EP 6: Take Extreme Ownership

October 6, 2022

Show Notes

Sometimes it seems like our organizations have minds of their own. Tasks to accomplish, priorities to organize, fires to put out… It’s easy for things to end up on autopilot in all the wrong ways. It can start to feel like the organization is running you instead of the other way around.

In this episode of the THRIVERS podcast, Tucker Wannamaker and Sarah Fanslau talk about the conditions that create this and how to harness that (seemingly negative) momentum to put you in the driver’s seat.

From changing the questions we ask when evaluating problems to understanding how teams and individuals learn, this episode is packed with practical applications to help you take ownership of leading your organization well.

Looking for ways to increase your impact in your communities and causes?
We’ve created a modular series of workshops focused on creating impact from the inside out. Explore details and schedule a discovery session at thriveimpact.org/insideout

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Tucker: Hey there, and welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I’m your host, Tucker Wannamaker, the CEO of THRIVE IMPACT, and our mission is to solve nonprofit leader burnout. Because burnout is the enemy of creating positive change, and we wanna connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders so that you can learn to thrive in today’s nonprofit landscape.
I am joined here today as usual, with my delightful co-host, Sarah Fanslau. Sarah, great to have you here today.
Sarah: Great to be here.
Tucker: And we just wrapped up a whole series on strategic planning. We did five episodes, and wanted to do like five minutes “rapid fire recap” of, what were, what were some of your favorite parts of that? What really resonated with you or what really stuck out to you around things that you’re like, “Oh man, I really appreciated that episode.”
Sarah: Ooh. I think there are a few things. I mean, for me, a few of my favorite subjects, well, my most favorite subject is probably the one on the learning organization. Because I think that’s what it all points back to, is that we do all of these things in support of not just creating a strategic direction but really shifting the landscape of an organization. Both at the individual level so that people feel empowered to show up differently, and then at the organizational level, allowing the systems to interact with those individuals in different ways. So that is by far my favorite.
What about you?
Tucker: Mm. Well, I was reflecting on, I’m going to cheat here a little bit, and say the whole series just for a moment, because I was writing an email to somebody the other day, who was trying to figure out change management. Like, you looked at it. And they were trying to figure out change management. I realized it was not just a series on strategic planning. It was a series on change. Is what it really was. The whole thing around the approach, how you interact with your people. So there, I cheated just for a minute, because I realized it was really a series on change management and how to do that effectively,
Whether you do it under the umbrella of a strategic plan or if you do it because you need to change. Because guess what? We’re all probably needing to change in some way – that it’s still an effective or it’s still a great series on that.
But the last one that we did with Dr. Cynthia Whitaker, who’s the CEO of Greater Nashua Mental Health. You know, she said something that’s continued to stick in my mind in that episode. She was talking about the power of this approach for strategic planning for her organization. And it was so simple, and yet it was so powerful, which was, “The conditions that we were able to create by helping the voices to connect with the other voices.”
It was voice-to-voice, right? It was direct connection. You know, board chair to the entry level and everyone in between. And how powerful that was versus voice-to-survey, to-consultant, back into document or anything like that. And she just, she very specifically honed in on that and how important that was, and how valuable that was for the culture change that she was looking for in this process.
And so, it was just such a delightful conversation with Cynthia. If you haven’t listened to it, go listen to that, or any one of the strategic planning episodes. If you’re really trying to figure out how to manage change in your organization. Whether it’s through a strategic plan or really any other change that you’re trying to do, all of those principles are still relevant, whether you’re at the high altitude of strategic planning or any other altitude in between of program planning or even just like CRM planning, like whatever it is that you’re trying to do. Some different ways of looking at it.
Sarah: Yeah. And it makes so much sense, right?
Because I mean, you think about that old game of telephone where one person says one to the other and you never know what the people before you said, and it’s like, “Can I really trust that they said the same thing to the person who’s whispering in my ear?” And the answer is, you can’t really, unless you hear it.
But yet so many pieces of feedback collection are person-to-thing, and then it gets synthesized by an “invisible other” and it’s hard for people to trust what comes out of that. And I think the beauty of this approach is that, to your point and Cynthia’s point, this is not that. I mean, of course we use surveys and other data collection mechanisms, but people come together to answer questions collectively about the change they want to see.
And it means they know what they heard, they know what they said, and then if they see it reflected it means they can trust the process.
Tucker: Mm. Yeah, especially in our day with so much information and definitely the world of fake news. And not sure what you can trust out there. The space of the transparency, if you will, that that creates, was immensely powerful. And actually fairly simple if you think about it.
We just haven’t done it that way before. It’s a “non-traditional approach”, as some have called it. Yet at the same it’s an approach that really works powerfully based on the data. So yeah, it was a great series. I’m really glad that we kicked off THRIVERS with that one.
But today, you know, we were riffing, listeners just so you, Sarah and I were riffing on like, “What are we really, what’s really going on in this nonprofit landscape that we’re noticing right now?”
And what kept coming up was, one of the “shifts” that we talk about. We have a workshop that we do every month, which by the way you’re welcome to come if you’re a nonprofit leader, or church leader, or anybody who’s involved in social work in this regard, called our THRIVE IMPACT 101, and we do talk about the Six Shifts that Every Nonprofit Leader Needs to Make. But one that really comes up a lot, in fact it came up today in a conversation with an organization. Where someone was struggling with not having all the steps laid out, frankly for them. And so it was interesting to talk through it and the shift is “Take Extreme Ownership”. And we wanted to dive into that a little bit around, “What is this shift that we all might need to make – or we believe, we do need to make – as nonprofit leaders for us to lead in the next normal?”
Sarah, I’m curious from your perspective, even just those words, what does “take extreme ownership” mean to you? And then I think we have a couple stories we want to share, but I’m curious, Sarah, what does it even mean to you?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think for me as a nonprofit leader it really means being aware that you are the captain of your own ship, right? And, owning that. A lot of times as leaders, especially nonprofits where resources are tight, boards can be a challenge, there’s staffing gaps, there’s all of these situations and circumstances around it. A lot of times as leaders, and I’ve certainly felt this myself, you become prey to the challenges and you let them guide and dictate what you do instead of looking at the possibility.
And so I think this shift for me is about saying, “You know what? You made a choice to be here. You have control over, some control over, what happens.” So that’s what it means for me. What does it mean for you?
Tucker: Well, you know I drew from this, I found this initial frame, and I’m going to give a shout out to a wonderful mentor of mine that I had many years ago named Michelle Saul, who runs an organization called Possibilities. And, it was actually her fault that I’m in the world of facilitation, in a very good way, because she was so masterful at helping create conditions for people to transform.
But this was one of the core frames that she used, which was, your story in front of you, it’s kind of like if you’re at an intersection, and not to use a more destructive analogy here, but if a car wreck happened in the middle of an intersection. Depending upon what corner of the intersection you were at, depends upon what you actually saw happen potentially.
And, and so she was telling us like, “Your story in front of you, what story you’re telling yourself is based upon what you’re looking for. What you focus on determines what you see. And what you focus on also determines what you miss.” And, so I have an example in my life to share, which I’ve shared with a lot of nonprofit leaders, too.
And it seems to resonate because maybe you’re out there and you resonate with this too because you have the same story. But I have lived into this story, or have had the belief that, “If you want something done right, you have to…” I’m intentionally giving a pause because everybody fills it in.
“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” And I have had that belief and I have been unlearning that belief for quite a while. But what I realized about that belief is that that belief, while at one point in my life was maybe helpful because as a scrappy entrepreneur, and I was working in the trenches of small community based nonprofits, I just had to get it done.
Yet I’m learning how that has created a challenge for me as a CEO actually. It has created a challenge for me that that belief is pointing to different almost like bad questions I’m asking myself. About myself and about others.
And that if I want something done right you have to do it yourself, what does that imply?
Sarah: That others can’t do it.
Tucker: Yeah, others can’t do it. Or that I know what’s “right”. That there is a “wrong and a right” and I’m the one who knows what it is.
And then when something happens and somebody doesn’t do it ”right”, then what happens?
Sarah: It’s confirming your belief.
Tucker: Confirms my belief. Yeah. It’s like this self-fulfilling prophecy almost. And then I start asking bad questions. You know, if we go, for those of you who are curious about powerful questions, go back to the Appreciative Inquiry episode we did in the strategic planning series.
But what I was realizing is I was really asking myself really bad questions. Like, “Why can’t they do it right? What if they don’t do it right? What if it’s not perfect?” You know, I was asking these questions or even like, “What’s wrong with them?” All of these are questions that are so depreciative, which is depreciative, meaning “reducing of value, of others”. Right? The reduction of value in others.
And I realized that, going back to “what you focus on determines what you see”, when all I was looking for was what I can do right and what others can do wrong, that’s all I would see. Right? And then I would miss what they’re doing well. I would miss what I’m not doing well, frankly.
I would miss the fact that that was actually an indicator of my own anxiety and my own ego wanting to come up and show itself. I would miss, and I wouldn’t see and wouldn’t be able to appreciate the best of people around me. And so that’s been an unlearning for me of actively looking at.
And what Michelle Saul used to say was, “If you really reflect on what it is that you want.” And Benjamin Hardy, there’s actually a great psychologist named Dr. Benjamin Hardy who speaks to this too. And he says, “The more that we can understand or have pictures and images of the future of what we’re looking for and what we’re wanting and can bring that back in.” I realize what I want is a team that I trust them and they trust me.
Right? There’s an old African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, go together.” I don’t want to go fast actually, I realize I want to go far. Like, we’re mission-driven people around here, and all of you listening, I’m sure are as well, which means you want to go far. You want to play the long game.
So that’s what it means to me is for me, “How do I ask better questions about myself? How do I ask better questions about others?” And so instead of the victim-oriented questions from one angle of the intersection of, “Why can’t they do it right? What if they don’t do it right? What if it isn’t perfect? What’s wrong with them?”, how might I shift and flip the questions into ways that are actually appreciative? Meaning they’re growing and gaining of value. Like, “What are they doing well? What wisdom can I glean from my team? What’s safe to try? Where do I need to hold back and pause and realize that I really don’t have the answer and that’s okay?” So that’s what it means to me.
Sarah: Yeah. The other thing that I’m hearing in there. And I love that, is that I think a lot of times when we’re in that victim mindset or wanting to be the hero of our own story is that we’re focusing on a kind of a lower altitude set of goals or tasks, right? Rather than being oriented to the big picture and understanding that that big picture can come about in many different ways, right? It’s often, I think when, and this happens when we’re burned out and we’re stressed, right? Instead of being able to look at that big picture.
And we just heard this, I think a few weeks ago, Tucker, from some nonprofit leaders in a workshop we were doing. This organization’s about to kick-off their strategic direction, which we help them to co-create. They have a bunch of things they need to do, and there’s some fear and some concern about, “I don’t know, all of the steps.” Right? And when we get into that place of fear around not knowing all of the steps in order to get to the big goal, a lot of us revert into that victim mindset.
And I think the question that I hear you asking also is, “How can we stay connected to the big picture that always has a lot of pathways to it?” Right? There’s never one direction to a big picture.
Tucker: It’s so true. It’s so true. You know, and again, if you go back to that Appreciative Inquiry episode that we share the power of asking great questions.
And it was literally yesterday afternoon. I was coaching two of these nonprofit leaders who are directors inside of their organization. They’re going to be facilitating an exercise as a part of the organization, and then kicking off some of the pillar groups, is what we call them for the strategic plan.
And they came up with this question, I thought it was so powerful, because they were noticing it and they were actually living into it themselves. And they kind of spoke to that and we’re speaking to, perhaps we all need to ask this question. And their question was, “Think about a time in your life when you faced ambiguity about reaching a goal. Nothing was black and white, and yet you moved forward and were successful. What were the factors involved? What was the shift in your mindset from that story? How did you take ownership over your situation? How did others support you?”
And I just loved the question because it was hitting directly on, like we’re all facing ambiguity right now and one of our team members, Julie, she’s like, “Oh my gosh, I love that question.” And she put it up in our Slack channel and was like, “Let’s make sure and put that in all of our things.” Because it was a great question, because we’re all dealing with that. Instead of asking a question like, “Why don’t I have all the steps laid out for me?” Or to your point, Sarah, letting that fear and anxiety come up, instead pausing and noticing, “Maybe there’s a better question we can ask ourselves.”
And in this case they asked themselves that question and they’re going to be inviting the rest of their team to ask that question, too. And what a powerful question. And it’s based on lived experience, right? There’s not a wrong answer. There’s a lived experience answer, and it’s inviting the voices of the best of who we have been into this circumstance where there’s some fear and anxiety, quite literally right now.
Sarah: Yeah. And where it’s easy to get caught in that piece of, “Oh, this plan’s not clear enough.” or “I don’t have all the resources I need to achieve the objective.” instead of focusing on the promise that is inherent in change and embracing what it means to walk that.
But I do think, and I’m curious about what you think, we’ve seen a lot of nonprofit leaders and we’ve been there ourselves who are in that place of extreme burnout where once you’re there, it’s really hard to get out. And it’s really hard to shift from victim to creator.
And I wonder what are some of the ways, if you’re in that space of extreme burnout, that you can help yourself or others move and shift the mindset?
Tucker: You know what first comes to mind, Sarah, when you’re saying that was, you know, we use the work of Dr. Daniel Friedland and he was a neuroscientist who wrote a book called Leading Well From Within.
And if you’re ever part of some of our conscious leadership work, which we do all the time with teams and organizations, that is something that we bring in, which is the reframing of stress in the first place. And Dr. Danny used to talk about – we called him Dr. Danny – he used to talk about, “We come from a world that stress is about coping.”
It’s based out of weakness and it’s about, “How can I even cope?” Which is not a great question in the first place, “How can I cope?” Right? You know, with another glass of red wine or whatever it is, another show on Netflix, or whatever it is that we’re using to cope, which is a myriad of things.
And instead he said, and this was based on the work of a researcher named Kelly McGonigal, that “stress is something that arises in us when something we care about is at stake.” Stress is something that arises in us when something we care about is at stake. And, so what Dr. Danny used to say is, he had a bunch of great questions, but first was noticing that, “Huh, something I care about is at stake and what do I notice that is? If I’m burned out, what do I care about that’s at stake that’s coming up and that is creating stress for me?” And then he had another question that, he actually tells this story, that the first part of his whole career was writing evidence-based medicine textbooks for colleges and universities. And he said, and he had this delightful South African accent, he’s like, “I was so angry at myself.” Because he said he was so focused on the mind of healthcare and not the wholeness of healthcare, that we’re human beings, we’re not machines, we’re not just mind. That’s part of us.
And he was so angry at himself and he found himself in this deeper depression and a burnout, like an extreme burnout kind of what you’re talking about. And the question that arose for him as he was holding his son Dylan that day was, “How can I find my way back home?” And reflecting on, “What is home for me? What’s coming back?”
And so it was a series of questions that started to lead, and not depreciative questions, but appreciative questions like, “What do I notice is at stake? How do I find my way home? What matters most now?” was one of the other big questions he used to ask while he was going through brain cancer.
And he sadly passed away back in October. But that was a big question he asked himself, which is, “Right now as I’m going through brain cancer, what matters most now?” I mean, it was intense.
Sarah: Well, and what I love about that is that it connects back to this idea of once you start asking those appreciative questions, then you are once again the creator of your own story rather than a victim to the circumstance that surrounds you. Which means you get to choose.
And choosing is not always about, or at least in my experience, it’s not always about – sometimes you’re in an organization where there’s a lot of mess and chaos. And as a leader you can choose to kind of, and this is something I had to do, carve out and silo my department, structure it in the way that I needed it to structure, work with people in the way that I wanted to work with them – which was co-creative – and then kind of try to keep ourselves away from the other parts of the organization that weren’t being run like that.
And that was the only thing that I could do in order to say, “You know what? I have a vision for what I want to do. I wanna create it with the people around us. And I want to have a different way of working than my organization is willing to have.” And so I had to make that choice, but that was my creator story.
I came in. things were a mess. I started doing things by myself. It didn’t work. And I said, “You know what? I have to create a separation between my department and the rest of the organization if we’re gonna succeed.” And once I was able to do that, my department had a lot of success. Now, is that ideal? No. Because ultimately you want the organization to work together. But that’s the choice I made in order to have impact and to treat the folks working with me in the way that I wanted to treat them.
But there’s another choice that I could make and eventually made, and I know you’ve made it at other organizations, which is to walk out the door, right?
So when we’re in charge of our own story, we have a bunch of choices we can make, but ultimately it’s about our ability to direct things in the way that we want to direct them. With an appreciative focus. And I know you have a great story about making a choice of your own.
Tucker: Oh, yeah. After being burned out at one nonprofit – I definitely have some burned out nonprofit leader stories of my own – I was at another nonprofit. I had reached a point where I felt like I had tried to do as much co-creation as I could. I had tried to, you know, we talked about data-driven alignment as an example in that episode. And tried to create objectives that we collectively as an organization were shooting towards because that showed us and allowed us to live into being more mission-driven.
As opposed to a leader-driven organization, more being a mission-driven organization. And I tried as best as I knew how at that point, which clearly I had room to learn and grow, because I wasn’t able to get it where I hoped it could go. I just wasn’t able to get the board in the sense to create objectives that were, objective, quite literally.
Things that we’re all shooting towards, that we all agree on, that is not some subjective argument. And I ultimately realized that maybe this is not as mission-driven of an organization as I would like it to be. I’m not saying it’s not mission-driven, but for where I was and what I was wanting – going back to the images of the future and what I was wanting – this was not a fit.
And it wasn’t a blame game or anything like that. It was just like, it was not a fit. And I had had “not a fit” before too, but I got fried before. And this time I was like, “No. How do I leave not being pissed off? How do I leave well? How do I leave but how does all that happen together to where I don’t get burned out in the process of still being here for a while?” Because I was there for quite a few months, actually, where it was just a slow game of continuing to do my work and do it well as a fundraiser and find the opportunities that made the most sense.
Because I just ultimately realized it was not a fit. And so, and that for me was a much better approach for me personally in terms of not getting burned out. Because I realized from the last time that I had so become a victim, and I had lived into being that, too.
Sarah: And so this was your creator story to choose. Not to stay and change, but that staying and changing in the way that you wanted to see wasn’t possible. And so that you made another choice.
Tucker: Yeah. And it was hard, too. I mean, this is not, I think you said this earlier when we were riffing earlier before we started recording, that this is not a magic bullet. Taking extreme ownership is not easy.
Sarah: It’s really hard.
Tucker: But yet it’s a little bit of, on the flip side, not taking extreme ownership is initially easy, but then it becomes way harder than you ever wanted it to be.
Sarah: You have to live into that every day. The victim story. Which is just impossible, honestly.
Tucker: So it’s a little bit of like, “Where do you want your hard to be?” Do you want your hard to be a little more on the front end where you’re taking extreme ownership or way harder on the back end if you’re not doing that?
But the pathway, I mean, us as adults, I was just talking to somebody about adult learning the other day. And he used a great phrase, which was, “The two things that matter so much with adult learning is ‘peers and patience’.” I love that. I thought it was so good. Which is, we learn more from our peers than anybody else – we don’t learn as much from experts – from people who are in the trenches of this. And two, we’re just slower learners. Straight up, right? Many of us have children and they learn quickly, right? They learn a language quickly or they learn whatever, like they go through a lot of learning. We are just slower learners.
So this Take Extreme Ownership is a practice, right? It’s a practice and a slow learning of, “How do I go about doing this?”
Sarah: It’s so true. I know we only have a few minutes left, but I’d love to end with a real tactical or practical way for folks to live in, in a small way, to the appreciative rather than the depreciative. And that’s all about changing the way we ask questions.
So I wonder, Tucker, if you can go through that tool quickly with folks, and we’ll put it in the show notes, so that if they’re in a place right now of feeling like a victim. They have a tool to help them move into their creator.
Tucker: Yeah. We actually have a, I was just thinking, we have a document, a co-created document of depreciative questions when I’m stressed and appreciative questions when I’m stressed. “What turns an experience from a disempowering experience to an empowering experience?”
And there’s a document that was, and it’s not perfect, it was literally copied and pasted from chat. But, you know, speaking of peers, that this is a group of peers basically who created this. But, a lot of it is that if we’re facing a problem or a negative, how do we one at least just name it? Name what it is. That’s kinda like with stress, like “I’m stressed.” “Name it to tame it.” is a famous psychological phrase.
Name it to tame it – it lowers the pressure around it. Then flip it. “What’s the positive opposite of that?” So for example, if I’m like, “I can’t figure out…” I was trying to think of using my example earlier around, “If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.” Like the positive opposite of that is almost like, “How might we…?”
Let’s see. What would you think? Actually, Sarah, help me out here. What would be a good positive opposite of that? Of, “If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.” What’s the positive opposite of that? Like, the problem is, “I think people are doing things wrong.”
Sarah: Right, Exactly. And so, I think the positive opposite is the one you said earlier is “What are folks doing right?”
Tucker: Yeah. There you go. Yeah. “What are they doing well?” The positive opposite of it. Flipping it on its head. So that’s what it is, “Name it, flip it…” and then if you want to keep going with that, you can “…frame it.” Which is, “What is the desired outcome from the flip?”
So if I’m trying to figure out a co-created solution around a facilitation workshop like we were doing earlier today, the desired outcome is, as Danny used to say, that the desired outcome is always relationship growth. That the number one primary purpose of every single meeting is moving relationships forward. And the secondary purpose is the task. And if we get the task without the relationship, then we’ve lost the meeting.
And so the desired outcome many times gets back to, “What matters most now?” as Danny used to say. And particularly around your wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of your relationships.
Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s a real both/and. As Danny said, it’s both the relationship and then it’s leveraging the relationship in support of achieving the outcome that you want to have. And so, yeah, I love, Name It, Flip It, Frame It, because I think it provides a really simple way for you, wherever you’re at, to say, “What’s the problem I’m facing? How can I flip that into a positive? And then what am I trying to achieve?”
And once you line all those three things up, it’s not going to be perfect at first. We talk a lot about the skateboard analogy or V1. Try it on a problem you have and ask somebody for feedback. Get their thoughts.
I’d also encourage you, especially if you have folks on your team who maybe tend towards the more depreciative, and sometimes we’re all in that space and there are folks who are more oriented that way as humans because of how they grew up or other circumstances, give this as a tool to them.
And put it in their hands and ask them to use it in little ways or in big ways all the time. So if you come out of a meeting and it feels negative at the end, use those three steps. Or ask that person to use those three steps to flip it and see what happens.
Tucker: That’s great. Well, really, you know, again, going back to the power of our questions. Our questions shape our future. You know, our questions determine what we focus on and determine what we see and determine what we miss. And the more that, Sarah you’re hitting this so spot-on, the more that we can lean into appreciative questions about ourselves and about others, it’s going to help us not be burned out.
It’s going to help us lead in the next normal. It’s going to help us co-create our future. It’s going to help us do a lot of the things that we continue to learn. I mean, we’re learning that a lot right now. Like we have tension. We have conflict and I’m noticing how we continue to pause and notice, “What’s going on here? Wait a sec.” I did it earlier today in that meeting with you and Rob. Right? I was like, “Wait a second.” I paused and noticed.
I was trying to pause and notice at that point of, “Wait, I appreciate what’s here. I don’t have the right answer. I had a thought.”.And it created, hopefully, a better outcome. I’m curious from your perspective, Sarah, but hopefully created a little bit better of an outcome, instead of me just keeping on, doubling down on what I think is right.
So anyway, it’s a learning journey, isn’t it? It’s all learning, isn’t it?
Sarah: I think it’s all learning. It may be all learning.
Tucker: Maybe we should change the name of this podcast to: “It’s All Learning” That’s it: “THRIVERS: It’s All Learning”
Well Sarah, thanks for the great conversation and to all of you who are listening, we’ll put a couple things in the show notes on our website at thriveimpact.org/podcast. That’s thriveimpact.org/podcast.
You can see all of our episodes there as we keep putting them up. We usually put them up every other Thursday or so. And we’re going to continue to do this and we might even have some guests come in from time-to-time. And we may hit on some more of these Shifts as we go.
But I was really glad that we hit this one because it’s such an important shift for all of us, that we’re all continuing to learn how to do.
All right everybody. Have a great day and we’ll see you on the next episode of THRIVERS.
Sarah: Thanks y’all.