Inspiring Unity Around a Common Purpose: A Leader's Number One Job
By Don Janssen, DVM
"There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it."
My boss was also my mentor. He knew how to motivate people to be their best. I saw this skill firsthand in the middle of a meeting he was leading. He called the meeting to determine the cause of chick mortality, which was crippling the recovery program for the San Clemente loggerhead shrike. We were responsible for rearing chicks to supplement the wild population. The next breeding season was fast approaching. The pressure was mounting to fix the problem. If we failed, it would put the success of the entire program in jeopardy.
Like a professor sizing up his students, my boss paid close attention to all the stakeholders' reports. The evidence was contradictory and incomplete. Nothing surfaced to explain the poor chick survival. But there was plenty of speculation. And we all had our share of excuses ready. The meeting was going nowhere. We were lost and felt the pressure mounting.
That was when our leader made his move. He walked up to the blackboard and wrote a series of numbers from 5 to 30. He then asked "How many chicks do we need to raise this season to make the program successful?" After a short discussion, he took the chalk and slowly and emphatically circled the number 30. For the rest of the meeting, he challenged us to figure out how to accomplish the goal. The meeting ended on time, with a considerable sense of direction, and with a feeling of mutual responsibility. The following breeding season was the most productive one we ever had. Everyone pulled together to help this population thrive.
My boss did not have the solutions himself, but he did recognize what we were missing. By his dramatic but straightforward move, he reminded us of why we were there. He focused the group on our common purpose and desired outcome. In this case, it was a successful breeding season that would lead to a self-sustaining population.
Leading teams often works this way. Everyone has their job. But if they forget what unifies them, they get lost. And they consequently waste each other's time, talent, and effort. The leader's number one job is to unify their team around a clear purpose or vision. Here are some practical ways to do that.
- Dig deep and find the driving purpose. If you haven't done this already, now is the time. You may go for an overarching vision or need only a specific purpose for a task at hand. In either case, the process is a discovery, not an invention. Work at it. Think about the statement "We need to do this because…" How you finish that sentence is the beginning of your guiding purpose.
- Make the purpose clear in your mind. We may generally know what motivates our teams, but we may not have articulated it clearly. Find a way to make it memorable and undeniable. To be authentic, we have to hold a deep belief in it, and share the evidence for its truth. It should evoke head nods every time we say it.
- Share the vision/purpose often, and then do it some more. If it seems redundant and excessive, you may still not be saying it enough. People love clarity, especially in times of uncertainty. Nothing says clarity better than a leader committed to a purpose and determined to share it. That's the kind of leader people love to follow.
- Be on the lookout for times when your team has a sense of defeat or hopelessness. These are the times the leader needs to step in and bring the purpose to life again and renew hope. That's what my boss did. We should expect setbacks, but the leader must speak to how the purpose will prevail. The troubling circumstances may even point to new compelling justifications for pursuing the purpose.
- Watch for big moments that need the best from your team. These are opportunities to unite your team's efforts toward the greater goal. Take time to show them how it fits a higher purpose. Frame all activities in the context of the vision or purpose. Otherwise, people tend to work toward their own ends, risking fragmentation of results.
- Pair your enthusiasm for the common purpose with empathy toward your team members. Having a specific purpose or an overarching vision is seldom enough. You must know each team member well enough to demonstrate you value that person as an individual and not just for the function they serve. When they see that they are part of a relevant vision and feel valued, they can't help but feel inspired and motivated.
My boss knew that his team needed his help. By changing our perspective, he joined us together again around our common purpose. We then remembered the joy of being part of something greater than ourselves—a vision of what could be and what should be.
As leaders, that's our number one job: to inspire our teams with a meaningful purpose. In that way, we free them as individuals to do what is right, do it well, and, in the end, be satisfied that they accomplished it themselves.
Which of these six ways might help to inspire and improve the motivation of your team?
Please send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Don Janssen is a veterinarian and retired corporate director of animal health for San Diego Zoo Global. He is the author of Upside-Down Leadership: A Zoo Veterinarian's Journey to Becoming a Servant Leader. Learn more about the book here.
New Report Shows How to Improve Online Gatherings
By Andy Goodman, Director, The Goodman Center
The story of how the Unmuted report came to fruition actually begins in 2008. With the Great Recession in full swing, everyone was looking for ways to cut costs and work more efficiently, particularly nonprofits and other public interest organizations that were already squeezing the most out of every dollar. Moving meetings, presentations, training and other group activities online was one sure way to save time and money, so there was a noticeable shift in this direction. It was so pronounced, in fact, that The Goodman Center conducted research in 2009 to better understand what was working, what wasn't, and why.
We published our findings in a report, Dialing In, Logging On, Nodding Off: The True Costs of Teleconferences, Videoconferences and Webinars, and the data was sobering: virtual gatherings were consistently plagued with technical problems, most meeting leaders had undergone little or no training for navigating online environments, and the battle for participation and engagement was frequently a losing one.
Inspired by those findings, we launched a new online class—The Webinar on Webinars—to share best practices that could make virtual gatherings more engaging and productive. Between 2009 and 2020, we logged literally hundreds of hours teaching online, and we also learned from our students along the way, capturing more best practices as videoconferencing technology rapidly evolved. And then in March 2020, along with everyone else, we found ourselves in a radically altered landscape—one in which virtual meetings were no longer just a cost-saving option. Suddenly, they were the only way to proceed.
In April, we decided to offer The Webinar on Webinars for free, to provide the guidance that so many public interest professionals were seeking as they moved some (if not all) of their work online. In 3 months, we conducted this class over 30 times, often partnering with large organizations (including the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and many others) that ultimately helped us reach thousands. Every time I facilitated this webinar, though, I heard myself referring to "the research we did back in 2009," and a nagging question lodged in my brain: why are we still relying on data that's old enough to go to middle school?
So, we decided to update our research, which seemed especially propitious at a time when more people than ever were experiencing the unique challenges of working remotely. And we followed the philosophy that shaped the research for our book Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes: find people who are doing it every day, and ask them what works, what doesn't, and why?
Our primary instrument for asking these questions was a survey conducted online in July and August 2020, and the audience we were most interested in hearing from was individuals working remotely for nonprofits and foundations, colleges and universities, and government agencies at all levels. To attract a large number of respondents from these communities, we recruited partners who shared our interest in this research and could generate broad awareness for the survey. The partnership includes (in alphabetical order): America's Promise Alliance, Borealis Philanthropy, Capacity Canada, Center for Public Interest Communications, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Communications Network, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Council on Foundations, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Forum One, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Independent Sector and Points of Light.
Thanks to the promotional efforts of our partners, 4,405 people took the survey, and they had plenty to say. Most of their "unmuted" responses could be summed up in four words: too much and not enough. Across all sectors, they told us that they were being asked to sit through too many videoconferences for too many hours every day. And the experiences they were having during these convenings were lacking in many respects:
- Too many do not feel sufficiently engaged or included. When we asked what makes videoconferences a positive experience, "engaging presentation" was the most common reply. Simply put, it's what people want most, but "lack of engagement" was the second most commonly reported negative experience (just a few percentage points behind "technical problems.") We are also not doing nearly enough to ensure that the content of our videoconferences is fully accessible to all participants. When asked, "How often have you seen convening leaders or facilitators create greater accessibility for the content (e.g., closed captioning, language translation)?" only five percent answered "frequently" or "always."
- There is not enough structure. Battling distractions that come with working at home, constantly jumping from one meeting to another, and struggling to keep professional and personal lives separate are everyday challenges for remote workers. No wonder, then, that they feel more pressure for every minute spent online to be used as constructively as possible. "Clear structure" was cited as the second most common attribute making videoconferences a positive experience, while "no structure" was the third most commonly experienced negative factor. In the verbatim comments section of the survey, nothing was more frequently mentioned than the importance of a good, clear agenda to ensure meeting time was not wasted.
- Leaders and facilitators have not had enough training. Nearly half (48 percent) of survey respondents who are currently leading online meetings on a regular basis reported having no training how to do so. If we're "building the plane as we're flying it," too many of us are doing it without even reading the instructions.
Ultimately, we found nine major take-aways from the research, and so we made them the organizing principle for the report. Each take-away has its own section with relevant data from the survey, and includes recommendations with actionable steps to help you improve going forward.
Before you dive in, please keep this in mind: as I write this article, there is no definitive timetable for a return to normality, and the general consensus is that whatever comes next will be different from what was. One prediction that seems fairly reliable is that videoconferences will play a larger role than ever in how organizations function. So, please do not view the report as a short-term pandemic survival guide. The recommendations it contains are for the present and well beyond.
To download a free copy of the report, please click here.