Category Archives: Strategy

Think Tomorrow, Act Today

David Coffaro

For most nonprofit organizations, the first half of 2020 was heavily tilted toward understanding – understanding Covid-19 and its impacts to daily life and business, causes and solutions to racial problems, and, how to find certainty in uncertain circumstances. Today, as year-end comes into focus, many questions that dominated the first half of the year remain unanswered. How do leaders focus activities to keep the organization moving forward while lacking clarity from indicators often used as guideposts?

Making Strategy Matter

Making strategy matter happens when leaders intentionally choose activities in alignment with their nonprofit’s vision. Vision – the future state picture of what an organization seeks to create in the world – informs leaders’ activity choices, and, serves as a conduit between the nonprofit and its board, staff and clients. Strategies are the bundling of chosen activities, and not to be confused with goals or objectives.

London Business School strategy professor, Freek Vermeulen, wrote in the Harvard Business Review[i] “One major reason for the lack of action is that “new strategies” are often not strategies at all. A real strategy involves a clear set of choices that define what the firm is going to do and what it’s not going to do. Many strategies fail to get implemented, despite the ample efforts of hard-working people, because they do not represent a set of clear choices.

Given events in the first half of the year, there is a risk that strategies and their underlying activities no longer move the nonprofit toward its vision. Leaders can make strategy matter by taking three steps right now:

  • Think Tomorrow – Assure your organization’s future state vision still fits. If the way your organization needs to show-up in the world has changed, it’s time to refresh or redefine the vision.
  • Act Today – Even absent perfect line-of-sight into the future, a clear organizational vision enables leaders to review and refine specific activities supporting their strategies. Those strategies that no longer fit the vision, or, require reconstitution of underlying activities must be redesigned now. 
  • Commit to Activity Reviews – Connecting tomorrow’s vision with today’s actions requires frequent assessment of results and deconstructing outcomes into their root-cause activities. Cause-based performance analysis requires understanding composition of activities that created results, then, assessing performance effectiveness of chosen activities. By understanding if the right activities were engaged in, and effectiveness of strategy execution, leaders can quickly adjust to change outcomes.  

Strategy matters when the right combination of activities are selected to fulfill an organization’s vision, clearly defined, designed, communicated and deployed through all employees. Navigating the remaining month of 2020 and into the new year requires leaders to revisit their business activities to assure strategies still fit the rapidly evolving nonprofit operating environment.   

[i] Harvard Business Review, Many Strategies Fail Because They’re Not Actually Strategies, by Freek Vermeulen

November 08, 2017 –,not%20have%20something%20worth%20executing.&text=One%20major%20reason%20for%20the,it’s%20not%20going%20to%20do.

Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is “Leading from Where You Are” (January 2020). For more information, visit

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Leading by Cause in the Nonprofit Arena

David Coffaro

Lessons throughout history inform us that cause precedes effect; actions create results. Plato explained the principle of causality saying every­thing that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause (Timaeus 28a). In Codex Atlanticus, Leonardo DaVinci wrote No effect is in Nature without cause; you understand the cause and you do not need any experience. And as every school child learns for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction per Sir Issac Newton’s third law.

With depth of affirmation around cause preceding effect, why do business leaders focus so heavily on analyzing their numbers, or, focus on the effect instead of the cause? A recent conversation with a community bank CEO focused on his vision for the company. He opened the dialog saying he and his leadership team had put a lot of thought into where they want to take their bank, and the vision they committed to was to deliver top decile ROE, ROA and topline revenue growth. A quintessential example of focusing on effect, not cause.

In their CFO Magazine piece, How An Obsession with Metrics Is Killing Your Company (, authors Alexander Van Caeneghem and Jean-Marie Bequevort, write “the quest for financial performance and the pressure to measure can corrode organizational cultures, narrow the focus of leadership, reduce intrinsic motivation, and support unethical behavior. With a similar theme, Michael Harris and Bill Taylor’s Harvard Business Review article, Don’t Let Metrics Undermine Your Business ( said “A company can easily lose sight of its strategy and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it.” 

Logic tells us we can manage cause, but only measure effect. Yet we often overlook the real story – the aggregation of activities that created the results reflected in our numbers. Leading by Cause is an approach that says – use results to understand activities, effectiveness, and efficiency in context of the organization’s vision and strategy.  When results do not meet expectation, the root cause is embedded in one (or more) of these elements – choices of activities performed, performance effectiveness, and performance efficiency. Shifting to cause-based analysis of results positions leaders to laser-target interventions – coaching, guiding, managing or taking direct action – to change the trajectory of outcomes. There are three paradoxes to navigate in making the shift to Leading by Cause:  

  • Effect vs. Cause Conversations – Cause-based performance analysis requires understanding composition of activities that created results.  A common effect-based conversation among managers when results that don’t meet expectations starts out with “fund raising is 5% below target, so let’s do everything we can to drive it up to make plan”. A cause-based conversation gets at the root – “What were the development activities over the past quarter that created these results? Which donors did we focus on? How did we engage those donors? What was their reaction to what we have to offer? What is getting in the way of our new fundraising development activities?”  
  • Appearance of Improvement vs. Improvement – In the effects domain, managers often look for steps to improve the appearance of their P&L results, yet no real, underlying change takes place. For example, delaying travel or deferring other expenses in the last weeks of a quarter to create the appearance of lower operating costs, thus a better bottom line. Results look better, but the root cause creating undesirable results has not been sleuthed-out.  
  • Math vs. Behavior – Operating results presented in an organization’s P&L reflect an aggregation of activities. It’s easy to analyze operating results in a sterile manner, quantifying month-over-month changes and variance to plan; of course, numbers don’t lie! But, every numeric result – fund development, events, marketing, or operational activities – reflects human behavior. Cause-based analysis of results seeks to understand the behavioral factors contributing to outcomes reflected in the P&L – “What changed in our development activities last quarter vs. the same period last year? What effect is our largest peer nonprofit’s new development strategy having on their results? How effective is the collaboration between departments?”  

Leading by Cause requires deconstruction of results into elements. Understanding the numbers is important; knowing what caused the numbers is empowering.

*Based on an article originally published by the author in Lead Change (

Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is “Leading from Where You Are” (January 2020). For more information, visit

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

The Oral Briefing Goes Virtual

Adrianne Geiger Dumond

In the recent pass, for an oral presentation, you could see the faces of the audience and even ask for questions.

Now all we see is a camera. Are there ways to make this situation easier?

Trying to convey and support a culture of trust and transparency can be a challenge for those working remotely. Here are some ways that might help.

  1. Setting the stage: Make sure the camera lens is adjusted so that listeners can see not only your face but also your arms and hands. We do a lot of non-verbal movements that aid what we are saying.
  2. Speak to the camera: It may be a good idea to start the briefing/presentation with new information and updates. This gives you an easy and natural way to tell them the latest news. In the interest of trust and transparency, workers like to feel they are on the inside track for the latest news.
  3. Facial expression: This can be a tough one if you have to announce a new policy decision (that you might not agree with). This may be especially true as long as the COVID-19 rules change. But as the leader it is your responsibility to explain the changes as well as you can, and be supportive of the decisions. Remember that smirks, raised eyebrows convey a different viewpoint.
  4. Provide a way for feedback: The safest way for you to be assured that your listeners have heard you correctly – or want to ask questions – is to provide them with ways to contact you. This can be by email, text, phone – just so they feel informed correctly.
  5. Remember the Donors: After becoming comfortable with these steps it will be easier to prepare the presentation for the donors – supporters who will likely be sympathetic to the challenges you have faced, but who are also curious about how the mission is going. Representing the same trust and transparency you have given to staff and workers will hopefully engender in donors the opportunity to extend their contributions. Remember that donors also like to be on the inside track with updates and newest information. Given the uncertain times we live in, it is just as important for them to know the conditions as it is for the staff and employees.

Author: Adrianne Geiger DuMond, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Strategic Resilience

David Coffaro

President Franklin Roosevelt is credited with saying a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. As optimistic as this tough times don’t last, but tough people do sentiment is, it doesn’t diminish the fact that many a sailor experiences acute queasiness when circumnavigating billowing whitecaps. Notwithstanding occasional nausea, what is it that contributes to interpreting rough waters as invitation to experience new levels of success? Strategic Resilience.

Strategic Resilience is the practice of thinking forward while leading through present turbulence – adapting to difficult operating circumstances while looking beyond current conditions to keep focused on the horizon. Context for Strategic Resilience is dynamic fluidity in the operating environment.

Leading through Multivariate Normal

Getting back to normal gave way to getting to the new normal a decade ago during the Great Recession. What’s clear today is that each organization is traversing a series of temporary normals – brief chapters in their company’s story, accelerated as conditions change. Holding this dynamic perspective helps leaders synchronize their organizations with the reality of fluidity. Practicing strategic resilience requires accepting asymmetrical change as the norm. With this mindset, team members look to the organization’s vision and values instead of specific practices, products, operating goals or legacy accomplishments as touchstones.

According to a recent Gallup study, resilience is a make-or-break trait for organizations during tough times like the Covid pandemic. Gallup found “Thriving and resilient cultures endure through good times and bad. These cultures prove their endurance during tough times by experiencing minimized disruption of key outcomes, such as productivity, customer service and profit. Resilient cultures survive. Even during good economic times, new threats to organizations are constant — and constantly changing. Thriving, resilient cultures see accelerated performance compared with their peers” [i] .

Practicing Strategic Resilience

Here are five practices to raise your Strategic Resilience acumen as a leader:

  • Acknowledge current reality – When times are uncertain, the operating environment is rapidly changing, and status quo is anything but status quo, call it what it is – fluid, dynamic and uncomfortable. Finding the right balance between acknowledgement and wallowing can be a challenge. Still, leaders own the tone and are accountable for moving the organization through describing the condition into action; positioning the condition is simply context.   
  • Re-connect with the vision and values – The world outside your organization changes quickly. You adjust operating activities accordingly. But your business vision is focused on the horizon and remains more constant. Vision is the future state picture an organization strives to create and results from what do we do (mission), why do we do it (purpose), and how we fulfill our mission (strategy). Values are core beliefs which define what the organization stands for. Values stand even more static than vision. In the words of Good to Great author Jim Collins, every institution has to wrestle with a vexing question: What should change and what should never change? Timeless core values should never change; operating practices and cultural norms should never stop changing. Reconnecting with your organization’s vision and values provides comfort in a storm and true north through all conditions.
  • Communicate touchpoints for stability, including a focus on the future – Leaders are called to look beyond current conditions. That doesn’t mean having a crystal ball. It does mean sustaining dialog around the question – what’s next for our organization? With vision and values as points of stability, articulating the view toward the horizon draws attention forward, beyond current uncertainty. Engaging team members in the long game contributes to an organization’s strategic resilience.
  • Define what success looks like today, in this moment; adjust as the future unfolds – Goals are generally established on a quarterly or annual basis. When operating conditions change rapidly, goals must be redefined in context of current, dynamic reality. Team members perform at their best when they know what success looks like, and when expectations are aligned with dynamics of the environment. Per Gallup,“During tough times, employees need managers who reset priorities, involve them in reestablishing their goals and constantly clarify their role relative to their coworkers”.
  • Swim with the current – A rip current is a powerful, narrow, fast-moving channel of water that starts near the shore, with a strong pull toward breaking waves. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, if you experience rip currents when swimming at the beach, the best way to avoid drowning is to stay calm, avoid fighting the water’s movement and swim parallel to the shore. Fighting the current exhausts the swimmer, jeopardizing the likelihood of a safe return to shore. Said another way, fighting the current is not a path to success. For leaders, this translates to understanding rip current-like changes in the business environment’s flow, quickly adapting to condition changes, and keeping sight of the vision and opportunities for accelerating progress (aka, returning to shore).

Strategic resilience as a practice enables leaders to renew esprit de corps, focus their organization’s activities and make strategy work.

[i] From Gallup Is Your Culture Resilient Enough to Survive Coronavirus? by Jim Harter, May 20, 2020

Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is “Leading from Where You Are” (January 2020). For more information, visit

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

The Changing Role of Nonprofit Leadership

Dave Blankenhorn

Some time ago I wrote a blog about the skills a leader needs to adapt to our fast-changing world. Little did I realize about how fast and how dramatic it would be.

I talked about the need to be nimble and innovative, the need to create a larger vision for their organizations and the importance of uniting people behind a common mission. Beyond that I talked about navigating changing cultural, regulatory, technical and social needs. Was I ever right about the last ones.

Who would have thought we would be caught in a pandemic that has literally affected our all our lives, socially and economically? The skills you have been using now need to be redirected to help your organization survive and perform its mission in the most difficult times. New priorities need to be set. In addition to your normal activities you must develop new skills that will allow you to manage your group remotely, redesign properly distanced spaces for those who need to work together, provide the mandatory masks and gloves, sanitize various areas and organize the staff.

Your motivational skills will be tested in as never before with your staff, the Board and donors.  Figuring out new ways to raise funds will be a major challenge and might entail altering your primary mission.

How you cope with the new world will dictate how your organization will survive and prosper. None of us can predict the longevity of the crisis or what other problems might befall us as a result. I do know good leadership will carry you through.

Author: Dave Blankenhorn, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Strategic Leadership: What it Means in Nonprofits Today

David Coffaro

Leaders are called to look beyond current conditions. That doesn’t mean we have a crystal ball or overlook today’s reality. It means we have to ask – what’s next for our organization? Not always easy, particularly in the midst of turmoil, yet essential. As evidence of the importance of looking beyond, consider findings from Gallup.

For more than 80 years, Gallup has studied people and organizations during times of crisis. They’ve observed perspectives dating back to the Great Depression through the Covid-19 event. Their research suggests that in times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can pull people – toward fear or self-actualization and engagement [i].

On the engagement front, when leaders present a clear path forward, people demonstrate great resilience. There’s a rallying effect as we pull together toward a common vision to move beyond crisis. That’s why mission and vision for the future are more important in organizations today than any time in recent memory. Per Gallup, one thing is clear. People look to leadership for a crisis management plan, and to provide confidence that there is a way forward that they can contribute to.

Strategic leadership means leading for today, tomorrow, and beyond. In today’s environmentas the next new normal is being defined, strategic leadership manifests through helping shape a new paradigm for your organization. Leading the long view takes place by engaging team members in creating co-ownership of the future state vision and strategy that will bring the vision to life. Vision is distilled into actionable priorities which become the day-to-day operating plan guiding all team members in performing their work.

Strategic leadership recognizes the next stages of new normal will be iterative. Some sectors of the economy will move faster or undergo greater structural reshaping than others over the next 18 – 24 months, resulting in a series of new normals; this impacts for profit and nonprofit organizations alike. Agility in adapting to a fragmented recovery matters. Even with clarity that things won’t be getting back to the normal we knew, strategic leadership today requires acknowledgement that the landscape will continue to change. Context for this perspective helps; the old normal was only a temporary point on a continuum of change; Covid-19 accelerated moving us to the next point.

Strategic leadership capitalizes on opportunities for Adaptive Disruption. Something happened that changed our world. Instead of waiting to see how things play out and what everyone else does, strategic leaders define how to move forward based on what we know today, by proactively adapting strategy.

Vision connects what an organization does to the external world. When the world changes, it is essential to revisit the future state vision to see if it still resonates. Ask – all things considered, will this vision still fit our business in the next new normal, or do we need to refine our future state picture? Needs of the customers you serve might have changed. Structure of the industry may be in flux. The key is determining if the vision needs refinement. Vision informs priorities which anchor the operating plan.When you start with the vision, you focus on cause, not the effect. We can manage cause; we only measure effect. Focusing on cause empowers strategic leadership today.

Warren Buffet said Its only when the tide goes out that you can see who’s swimming naked. The current low-tide environment calls for strategic leadership. The Covid-19 event helped us see new strengths and development needs within the organization, including observations of the overall business model. If this event has helped see previously unrecognized development needs of your team members and the organization overall, capture it for what it is – an opportunity to grow as your next new normal begins.

There is a lot we can’t control or influence. Let’s take what we can impact and start shaping a future that helps team members see how their work connects to the organization’s future state vison as you lead during the next new normal!

Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is “Leading from Where You Are” (January 2020). For more information, visit

[i] Gallup, What Employees Need From Leadership Right Now, 3/23/20, by Jim Harper

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Nonprofit Board Accountability

Michael Kogutek, nonprofit management coach
Michael Kogutek

Board accountability is always an issue in the nonprofit world. Dr. Eugene Fram, Emeritus Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology has written a terrific article that is spot on!! 

“Clearly the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it—be it community, industry, governmental unit and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver those services is often not so clear.

An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility. I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive. In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee—including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.

The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this is difficult for nonprofits to achieve:

  • A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years.   This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Directors also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-to-day issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability.
  • The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. In some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to pervade the governmental environment, allowing the board and executive committee to involve themselves in areas that should be delegated to management
  • The executive team is a broad partnership of peers–board members, those appointed to the executive committee and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings–the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.

Mitigating Oversight Barriers: There is often little individual board members can do to change the course when the DNA has become embedded in the organization. The tradition of micromanagement, for example, is hard to reverse, especially when the culture is continually supported by a succession of like-minded board chairs and CEOs. No single board member can move these barriers given the brevity of the board terms. But there are a few initiatives that three or four directors, working in tandem, can take to move the organization into a high-performance category.

  • Meetings: At the top of every meeting agenda there needs to be listed at least one policy or strategy related item. When the board discussion begins to wander, the chair should remind the group that they are encroaching on an area that is management’s responsibility. One board I observed wasted an hour’s time because the chair had failed to intercept the conversation in this manner. Another board agreed to change its timing of a major development event, then spent valuable meeting time suggesting formats for the new event—clearly a management responsibility to develop.
  • “New Age” Board Members: While millennial managers are causing consternation in some nonprofit and business organizations, certain changes in nonprofits are noteworthy. Those directors in the 40- and- under age bracket need some targeted nurturing. I encountered a new young person who energized the board with her eagerness to try innovative development approaches. She was subsequently appointed to the executive committee, deepening her view of the organization and priming her for senior leadership.Board members who understand the robust responsibilities of a 21st century board need to accept responsibilities for mentoring these new age board people, despite their addictions to their electronic devices.
  • Experienced Board Members: Directors that have served on other high-performance boards have the advantage of being familiar with modern governance processes and are comfortable in supporting change. They are needed to help boards, executive committees and CEOs to move beyond the comfortable bounds of the past. They will be difficult to recruit, but they are required ingredients for successful boards.’

Author: Michael Kogutek, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Moving to the Next Stage of New Normal for Nonprofits

David Coffaro

There is uncertainty about exactly what follows the Covid-19 crisis phase in our daily lives, our business and the economy. Discomfort often accompanies uncertainty and may draw our thoughts to the days when everything seemed so normal.

Ironically, what we perceived as normal in the past was simply a point on a continuum of change to which we became accustomed; with the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of change accelerated dramatically. The question for leaders today is – what comes next?

The next stage of new normal awaits being written. The economy is an aggregation of individual and organizational actions aligned with some set of objectives. Following systemic shocks, some organizations wait until after the dust settles to interpret and take actions toward a new normal. An alternate approach is to begin defining a new normal for your nonprofit organization now. Here are five ideas on how to begin defining your organization’s next stage of new normal today:

  • Recast a Rolling Quarterly Strategic Plan – Operating plans established at the beginning of fiscal 2020 have been rendered irrelevant. Economic recovery will range from gradual in some sectors to accelerated in others, and this translates to nonprofits as well. Take a strategic approach to recasting plans by revisiting the organization’s vision, then deconstructing objectives into a new set of priorities and actions starting from today’s adjusted baseline. Initially set sights on results through year-end 2021, distilled into six quarterly milestones, adjusting subsequent quarterly expectations as the economy moves toward a new normal.
  • Intentional Discontinuation – Many organizations have reduced activities to business-critical operations only. Before assuming reactivation of all previous normal activities, take inventory of what resource investments no longer serve the organization’s mission. This means identifying activities, processes or services that can be permanently eliminated. By exploring questions about which activities have outlived their usefulness, nonprofit leaders can free-up capacity to apply more impactfully in the next new normal. 
  • New Services or Offerings – What new needs has your organization observed with those you serve during the crisis phase that may be of benefit in a new normal? Throughout history, new ideas and offerings have emerged from extraordinary environments. During World War I, to help soldiers avoid being distracted by their pocket watches, manufacturers began attaching straps to the watch faces they produced. The idea wasn’t new, but demand for wearable timepieces grew significantly following the war allowing forward-thinking manufactures a meaningful long-term growth opportunity. What needs have surfaced that may warrant the attention of your organization?   
  • Adaptive Disruption to Capture Transformational Opportunities – The COVID-19 event proves there are many sources of disruption impacting nonprofit organizations. Leaders can use this unfortunate disruptor to examine their business models and reimagine their operating paradigms. 
  • Development Opportunities – Leaders learned about efficacy of business continuations plans through the Covid-19 crisis phase. They also observed strengths and developmental needs of teams and their members as the nature of engagement and operations adapted quickly during crisis. How can you use these observations and learnings to build a long-term development plan for your organization?    

The next new normal is being defined today. This is the time to develop your plan on how your organization will navigate its’ next chapter.

NOTE: This article is based on Moving to the Next Stage of New Normal by Dave Coffaro, published in SmartBrief on Leadership, April 20, 2020.

Dave Coffaro is a strategic advisor, executive coach and author. His areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation. Coffaro is principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, a management consultancy, and co-founder of Atticus, a fintech firm providing individuals and professional advisors with easy to use, do-it-yourself tools for fiduciary-based activities. His new book is “Leading from Where You Are” (January 2020). For more information, visit Coffaro’s website. 

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Leading from Zero for Nonprofit Organizations

David Coffaro

These early days of the new decade are the perfect point to consider practicing the concept of Leading from Zero.  Perhaps a more familiar strategy is Zero Based Budgeting – the approach where each new budget cycle starts from a baseline of zero assumed recurring expenses.

No incremental expense increase over the prior period. Every dollar invested for existing or new activities stands on its own, justified in the current time period, not the past. The objective of Zero Based Budgeting is to assure manager accountability for expenses and the activities they fund to create value for the organization.

Leading from Zero is grounded in a similar principle. Every organization – nonprofit or for profit – starts its day from a base of zero. Zero customers. Zero donors. Zero employees. Zero volunteers. Zero revenue. Leaders must influence their organizations and earn relevance with customers, employees, volunteers, donors and other stakeholders daily. Organizations have no entitlement to customers, employees, volunteers, donors or revenue. They recognize that these stakeholders have free will and will only engage with an organization if its mission is relevant, its value proposition is clear and it continually delivers on both the mission and value proposition. Contracts exist, but in the long run, all agents (vendors, contractors, suppliers) are free agents.

Leading from Zero assumes:

  • Competition for the most valuable resources – human, intellectual, physical, economic, non-economic – is strong and will remain so into the foreseeable future
  • Barriers to entry in most sectors are malleable or nonexistent, therefore the potential for new competitors is high
  • Competitive advantages are temporary at best
  • Pricing and cost pressure are constant, coupled with an expectation of continually providing more to stakeholders

These assumptions place leaders in a position that requires a new paradigm for how they view their roles and further their organizations. This paradigm says that an organization must:

  • Differentiate itself as a resource development exemplar
  • Practice self-initiated disruption
  • Exhibit an obsession for continually adding greater value
  • Consistently demonstrate efficiency gains in operations

Each of these pillars represent ongoing processes, not one-time events or special projects. A Leading from Zero mindset informs the organization that effective execution of these processes earns relevance with all stakeholders daily. Failure to re-earn relevance over time opens an organization to suboptimal access to the best resources, weakness relative to competition, and poor economic performance. 

Leading from Zero actions you can take now:

2. Define Cultural Values in Advance of Partnership – In the movie, Ford stressed the importance of a team victory while Shelby was portrayed valuing rugged individualism. These two approaches represent different cultural values.

  1. Identify one resource area to focus upon for developing a differentiation strategy. If you chose the human resource arena, you might begin with developing an employee value proposition which authentically answers the question “why work at this organization”. This is particularly important in the nonprofit and social sectors, where alignment with the mission attracts talent to an organization. With the statement drafted, strategy work may include review of employee development resources, career pathing tools, position descriptions and recruiting practices to assure alignment with the spirit of the value proposition. The goal – Take a first step in the process of differentiating your organization as a resource development exemplar.
  2. Identify one opportunity for self-disruption. Look for candidates by examining processes, products and your stakeholder engagement approach for a candid assessment of elevated exposure to external competitive threats. The goal – Take a first step in the process of proactively identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in processes, products or stakeholder engagement approach.   
  3. Identify one upgrade or enhancement you can offer customers this year. A prerequisite for this action is understanding where beneficiary needs are shifting in order to preemptively address demand. The goal – Take a first step in the process of creating greater value for your beneficiaries by assuring you will meet their future needs.

These actions are a starting point in operationalizing the Leading from Zero paradigm. The benefit to your organization is earning greater relevance from the perspective of your customers, employees and other stakeholders.    

Author: David Coffaro, Executive Coaches of Orange County,

Stop Accepting Mediocrity

Dave McKeown

The new year is well under way by now and whether you set resolutions or you didn’t. Whether you’ve stuck to them or not, one thing is almost certainly true. By now, you’re back in the weeds at work fighting the day-to-day emergencies and solving the next crisis that pings on your phone. 

All of which is perfectly normal in our faster-than-fast world but which also affords you the chance to do things differently this year. You see, getting pulled into the weeds tends to bring with it a negative pattern of heroic leadership. 

Your team has a problem; you tell them the answer. Somebody screws up; you fix it. Someone’s not pulling their weight; you take up the slack. All in the name of speed and efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong; those acts of heroism are fodder for the ego. They make you feel wanted, needed, useful, and valuable.

But let’s be honest; being the hero for your team is exhausting. All those diving catches, the extra work, the stress, the burnout. Wouldn’t it be great if they could take some of that off your plate and do it to the same standard you would?

In most cases, they probably want to, but over time you’ve built a sense of learned helplessness within them. Every time you step in to save the day, to refuse to delegate (“’cause you’ll just end up doing it anyway”), to have a difficult conversation with another team member on their behalf, you build a negative mindset for them. 

Specifically, you teach them to believe that you’re there to relieve them of anything that seems too difficult. Over time that mindset solidifies, and the barrier for what they consider to be ‘difficult’ lowers.

Eventually, they develop an automatic behavioral response; an issue comes in, they ask you what they should do, and either you tell them, or worse still you do it for them.

The more you lead through heroism, the deeper their learned helplessness, the more you need to take on until something cracks or breaks. 

You’re caught in a cycle of mediocrity.

When you’re stuck here, it’s hard to break out of the tactical nature of your role and to spend time on what you should be thinking about; the long term direction of your team and the development of your people.

My hope for this year is that more leaders move away from this negative pattern toward a cycle of excellence. Here are three things you can do to make that happen.

1. Adopt a new mantra

The first thing to do is to make the conscious choice to move away from heroic leadership towards excellence. Like all good behavior change, it starts with a new mantra. 

For 2020, I hope you’ll adopt this one:

“My focus is to help those on my team achieve our shared goals and, in doing so, become the best version of themselves.”

There’s no room for heroic leadership in this mindset. Instead, it forces you to consider how your team can grow and develop as they solve their own challenges and overcome their own obstacles.

2. Take the time to push your team for solutions

“What do you think?” is one of the most powerful leadership questions you can ask when someone brings you a challenge. It puts the onus back on the question bringer to think through the answer or solution themselves rather than relying on you.

You’ll likely have some thoughts or perspectives on the issue, and at some point you may need to share those. The longer you can wait for your team members to come to their own conclusions, the better. They’ll end up learning more, feeling better about the decision, and empowered to move to implementation.

3. Back your people to succeed

Finally, you have to act as if your people will succeed. Too many leaders out there put backstops in place to prevent failure like bumpers on a bowling lane. Doing so reduces empowerment and provides limited opportunities for your people to learn.

So treat them as if they have the skillset, experience, and knowledge to put into place what you just agreed and provide support, advice, and guidance along the way to help them do so. Resist the urge to be a ‘helicopter leader,’ constantly hovering over them, ensuring they never fail.

Do these three things and you’ll find your team taking more ownership over their problems and challenges, and you’ll have the headspace to think more creatively and strategically.

Dave McKeown is a coach at ECofOC and the author of The Self-Evolved Leader: Elevate Your Focus and Develop Your People in a World That Refuses to Slow Down due out on January 28th. To learn more about Dave and the book go to

Author: Dave McKeown, Executive Coaches of Orange County,