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Leadership Learnings

Just because we’re experts at fundraising doesn’t mean we’re great managers or leaders.

Yet most of us who excel in our profession end up with management responsibilities. Often with less training than we received when tackling our first direct mail appeal, website or DRTV campaign.

May I share six leadership lessons that I believe could help all of us be even more successful?


Remember MBO? Management by Objectives? I like it. A good management tool.

How about MBWA? Management by Walking Around. Yes, it’s important to interact with the folks on the front line. A good way to learn, to teach and to motivate.

MBO is good. MBWA is good. But be careful of MBGI.

MBGI? Management by Good Idea.

Too many otherwise strong people fall prey to MBGI.  Every time an executive or a board member has a new “marketing idea” people run around doing it. Chasing after every new idea whether it really meets your business objectives or not.

If you have a plan, you don’t have to do that. You refer to the plan. Compliment the board member or boss’s brilliant idea. If it meets the objectives of the plan, execute it enthusiastically. If it doesn’t, review the plan together and discuss whether or not you need to change the plan to accommodate the new idea. Nine times out of ten the person with the big new idea sees the light and backs off in favor of you executing the well thought-through and approved plan you already have.

Hire for attitude. Train for skills.

Best case, of course, is to hire someone with great experience, strong skills and a positive attitude.

But if you have to choose, remember that in most cases, we can give people the experience and teach people the skills they need to succeed. But we can’t change someone’s attitude. And people with negative attitudes become a cancer in your organization.

Hire for attitude. Train for skills.

The other side of Micro-managing

Some of us are so afraid of being accused of micro-managing that we do more harm by not managing enough.

Empowering people beyond their ability can damage your organization – and damage the people.

I prefer the concept of “latitude within limits” in which leaders provide principles and boundaries so our people learn and grow within a fixed and safe environment – without doing damage to our organizations or themselves. It’s harder, because it requires real leadership, direction and coaching. But it works. And it’s better for your team and your organization than allowing your staff to do something you know is wrong simply to avoid looking like a micro-manager.

Ambiguity will always be interpreted negatively.

That’s what Tom DeLong of Harvard Business School teaches.

Whether at work or at home, if you communicate unclearly or leave something open to interpretation, there’s a strong likelihood that it will be interpreted in the worst possible way. The facts are friendly. Over-communicate.

The Whisper of the CEO

Rich Stearns, former long-time CEO of World Vision US, shared with me an important lesson he learned as he rose to the top echelon of corporate America.

He calls it “the whisper of the CEO.”

Rich observed that the very things that helped you to succeed on your way up the ladder – knowing the answer, passionately telling people what needed to be done, pounding the table – can backfire once you get to the top.

Many employees are so intimidated by senior management that if you even ask a question, it can send them scurrying away doing the wrong thing. Wrong because you might be wrong. Or wrong because they were too intimidated to hear you correctly. Or wrong because you really were just asking a question, not giving a directive.

We almost always want the people closest to the situation to think things through, not blindly obey directives from above.

Rich believes that “the whisper of the CEO” is actually heard more loudly than the shouts of others. So he wisely counsels us to cultivate this whisper. Especially when under stress.

People who are afraid can’t think straight or creatively. So let’s keep things calm enough so people can think well and solve problems effectively. It’s better for our organizations, and it helps our people develop critical thinking skills.

You can’t cut yourself to greatness.

We all have to regularly make sure we’re being efficient. Cutting costs where we can while increasing revenue can be a recipe for success. But just cutting costs is usually a short term fix. You can’t cut yourself to greatness. Greatness usually requires growth.

If you embody – and model – these six principles, you and your entire organization can be more successful.

Tom Harrison is the Chairman Emeritus of One & All, a leading direct response fundraising agency serving the nonprofit community. Comments? Tom can be reached at
Tom Harrison
Author: Tom Harrison

Tom Harrison served as CEO of Russ Reid and helped build nonprofits and his agency through innovative fundraising.

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