? No evening meetings? No overnight travel longer than 3 days?) and negotiate that into your day-to-day work plan. For me it meant limiting my evening speaking engagements and being extremely selective about out of town travel. With two children under the age of three, these were critical to my well-being and the well-being of my family. It also meant convincing my Board that we needed to hire a contract lobbyist to perform services during the legislative session, as it was no longer feasible for me to do it alone. Fortunately, it didn’t take much convincing and was a positive experience- one that was appreciated not only by me but also by my family. Other essentials for me included actually eating lunch outside of my office (sometimes alone, other times with friends, and other times lunch dates with my partner) and taking 30 minute walking breaks around the office park - sometimes while on the phone with a donor or reporter but at least I was getting fresh air and exercise. The point is, you must be good to yourself if you are going to perform your job well. Don’t be a martyr and don’t make the mistake of thinking you are too important to take a vacation.

8.     Take care of those around you. This one refers specifically to staff, and I can’t overemphasize how important it is. Staff is a precious commodity and you must take care of them. One of the things I am most proud of is that we revised our personnel policies and were very generous with annual leave, sick leave, and benefits like parental leave. We used to offer about three weeks paid vacation. Sounds pretty typical. We now offer at 4.2 weeks of annual leave for employees who have been here 2 years and under. Employees who have been here 8 years or more earn 6 weeks of annual leave. “That’s a lot! How does anyone ever get anything done?” some people ask. I can tell you that productivity has not been a problem. In fact, I would say that the staff are even more productive because they are motivated by generous benefits. We also updated our parental leave policies and allow for 12 weeks leave for the birth or adoption of a child, with 8 of them being automatically paid (and you can use annual leave or sick leave for the remaining 4). Having two small children, I know the value of a good parental leave policy. I want my staff to feel that their time is valued, that their families are important, and that they are welcomed to take vacation and come back feeling refreshed. Anyone who works in the nonprofit field knows that staff work really hard pretty much all the time- let’s respect that and reward staff generously.

9.     Gather your people. You cannot do this job alone. You should not do this job alone. You must have a cabinet of trusted people you can vent to, talk to, ask questions of, and whose shoulders you can cry on when the going gets rough (it will; see # 4). Even if you work alone, you must identify colleagues in the field who will pick up the phone when you really need them and give you great advice, or be a sounding board. This can be a colleague who also works in the nonprofit field, a former professor, a consultant, or someone else who is simply a great listener. 

10.  Keep the big picture in mind. On the hard days when you’re putting out fires or staring at spreadsheets and nothing is going quite right, it’s easy to wonder what the heck you are doing and what the purpose is. It’s easy to get sucked into the minutiae - after all, there’s a lot of it. Yet it’s critical to keep the big picture in mind and understand why the minutiae is important. I like to keep notes, cards, and letters on my desk and even taped to my window to serve as my guiding star for when I get bogged down and need a reminder of why I do what I do. You also have to develop a practice of mindfully and intentionally keeping focus on your mission and values. This means you must learn how to figure out what to spend your valuable energy on and what to let go. If there is drama (or inertia!) around a particular issue, ask yourself if it’s critical to your mission and where your organization will be in 5-6 months. If the answer is yes or possibly yes, then spend time untangling the drama and problem-solving. If the answer is no, resist the temptation to get involved and focus your attention on what needs you most. You’ll end up having more time and will feel better about your work in the long run. But it takes time and practice. Does your organization run a hotline or serve clients directly? Make time to answer a few hotline calls every week or meet with clients regularly; this will undoubtedly keep you connected to the mission.


The Spark Mill was honored to work with NAMI Virginia on strategic planning, organizational development, and fundraising over the last few years. We will miss Mira as a client, but look forward to the future growth of the organization.