Focus on what matters: Pour your attention into buckets

Some days it’s one interruption after another. Your interruptions are interrupted. And some days you let it happen: Everyone gets a hearing, and email is your to-do list. You guard your purse, but you squander what’s really precious: your energy and attention.

I’m guilty. I think we all are, at times. It’s hard to keep the main thing the main thing.

I once received advice on focus from someone who is very good at focus. Think of the most important activities you engage in, he said, and create a mental bucket for each. Each bucket is a non-urgent but important arena of activity that creates value and contributes to success in the long run. There might be three buckets on your list, or four, or five. Probably not more than five.

Now picture pouring your energy and attention into those buckets, he said. Keep that list in front of you as a daily guide. The list will not banish the fog of the urgent, but its light will sometimes cut through.

My list has four buckets which have remained stable for two years now. The buckets are People, Process, Leadership, and Strategy. Within each bucket, I have one to three focus areas. In the People bucket, for example, I have “grow the team”, “develop talent”, and “build relationships.”

Within each focus area, I have one to four activities. Here I get more specific about what I mean by “grow the team,” and so on. These activities change – I revise the list every few months to keep it current.

The particulars of my list are not important; you’ll have your own buckets, areas of focus, and activities.

Your buckets and areas of focus do not replace documented strategies and plans. Buckets are more personal; they embrace these externalities and relate them to how you spend your personal resources. Your focus areas will also include matters of ongoing importance that tend to be absent from timebound, project-oriented plans.

The list will seem obvious when you create it, but even the obvious becomes obscured when fatigue lures you toward distraction or when people are trying to interest you in minor fires here and there.  Fatigue and fires are real and unavoidable. But when you have energy on tap, fill the important buckets first.

The front line doesn’t understand Operations … Does it matter?

The Operations team deals with technical issues, difficult vendors, software downtime, data complexity, tight timelines, and high work volumes. These challenges affect the work of our colleagues on the front line, in development and engagement. Whether our colleagues really understand these challenges is another matter.

Should they?

If you work in Operations and find yourself feeling that your front-line colleagues don’t appreciate the issues you face, then ask yourself this question: Do you appreciate the challenges faced by your front-line colleagues?

We want our colleagues to recognize that operational realities exist. Lack of understanding can lead to unnecessary risk and unreasonable expectations. But I’m not sure it’s deep understanding we should aim for. We should try to build credibility and trust in ourselves instead.

Bad things happen when an organization ignores operational realities, it’s true. The way to prevent bad things is not to educate the whole organization on the fine points of risk, but to speak to risk from a strong base of credibility and trustworthiness. This applies not only to Advancement Operations but other offices – legal, audit, procurement – that advise on risk.

Trust is built when Advancement’s support function demonstrates that it really gets what the organization is trying to accomplish and knows how the world looks through the eyes of fundraisers and alumni officers.

It’s important that Ops staff internalize departmental strategy – that they be able to connect their daily work to the goals of advancement. And there’s a more personal element: Each of us should feel a little of what it’s like to be a fundraiser.

Sometimes I wonder if we should be sending Ops team members to conferences for development and alumni relations instead of advancement services. Would a change in perspective lead to stronger partnerships?

We can start by listening to understand the business end of advancement – not just react to what we might think of as its whims. Being responsive instead of reactive will help build a relationship that will remain friendly when the next disruptive technical issue comes along, or when a project is forecast to not be completed for another six months, or when a serious risk is flagged.

This responsibility for lens-shifting is not reciprocal.

It is more important than the Ops employee shift to accommodate her perspective to that of the fundraiser, than it is for the fundraiser to return the favour. The Ops employee looks through the fundraiser lens in order to provide more effective support and to build credibility and trust. There is no clear benefit in asking a fundraiser to see things through an operations lens.

A driver needs to learn how to drive the car; she doesn’t need to know what’s going under the hood. (Fine if she does, of course.) But no driver would trust a mechanic who has no knowledge of what it’s like behind the wheel.

Of preachers and lawyers

Some have the gift of impromptu eloquence. Some, like me, do not. I have been humbled many times, after speaking to a topic tersely and inadequately, hearing a colleague offer their own explication that is as fitting as it is lengthy. I can speak my mind, but I have difficulty improvising; I covet others’ fluency.

I’m comforted to know that my slow-wittedness is a phenomenon known throughout history, and therefore, I suppose, quite normal.

In the 1570s, Michel de Montaigne, in an essay called “Of prompt or slow speech,” wrote: “So we see that in the gift of eloquence some have facility and promptness, and, as they say, can get it out so easily that at every turn they are ready; whereas others, slower, never speak except with elaboration and premeditation.”

Eloquence is the profession of lawyers and preachers, he says. The quick person would do better as a lawyer, and the slow person would do better as a preacher. A lawyer adjusts in the moment, adapting to every novel twist. A preacher delivers premeditated messages in a continuous stream without interruption.

I think our teams would do well to include both: the deliberate along with the nimble.

The traditional hiring process favours lawyers. The way we interview candidates prioritizes the ability to think on one’s feet. Some basic questions a candidate can prepare for, but hiring panels really like candidates who are articulate in the face of questions that are unanticipated. In these situations, the preacher, sensing disadvantage, compounds the problem by becoming nervous. With little to go on, interviewers see only the nervousness and conclude the candidate is not a fit.

Most roles in Operations do not require the incumbent to argue in court – or perform improv comedy, or field questions from the press. Why the interview process has been made to resemble these activities, I’m not sure.

A bias in favour of lawyers is not mistaken; it only lacks balance. There are ways to achieve balance. I have sometimes provided a question or two in advance, given exercises to work on, and invited candidates to deliver a prepared presentation.

I limit the amount of time to prepare. As Montaigne wrote, anxiety to present oneself well leads to overworking the material and yields an unnatural result – what we call overthinking it. “We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp,” he wrote. “If it doesn’t go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going.”

Montaigne has a reputation as a bookish hermit but in fact he was mayor of Bordeaux, aspired to statesmanship, and was embroiled in the hazardous politics of his day. He preferred conversation to writing.

On the job, where again conditions often favour the lawyer, we should ensure all types get their share of the conversation.

The virtual work world presents some opportunities. I have seen effective use of meeting software that encourages team members to provide input in the form of written statements, which other participants in the meeting can upvote. The author may then be invited to speak to the statement. It is easier to elaborate on an idea that one has already put out there, especially an idea that has been upvoted, than it is to break in on others’ full flight with a new thought.

It helps if the meeting is run by someone skilled at facilitating who can gently elicit comments from quieter members of the group. The preacher isn’t necessarily a shy or unconfident person; it just takes a bit to prime the pump.

The goal is not to shut up the quick-witted in favour of the slow, but to allow the quick and the slow to contribute more equally, leading to stronger teams and better decisions.

Forget about time – energy and attention are your true resources

A few years ago, my wife and I took a ride in a hot-air balloon over the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I was amazed by the experience. I expected it to feel blustery up there, a thousand feet up, looking down on the terrain from a little wicker basket. Instead, despite our rapid movement, it was perfectly serene. When you’re blown by the wind, you don’t feel the wind – because you are the wind.

Your to-do list for today likely has at least one urgent thing, or several. On days chock full of urgent tasks, it’s clear where you must devote your energies. In our complex work environments, urgency provides momentary clarity. Urgency liberates us: It absolves us from having to plan or decide.

Urgency is like riding in a balloon – it hypnotizes. You’re moving quickly, things are getting done. You’re keeping everyone more or less happy. The days fly by.

You have no direction in a balloon. The wind sends you here and the wind sends you there. You may have left from a predetermined Point A, but Point B might be anywhere.

Extended indefinitely, urgency leads us astray.

Unrelenting urgency is stressful, and who wants to be stressed out? And yet, we are addicted to urgent tasks. We will gladly check email for the one hundredth time on the off chance something’s exploding. And if there’s nothing exploding, we’ll just take the first task off the pile.

Your brain expends energy when it has to decide what’s most important. The brain is lazy. It’s easier to let someone else decide for us.

This is a special challenge for Operations staff or anyone in a support role. They are supposed to be responsive — but they are also professionals who enjoy a good deal of autonomy over how to structure their time and tasks. In a mature team, everyone knows what the goals are and is able to use discretion when prioritizing one thing over another. Advancement is complex work – pushing decision-making deeper into the organization works better than trying to manage order-takers ticking things off a list.

In a modern office, then, fewer people are handed a list of predefined tasks when they clock in. But what happens then? Too often, the absent assigned list is replaced by the inbox. I’m not immune, and neither are you. We all have days when we just want to be told what to do.

You can’t ignore the inbox. You must respond. But being ruled by the inbox is even worse than being told what to do, because it’s more random and disconnected from a sense of priority. It’s not responsive – it’s reactive.

In roles that call for judgment, there must be time for judgment.

It’s up to the individual employee to make time for judgment. This is especially true for leaders and managers, but not just for them. Turning a request around quickly will get you thanks today; the fundamental change or new approach you fashion during the quiet hour will get you promoted tomorrow.

Your destination, Point B, is defined by strategy and unit plans and performance plans. But an X on a map is of no use if you’re in a hot-air balloon. You need to feel a steering wheel in your hands. That steering wheel is any tool that helps you control where you direct your focus.

Time management is out; you can’t conserve time. Time is what marches on while you answer emails. Energy and attention are your true resources. Harness those.

Strategic Ops

The Operations team supports and facilitates the work of staff in Advancement. The team also executes on projects led by other units. But that’s not all. A mature Operations team pursues its own strategic goals that are aligned with the mission.

What might these goals be?

Operations can lead through informing Development performance. Data, reporting, and analysis contribute to the success of fundraising programs. Consistent data and clear reporting help our organization understand where we are in relation to our goals and guide decision-making. At a more fundamental level, Ops can work with Development to redefine fundraising programs for more effective goal-setting and performance measurement.

Operations can lead through enriching supporter relationships. Advancement seeks to align the interests and passions of people in our external constituency with opportunities to support and participate in the mission of the university. This alignment occurs at all levels – from early-stage engagement of alumni to custom cultivation strategies for prospective principal gift donors.

At the early end of this alignment spectrum, Operations delivers solid data on individual constituents, clear performance metrics, and effective outward-facing digital engagement platforms. In this way, Ops work can drive performance of the Engagement (alumni relations) team.

At the latter end of the alignment spectrum, Operations can lead the enablement of effective relationship management, which relies on shared information and coordination of effort across multiple units and multiple offices across the institution.

Operations develops tools and processes — a natural area for leadership. We can maximize the return to the institution on the investment made in Advancement by pursuing efficiencies that reduce cost, implementing process changes and new tools that increase effectiveness, and providing staff supports that enable them to make best use of the tools and technologies we have.

Return on Investment is expressed in dollars, but many of the most important factors relating to ROI are non-financial. Because the majority of the Advancement budget is salary and the cost of turnover to any organization is high, improvement in this area is measurable as ROI. Operations not only participates in promoting staff development and growth, it can lead here, too. Pursuing the growth and development of people, ensuring equity, diversity, and inclusiveness, enhancing employee satisfaction and retention – these and other “people” factors fuel overall success.

Learning in the time of COVID

My university recently launched a new app. The app is intended for students, but staff are able to get it and I was curious, so I put it on my phone. Messages and posts are a feature of the app, and every so often now my phone comes to life:

“Is anyone taking Physiology 1001 or Microbiology 1011 and want a study buddy? I’m your gal!”

The vast majority of students here are attending classes online from wherever they happen to be. Their messages on the app are like flashes from fireflies across a dark field, distant and lonely:

“Hey, there is supposed to be a synchronous session today for Chem 1011 class at 1 p.m. ADT anyone know how is it gonna go or in which platform?”

I will need to turn off notifications, or delete the app, but for now I’m reflecting on these tiny, isolated beacons:

“When I try to add my courses through the search it doesn’t work. Can anyone help?”

This year’s students are going to get an education. At least, we are all going to do our best. The two most common words in student posts seem to be “pain” and “crying.” There are also a lot of hilarious memes (most of which I’m not current enough to understand), but one suspects these are fronts for the pain and the crying.

It is sad. Education, career, romance, family life – any life – the environment for twenty-somethings is so different now. If there was ever a time when the advice of an older generation was of no use, now would be that time.

Young students may not be listening anyway. Across North America, many attending university in person are ignoring warnings about partying and physical proximity. Open doors and bad planning have invited predictable surges in infections. Students’ apparent disregard for others brings condemnation down on their heads: they are entitled, selfish, and believe themselves invincible.

I try to remember myself as an undergrad. I will own up to entitlement and selfishness, but I don’t recall feeling invincible. I felt insignificant, in fact, a feeling I countered by trying to make people laugh. Some of the supposed humour was hurtful to others. It took a while to learn this. I didn’t seem to think I could hurt anyone – I didn’t think I had that power.

I’m reminded of another app on my phone, which while I was still commuting to work told me where all the transit buses were in relation to my location. Once in a while I would miss the stop where I was supposed to transfer and would be taken off course up the wrong street. I had knowledge of location of things in the world but where I myself was, I did not know.

This is how undergrads arrive on campus. They know where their friends are but don’t know where they themselves are. Higher education enables students to connect the conduct of their personal lives to the welfare of others outside the small circle of their friends and family. We might associate that aim with liberal arts, but every course of study should contain this thread, which is about purpose and vocation.

Vocation is a freely-chosen sense of responsibility to society. If a student is lucky, he or she stumbles into purpose through a haphazard exploration of possibilities. It’s not efficient and it’s definitely not cheap. It’s pursued through the interplay of outer and inner worlds that a university provides: class work and conversation and socializing balanced with study and reflection and discovery. That outer is deeply impaired at the moment but will return. Now is the time to put away the phone and work on the oft-neglected inner.

There is no excuse for willfully endangering the health of our communities. But I have to believe that the majority of students are feeling, under that don’t-care swagger, a sense of powerlessness. They are not yet aware of their agency, of their astonishing power to help or to harm.

Office Golden Rules

One year when I was a student in journalism school, it was announced that my class would be visited by one of the country’s most prominent journalists. Days before her arrival, the visit was cancelled. No reason was given, and our professors were tight-lipped. And then one day in early spring, news came that she had died of an illness she’d lived with for years and kept secret.

I remember a quote attributed to her: We must be kind, because we don’t know what other people are carrying around inside them.

Ask the hard questions, yes, as the journalist did. Have difficult conversations, because you care. But recognize the human in the being across from you.

I am a flawed human being, but I happen to like myself. Or at least tolerate myself. I expect people to cut me slack.

As you see yourself, I will try to see you.

I believe I am motivated by the best of intentions. I will assume you are, too, unless you prove otherwise. For proof I will set the bar high. If you go over it, you’re done. But I’ve never seen anyone go over that bar.

I detect you have some blind spots. It frustrates me that you can’t see them. Oh, that’s why they’re called blind spots. I acknowledge I must have them, too. If there’s a malady without a self-cure, it’s obliviousness. I promise to pause and consider what I’m not seeing, and ask questions, and listen to the answers. Well, I’ll try.

My head is full of thoughts and I am always in the grip of some emotion. I imagine the same is true of every person I meet on the street, every person on the bus, every person whose image greets me on Microsoft Teams. I will assume you have the same rich inner life I do, and that there’s plenty going on behind your neutral expression.

I might ask after the health of your cat. I might remember the names of your kids. I might ask about your cold. I don’t score high on the empathy scale; it’s something I have to work at. For me empathy is not a personality trait but a practice. It’s not what I am, it’s what I do. Empathy is being mindful.

I will try to be mindful.

Measuring engagement can answer crucial questions, with a little more work

Measuring alumni and constituent engagement is no longer a new thing. Many Advancement shops do it. Not all of them have settled on a solid key performance indicator, or set of KPIs.

We are still evolving on this front. After measuring consistently for five or six years, now it’s time to consolidate what we’ve learned and align the tool with a new operating model for engagement.

A lot of work got us this far. We laboured over the specific components of engagement (giving, event attendance, volunteering, accepting visits, and other things) and how to weight them. We created a score for each individual, and developed some aggregate reporting.

The work was good, but now we need to understand the significance of our metrics and how they can spur action. More work lies ahead.

What questions to ask of our metrics? A few thoughts:

How deep? How successful are we from year to year in engaging the maximum number of people who were available to be engaged? What is the ratio of engaged to engageable? By engageable I mean all constituents who are contactable and genuinely available to us this year. The exact definition is arbitrary. If a person who graduated 15 years ago has never had any meaningful interaction with us, they are probably not “available”. Including them will dilute the KPI with people beyond the reach of our communication and programs. I suggest a ratio rather than a percentage of engageable; if someone not considered engageable does come to us, we can count them on the left side of the ratio without needing to add them to the right side as well.

How good? How successful are we in engaging who we want to engage? To what extent did we involve loyal donors, engaged alumni, major gift prospects, people with bequest intentions, influential community members, and other preferred, high-value constituencies? This measure of quality can be used to evaluate events, especially when eschewing large social shindigs in favour of smaller, higher-octane gatherings. Quality, not quantity – even in the all-digital era.

How effective? How successful are we in moving people in numbers from one stage of engagement to the next? We need to know what engagement looks like at each stage in order to properly locate individuals.

Getting to these answers requires us to move on from “what’s in and what’s out.” We need to define “engageable,” decide who’s in our favoured constituency, and figure out how to quantify our engagement pipeline goals.

Beware this work-from-home truism that isn’t true

You may have heard this one. “Working from home is bad for extroverts, great for introverts.” This was never true, and as time goes on its untruth becomes ever clearer.

All people need and desire connection with others, including introverts. All people need quiet time to process their encounters, including extroverts (although they might not enjoy it as much).

When the workforce emerges from this pandemic, organizations will face a new expectation that work arrangements be flexible. Whatever the pros and cons, we should not fear that our teams will split into in-office extroverts and stay-at-home introverts. That’s not how it works.

Different people at different times manage their energy differently. That’s all. It has little to do with desiring either stimulation or isolation as a default mode. Beyond figuring out how to work well together, the introvert-extrovert scale is a red herring that doesn’t have much bearing on anything essential.

For my early morning walk before work, I often choose the same wooded path. I sometimes meet a man and his dog who share my routine. The man is middle-aged and bald, and his dog is a poodle, I think, with fur of light maple. The dog’s name is Sadie. I know this only because this morning she chose to hate me, and the man had to restrain her on a short leash. We exchanged curt greetings and moved on.

None of us were pleased to meet on the path. That’s fine. There are plenty of other paths in the neighbourhood. We can each choose a way that suits our mood.

Employee engagement across all sectors is low, we’re told. What would be the result if we gave everyone the freedom to choose?

Finding meaning and purpose in the all-team Ops meeting

Meetings. Nothing revolutionary or innovative there! Yet, our shop has little or no history of gathering as a whole team. Maybe it’s because such meetings are expensive. Everyone leaves their station and work grinds to a halt. Bodies fill the boardroom and the round of “updates” begins. Not everything shared is of interest, and no decisions are made. Conscientious staff members may find this stressful.

We’re all familiar with the regular meeting that happens for its own sake. And yet: Not meeting has always felt like a lack. The regular meeting of any team should reinforce a sense of the team’s cohesion and unity of purpose. This is especially true of Operations, which risks being perceived (within and without) as a miscellany of services and functions.

When virtual work introduced a new convenience to the large-team meeting, the time seemed right to make a start. We’ve been moved to figure out what we want out of it.

Our team’s unified purpose is to facilitate opportunities for people to meaningfully engage with the institution’s teaching, research, and community mission. The front line builds and advances relationships – our team provides the tools to allow them to do that. That could be data, could be a CRM, a report, or a mobile phone. No matter one’s role, the work in some way enables or facilitates carrying out the Advancement mission.

Each team member knows what enabling and facilitating looks like from their own perspective. They may be less aware of how others enable and facilitate. That’s my goal for these meetings: To help everyone get a sense of the range of ways Operations drives the mission.

First, each team manager speaks very briefly about a few current highlights. Not the full range of what everyone’s working on. Just what’s looming large now, with an emphasis on work that directly supports front-line success.

Second, one team member gives a short presentation on any aspect of their work, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. The topic can be anything. It doesn’t have to relate to everyone (or anyone) else’s work. Given the diversity of the team this isn’t possible anyway. The only requirement is that it provides a concrete example of how Operations supports fundraising, alumni and constituent engagement, marketing, donor relations, or communications.

The aim is not cross-pollination or collaboration, which already happens. Rather, I hope it provides a little inspiration.

If your team meets for the sake of meeting, if you’re stuck in the rut of “that’s what we’ve always done,” then consider going on hiatus for July and August, reformulate your purpose for meeting, and reconvene fresh in the fall.