Stop. Reflect. Lead.

November 23, 2016

You've probably heard the phrase "the cobbler's children have no shoes," which is used to describe the phenomenon where professionals are so busy with work for their own customers or clients that they neglect using their skills to help themselves or those closest to them. I recently had an experience that reminded me of this adage and brought the concept home in a powerful way. 

As a measurement professional, I'm often tasked with ensuring that my clients are asking themselves the right questions—tough questions—about their organizations, about their programs and services, and about themselves. I help them collect data so they can find answers, and then hopefully take action to support their goals. Measurement and program evaluation work are important in that way, as they give conscious attention to determining where we are and identifying the opportunities for improvement that every organization possesses.  

Examining the core underpinnings and twisty edges of issues that are hard to grasp is a fundamental piece of my skill set. There's nothing I enjoy more than watching the proverbial light bulb go off over the head of a client when I share a critical piece of data that we've uncovered or open their eyes to a new way of seeing things. And yet, when it comes to self-exploration, that's a whole different thing altogether. I avoid it. It's uncomfortable. It feels a little bit selfish. I'd rather spend time helping my clients than focusing on myself.  

But avoiding our truths—be they strengths, challenges, or the way we engage with others—is never a good strategy. I believe this fully. I've seen many individuals and organizations blindsided, sometimes fatally, by a problem they could have easily tackled head-on if only they had been receptive to discovering and acknowledging it. And there's no glory in denial when you're running a nonprofit. Those issues that loom below the surface cost your organization every day in terms of staff energy, productivity, efficiency, and results. Even though you don't see them, or perhaps choose not to see them, they still have an impact. 

So, a few weeks ago, I attended a leadership program to examine my blinders around my own organization. I had the opportunity—no, wait—I took the opportunity to immerse myself in a process of self-discovery. The facilitators asked us tough questions and helped us inspect and recognize both attitudes and behaviors that we hadn't seen before. 

I'll be honest—this was not an easy journey for me. You may similarly find that looking at yourself and your organization, and especially being amenable to the notion that everything may not be perfect, is difficult. I had to be open to acknowledging realities and learning new things. I also needed encouragement from others who understood my challenges, possessed expertise, and pushed me to see new perspectives.  

On May 6th, I'll be leading a course called Assessing Leadership and Organizational Capacity for Nonprofit Organizations for the Tidewater Community College, Academy for Nonprofit Excellence. Our goal is to give you time, away from the hustle and bustle of daily operations, to examine your own organization. The content is based upon the Standards for Excellence, a national initiative established to promote the highest standards of ethics, effectiveness, and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to help all nonprofit organizations meet these high benchmarks. As occurred with my personal experience, organizations that self-regulate using the Standards framework can reap multiple benefits, including: 

  • Clarity on what you want to accomplish,  
  • A sense of direction for how to get there, 
  • Ideas for changes that may better enable you to reach those goals,   
  • And last but certainly not least, ongoing support from a community of like-minded nonprofit professionals. 


Introspection isn't easy, but it's certainly worth the effort. No matter how hard it may seem at first glance, it's critical to stop, look, and listen to what's happening around and within you.  Take small steps, if needed.  Be aware of the true realities, as well as the possibilities that emerge from learning and embracing new roadmaps.  And above all, find the support that can help you make it happen.

Trina Willard is a Principal at Knowledge Advisory Group, where she provides organizations with measurement, research and evaluation services that inform business planning and future organizational development. Trina's methods examine the implementation and effectiveness of initiatives, programs, policies, and procedures, thereby helping clients guide decisions with the power of meaningful information.