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.

Adapting the Bullet Journal, for managers and leaders

Information, ideas, and tasks fly at us continuously. They flow out of meetings and out of our own heads. Capturing the flow with the help of paper-based or electronic tools helps us externalize information, which unburdens the memory of clutter and frees the mind for focused thinking.

Notebooks, paper files, electronic files, email – I’ve used them all, and they all share the same drawback: Retrieval. Record as much as you like, the exercise is pointless if you can’t put your hands on information when you need it.

Since last year I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I had been aware of bullet journaling for years, but it always seemed faddish, too fussy, too neat-freaky. A colleague’s example convinced me to read a book about it and adopt it wholesale; now I find it a natural extension of the notetaking methods I’ve always used, and a mindful way to manage the flow.

The essentials of the method can be described in ten minutes. I won’t go into them here; there are plenty of videos, a website, and the book. (1) I only want to talk about the power of easy retrieval. I have improvised on the basic idea to suit the reality of a manager or leader facing a different conversation, a different issue, every few minutes.

A bullet journal requires an index and page numbers. The index is no more than a list of topics and the page numbers you’ll find them on, but it’s the key to retrieval. The topics are the tasks, ideas, and other notes recorded in bullet form – an accumulation of the flow that washes over us every day.

The original bullet journal method relies heavily on the idea of Collections. A Collection is a page, or a pair of facing pages, dedicated to a single topic – think of a large project that generates a lot of tasks and notes that are more convenient to keep together.

I have mostly dispensed with Collections, because they were page hogs. New projects would turn out to generate fewer notes than I anticipated, and I would use up notebooks too quickly, forcing more frequent and time-consuming migrations. (Again, I leave it to you to know what is meant by “migration,” another powerful central concept. In a nutshell, migration refers to transferring relevant or unfinished business from a full notebook to a blank new one, a useful process of review and winnowing.)

In place of Collections, I note down everything as it comes, without trying to gather related notes together. Instead I rely on two specialized indexes, one called People and one called Subjects.

Without a doubt the biggest generator of information, ideas, and next actions is meetings. Whatever your capture method, at the head of your notes from any meeting are three critical pieces of information: When you met, who you met with, and what you talked about. Date, people, subject.

In a bullet journal, the date is taken care of because the flow is (more or less) captured in sequence. In my modified method, People and Subject each get their own index. I set aside two facing pages for each index. An entry in the People Index might look like this:

Paul: 10, 12, 28-9, (3:36), 58, 42

A page number in parentheses indicates a reference to a previous notebook (each notebook is numbered), should I need to go back that far. There’s no need for the page references to be in order.

A sample entry in the Subject Index looks the same:

Online giving: 22, 16, 80

The People Index is most useful when you’ve met with one person to talk about multiple things – check-ins with direct reports or other regular one-on-ones. The Subjects Index is most useful when you’ve met with multiple people at once about a single thing. The same meeting can be noted in both indexes, for example when you’ve met about online giving as a group, and later discuss online giving during a one-on-one.

I try not to write too much. I take rough notes during meetings and then transfer to the bullet journal only concise highlights, key things to remember, and next actions. If I wrote directly into the journal I’d end up with a mess and use up too many pages. I can fit a month or two into a single notebook of about 100 pages.

For this to work, you have to keep the indexes up to date. I will either index as I go, or I’ll let a few days go by and then catch up. When I’m done indexing a page for people and subjects, I write “P/S” at the inner top of the page, near the gutter, so I know where to continue from. I mark the outer ear of the index pages themselves with a colour Sharpie, red for People and blue for Subjects, so I can quickly flip to either one.

If this seems too fussy or too much work, then compare with keeping it all in files or, worse, in your head. In my current notebook I’ve got entries for about 20 people and more than 50 subjects. Either index is expandable and flexible. The Subjects list fits on two facing pages, and although it’s not in alphabetical order, it’s not hard to quickly find what I’m looking for on a quick scan. True, relevant bits of a project will end up scattered here and there throughout my notebooks, but the index keeps them more readily accessible than having them stuck unseen in a paper file in a drawer, or an elusive Word document hidden somewhere in the folder tree on the shared network drive.

A notebook won’t completely eliminate the need for files containing more detail (although it comes remarkably close). Nor will a notebook direct how you spend your most precious resources: energy and attention. You need other tools for that. But it does feel liberating to carry around your entire current work world in a notebook or two. Give it a try.

1. “The Bullet Journal Method,” by Ryder Carroll. See https://bulletjournal.com/

When to stop procrastinating

Some time ago, after a lot of dithering, I decided to participate in a leadership development program. I had delayed and delayed before finally committing. I was on unfamiliar ground; all I knew I was looking for something personally challenging, immersive, and experiential. I wanted to come out changed.

The stakes seemed high. I would not sign up for anything until I knew exactly what I was getting out of it.

Then I read this quote from Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

The quote was in a piece by Rebecca Solnit. “The things we want are transformative,” she writes, “and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

From time to time, I make a list of things I’m avoiding, and why. Sometimes there are good reasons for procrastinating; sometimes I just need to get my shit together. Other times, I see I’m waiting for knowledge of the unknowable future, a future that could in fact be changed in unpredictable ways by what I’m thinking of doing. Then I have to picture myself in a year or three, and ask if that future self would regret not having acted, even if things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go in blind.

Willingly going in blind is like being lost and feeling okay with it. When you are lost, Solnit writes, “the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” However it feels, sometimes we need to start there.

Positive new-normal won’t just happen, it has to be invented

Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.

Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.

Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.

Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.

I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.

  • Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
  • Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
  • Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
  • Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
  • Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
  • If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?

This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.