• Lacy Starling

Eat the (Strategy) Elephant One Bite at a Time

My friend Sarah recently took me to dinner to pick my brain about her new job. She'd just taken over as the executive director of a small non-profit and, 45 days into the job, was overwhelmed with the amount of work facing her. She'd been charged with growing the organization—raising awareness in the community, increasing revenue and professionalizing the operations. It was going to take a lot of work to turn them into the type of organization they wanted to be, but she was ready for the challenge. Her question to me was simple (but incredibly hard)—where should she start?


In an interesting twist of fate, she was the third person who'd taken me to dinner to ask me that exact question in the course of two weeks. (It was a good month for free dinner.) It seems that everyone around me is undertaking huge, career-changing projects and is feeling a bit underwater about it. They are all experiencing what I like to call entrepreneurial insomnia—instead of sleeping, you lie awake thinking "we should have a new strategic vision!" or "we should create a Facebook ad campaign!" or "let's open an office in Peru!" And while all of those might be great ideas, and necessary ones, it simply isn't possible to tackle them all at once. The only way to conquer an enormous task is to break it down into manageable pieces—to eat the elephant one bite at a time.


It's a cliche, yes, but it is also true. You have a finite amount of resources—time, money, energy, bandwidth—and you have to make sure you are wringing every possible drop of upside out of them. If you start an ad campaign before you set a target audience, you will waste money and time and not see any result at all. Resource wasting is especially damaging if you are in Sarah's position, having taken over an existing organization. If you stumble out of the gate on your first few initiatives, it will take months longer to gain the trust and buy-in of your team, if you ever do.


So, how do you decide what to tackle first? Where should you put your resources to be effective? The tactical answer for everyone will be a little different, but the process for arriving at the answer will be the same.


1. Set a baseline. So many organizations have no idea of their baseline—where they are, right now, as a company. For Sarah, that meant she had to go back, dig into the numbers and figure out several things—which fundraisers were the most effective, what everyone inside the organization was doing (and if there were gaps or overlaps in job duties), and what their reach was in the community. There was major analysis to be done so that a baseline could be established. Once the baseline exists, you know if your efforts are actually moving the needle.


2. Pick a priority. No matter how amazing you are, you can't do everything, and neither can your team. You have to look at the landscape, decide what project or idea will have the most impact, and then go all in on it. Use the data you secured in step one and get everyone rowing in that direction. Sarah started by setting a clear fundraising goal for the rest of this year. The organization hadn't really had one before ("let's raise as much money as we can" is not technically a goal) and this represents a major step for them.


3. Set up small wins. Anytime major change is coming to an organization, you have to begin with small projects that will create momentum. This is particularly true when you are the new sheriff in town. Setting up projects that guarantee positive results proves that you know what you are talking about and develops trust, so that when you undertake larger, more challenging initiatives, your team will believe in your ability to get them there. The biggest mistake I see new leaders make is to throw out some crazy-big goal that everyone knows is impossible and then get frustrated when the team fails to achieve it. Sarah chose a fundraising goal slightly higher than last year, but still very, very attainable. It is enough of a challenge that people will have to work to get there, but not so much that everyone feels demoralized before they start.


4. Refocus everyone on the goal regularly. The longest anyone can hold onto a goal is 90 days. It's why quarterly goal-setting is so important. You have to refocus and re-calibrate everyone at least that often, but I'd recommend doing it more frequently. Weekly staff meetings are a great time to call back to your number one priority and talk about how you are progressing toward it. For something as concrete as a fundraising goal, one of those fabulous old-school thermometers on the wall that people can color in with dry-erase markers when they receive pledges is fantastic. Give everyone on the team a different color marker, and turn that thing into a fund-raising rainbow!


5. Celebrate the win. When you accomplish that first priority—when Sarah's organization raises the money they need to—you need to break out the cake, champagne, pizza, whatever. The celebration needs to be raucous, immediate, and include everyone. Talk about how you did it, recognize everyone for their contributions, get a little messy and then.....


6. Announce the next priority. Once everyone has sobered up and come out of the cake coma, have the next priority ready to go. You need to capitalize on the momentum of the first win and turn it into a second, and then a third. You've proven that, as a team, you can accomplish things, so you want to keep accomplishing them. This also helps turn your culture into one of success and forward progress, which is always a good thing.


Apply these six steps anytime you are facing a daunting challenge, and while it won't make the work any easier, you'll at least stop the head-spinning insomnia and know where to focus your efforts.

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