Our Six Keys to Sustaining Success

This month saw us in Los Angeles, New York, Omaha, and Seattle among many other places. Cooking Matters was awarded $1.7 million by the Colorado Health Foundation … CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, on the eve of being named anchor of the CBS Evening News, spoke at a record-breaking Share Our Strength dinner at the Four Seasons in New York … we presented the No Kid Hungry strategy to a meeting of First Ladies sponsored by the National Governors Association and hosted by ConAgra Foods, as we also did at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles … Groupon became a new corporate sponsor… and successful Taste of the Nation events took place from Portland Oregon to New York.

Something is going right at Share Our Strength and as a result we are in a stronger position than ever before to lead powerfully in the effort to end childhood hunger. But we need to be sure that things continue to go right. And that of course won’t happen of its own accord but only if we are careful and purposeful in taking specific steps to sustain our growth.

In a previous posts I described the ingredients responsible for our success and growth over the past several years. The memo sets out six of the keys to sustaining that growth.

1. “Stuff that works, stuff that holds up” (courtesy of singer Guy Clark): An old friend with whom I once toiled in politics used to say that the hallmark of losing campaigns was a culture of “Try something, and if it works, try something else.” It is easy to get complacent or even bored with what is working, or to take it for granted and start to think about doing something else. But while we will always be a dynamic and entrepreneurial organization, we must have the discipline to stick with the philosophies and strategies that led to our success in the first place including: celebrating food, delivering measurable value back to corporate partners, designing creative ways for individuals to share their strength.

2. Embracing humility through the power to persuade. One additional lesson from my political days. The most important book I read in political science was Richard Neustadt’s classic called Presidential Power. Neustadt argues that presidential power is the power to persuade. Contrary to popular perception a president can’t just command and expect things to happen. The other institutions of government have their own constituencies and their own sources of power and the president needs their cooperation to get things done. To get that cooperation the president “must persuade others that what he wants is in their best interests as well.”

If that is true for presidents it is certainly true for us. No matter how big we get, how much money we raise, how many governors, Academy Award winners, or network news anchors come to our events, at the end of the day we are dependent on volunteer organizers, local partners, and others with whom we must be prepared to listen, compromise, accommodate, motivate, and ultimately inspire by virtue of our vision and strategy. All we have earned, and must continually re-earn, is the right to try to persuade them of our views. It is precisely the time that we need humility the most.

3. Working As One. Our board member Sid Abrams recently sent me a book co-authored by Deloitte’s global CEO, Jim Quigly. It is called As One and represents years of studying effective collaborations, identifying 8 archetypes of leadership that can be used to create such collaborations. Without getting into the books details though, you can get the main point from the two word title: how do we recognize the individual power in each of us to achieve collective goals.

As we become larger, as each of our departments become more robust, and under more pressure to be accountable for achieving its goals, it becomes more difficult but more important than ever that we each act to put the interests of the larger organization ahead of the interests of any one department, group or individual. There is no possibility of success except as part of a team that is committed to Share Our Strength first, and its own department’s needs second. Senior leaders and department directors need to model such behavior.

4. The Restorative Power of Bearing Witness: As organizations grow larger their own organizational imperatives absorb more and more time and energy – hiring and managing staff, reacting to external requests, crafting budgets and measuring outcomes. And while all of these serve our mission in indispensible ways, the time and energy devoted to them often comes at the expense of feeling close to and connected to the mission itself.

The most powerful remedy I have found is regularly reconnecting with the impulses that brought me to the work in the first place – and that is by having those impulses anew by going to see, first hand (and not always comfortably) the people and places that need us the most, whether it’s the food stamp registration program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital or the UNICEF in Haiti. You should too. There’s a ‘Get out of the office free” card waiting for anyone who desires to bear witness in this fashion, especially if you share with the rest of us. Your renewed energy and commitment will more than make up for a day away.

5. Doubling Down on Transparency: It also follows that the larger we get, the less our stakeholders can know as intimately as they once did. And as the number of stakeholders grows, they won’t be able to assess us based on our character or friendship, but rather on how efficient and effective we are. The disaster that has befallen THREE CUPS OF TEA author Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute is a good example of a probably good man (I don’t know him) who left himself in the position of having no metrics but only good intentions with which to counter devastating accusations about the way in which donor dollars have been spent. Because we go to great pains to ensure that our financial reports are accurate and thorough, and because we are working hard to go farther than most organizations in measuring the outcomes we achieve, we should take the offense in conveying our transparency.

6. Longer Time Horizon: We need to plan farther ahead than we ever have before. We’re not an ocean liner yet, but we’re not a nimble sailboat either. We can no longer turn on a dime or expect our colleagues to do so. We need strategic planning that focuses at least three years out, more multi-year partner, and early identification of investments we will need to make in the future.

With each passing day and with each accumulated success, large or small, we raise expectations that much higher. That fuels the momentum behind the “flywheel” and brings us closer to achieving an end to childhood hunger. It also means we’ve got a greater obligation than ever before to be analytic, thoughtful and deliberate in how we sustain that success. If we are, we won’t have seen the last of months like this one.

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