So you want to be a CEO?

Tomorrow's LeadersLast month, an article I wrote on “Tomorrow’s Leaders” landed on the cover of The Federal Credit Union magazine, NAFCU’s bimonthly publication. Back in August, when I was interviewing credit union CEOs for the piece, I shared some of their “secrets” here on The Wayward Journey.

But as I noted then, there really aren’t any secrets to great leadership. The advice I heard from these successful leaders consisted mostly of common-sense, time-tested principles that you can apply to your own life and business, whether you work for a small firm, a large enterprise or just want to improve yourself.

Among the traits of great leaders: They never stop learning; they are good at building relationships; they possess well-honed people skills; they have a clear vision for their organization; and they are highly effective communicators.

When we put the piece together, we decided to include a sidebar called “So You Want to Be a CEO?” While the focus is obviously on credit unions, I think the advice applies to anyone who wants to get ahead. See how many of these you are doing.

So You Want to Be a CEO?

(From The Federal Credit Union magazine, November-December 2014)

Looking to move up? Read the 10 tips below from the leaders we interviewed.

  1. Practice good communications skills. Do you understand different styles of communication? Are you a good listener? Are you good at building relationships?

  2. Round out your experience at the credit union. Learn all you can about compliance, operations and lending. Develop relationships with other departments. Find out what they do and how you might assist them.

  3. Get some financial knowledge. You don’t have to be a CFO, but you do need to know your way around a balance sheet and income statement. You need to understand credit union ratios and be familiar with asset/liability management (ALM).

  4. Do your best work. You’ll get noticed if you’re willing to go the extra mile and consistently perform at a high level. Volunteer for new assignments. Have a passion for what you do.

  5. Be a lifelong learner. Broaden your horizons. Embrace new ideas. Attend conferences, take a management class, read industry trade publications and business books, sign up for webcasts. Always ask questions and seek to know more.

  6. Network with your peers and leaders. Seek out a mentor, or mentor someone else. Collaborate with others to help solve organizational problems.

  7. Increase your EQ (emotional intelligence). Work on developing your empathy, self-awareness, motivation and social skills. Pay attention to how others perceive you and whether you are communicating well. How engaged are you? Are you contributing to team building?

  8. Stay informed about credit union trends and industry issues.

  9. Have a vision and purpose for what you do. Keep the mission of helping your members foremost in your mind.

  10. Ask others for feedback and to provide you with their candid assessment of your work and management style. Better yet, seek out that person who is most critical of your work, and ask them how you can improve.

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10 ways to step out of your comfort zone

Man working at desk

What steps are you taking to get out of your comfort zone?

I read a LinkedIn post recently by Paul Lanigan on why it’s important to step out of your comfort zone if you want to be successful (“Are you smothering your own success?”). His piece had lots to say to me and perhaps others who find themselves blocked at times, not by lack of intelligence, talent or energy, but by their own insecurities and fears.

As a certified Introvert on the Myers-Brigg personality type indicator, I often find myself way out of my comfort zone. I’d say I’ve been out of my comfort zone since at least third grade. Why third grade? Because I can still remember when Ms. Mullins asked me to read aloud a story I had written. I don’t remember the story, just the class staring at me as I stumbled over my own words.

I recovered, of course, and I learned the truth of Lanigan’s main takeaway: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is just one step outside your comfort zone.”

Whenever I pushed myself, whenever I took on something that seemed way beyond my ability, whenever I raised my hand, stepped up or sometimes just showed up, it invariably led to something better. It seemed the more discomfort I was willing to endure, the more I was rewarded.

As Lanigan puts it, “Your discomfort tolerance is the number one determinant of your success. To get what others don’t, you have to do what others won’t.”

Imagine a shy, tongue-tied high school kid terrified of public speaking. What would possess him to join the debate team of all things? I’m not sure why I did, but my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner! The experience of arguing a case, and learning the rules of evidence, how to research issues and be succinct, helped me later in life to be a more persuasive writer and make key points in op-eds and columns.

We all have stories of being drawn out of our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s a step we’ve taken on our own, or maybe it’s a teacher or friend who’s nudged us a bit. Whether you’re a parent, a volunteer, an employee or a CEO, you need to step out from time to time. Here is some good advice from Lanigan on how to do it:

  1. Ask yourself if the discomfort that you’re feeling is a price worth paying for achieving your goal.

  2. Stop looking for new. This is usually an indication that you don’t want to acknowledge you haven’t mastered the old, but you want to kid yourself that you are doing something useful.

  3. Form an accountability group with like-minded people. Don’t allow excuses.

  4. Stop taking the short cut – growth is uncomfortable. There are no silver bullets.

  5. Identify the times and moments where you typically wimp out, then plan and rehearse an alternative course of action.

  6. Detach yourself from your emotions.

  7. Ask yourself – what is the worst thing that can happen – can you live with the worst case?

  8. Set clear goals that give you a clear sense of purpose.

  9. Push through your comfort zone in other areas of your life. If you are afraid of heights – tackle that fear and you will feel better about yourself immediately. You will also carry the courage it took to overcome your fear into other spheres. Courage is contagious.

  10. Make a to-do list every day and order the tasks by comfort level – not priority because overcoming discomfort should be your number one priority.

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Old dogs and new tricks: One generation sharpens another

Kids on a pier

What will define Generation Z…and what will they learn from us?

Last week, Shira Harrington of Purposeful Hire spoke about generational differences at an IPRA luncheon. Listening to her talk, I was transported back to the early days in my career when beat-up old reporters ran PR shops and the typewriter was the only technology you needed to know how to use.

Shira gave a great presentation on how to work with and reach Millennials, but in the larger context of overlapping generations—beginning with the Veterans Generation and moving on to the Baby Boomers, Generation X and then Generation Y (Millennials), the largest generation at over 80 million. Much of what she had to say I had heard before, but it made me think in new ways about my own generation, my parents’, my son’s and the generation to come after the Millennials.

As if on cue, a member of the newest generation, Generation Z, appeared at my side as I was writing this post. Kylie, age 7, watched for a moment, then asked, “How did you learn to type so fast?” I told her I learned on a typewriter and asked if she had ever seen one.

“In a museum,” she replied. I had to laugh, but I realized she was right. Where else would you see a typewriter these days!

I let Kylie type on my laptop as we talked about writing. She wrote a note to her mom and dad without any help and asked me to print it. I was surprised at how comfortable she was on the keyboard and that she knew how to change font styles and point sizes in Word.

I suspect that some day PR bosses will say they are just beat-up old content marketers, and a new generation of practitioners, Kylie’s generation, will roll their eyes and say, “You are so 2014.”

Thankfully, writing is one PR skill that hasn’t fallen out of favor and isn’t likely to in the future. Writing seems to be a hot commodity these days with storytelling all the rage and like-worthy content in high demand.

I got my start in community newspapers, then had a stint as the editor of a Washington newsletter. So I came to PR like many who toiled away in print before finding their way into the growing field of communications.

I cannot imagine good writing ever going out of style, although surely there will always be debate as to what is style and how best to engage an audience. You wouldn’t expect a copywriter today to write in iambic pentameter, but that doesn’t mean Shakespeare wasn’t one heck of a writer.

Each generation must reinvent what has come before and make it its own. In the process, one generation sharpens another. Defining moments such as the birth of the Internet, 9/11 or the Great Recession impact us all—not just Millennials or Gen Xers.

I may have started my career with the typewriter and the Compugraphic machine, but I would no sooner go back to them than a Millennial would give up his smart phone. We all arrive at the future at the same time, just with different experiences under our belts.

I had the experience of sending press releases through the mail. Gen X had the experience of creating targeted emails and using online distribution services. Millennials are masters of social media. My dad, who was a mechanical engineer, relied on a slide rule and produced detailed technical drawings by hand, but he was also an early adopter of something called the computer.

It’s interesting and helpful to know the characteristics of each generation—how they view themselves, experience the world and approach the workplace—but as Shira suggested, we shouldn’t stereotype. Nor should we forget that old dogs can, and do, learn new tricks. And sometimes in the process they teach the youngsters a thing or two.

You might be a Millennial if…

SelfieIf you need some help understanding the Millennial Generation, you can’t go wrong reading this Bulldog Reporter article that Shira Harrington recommends: “PR for Millennials: The Five-Factor Recipe for a Winning Campaign” by Talia Sinkinson.

Here are five key qualities of Millennials that Sinkinson says PR and marketing people need to keep in mind:

  1. Experential. Millennials want experiences more than things.
  2. Self-broadcasting. Millennials have a propensity for documenting themselves and their activity constantly—and then sharing it with their followers.
  3. Passion-pointed. Millennials are “Generation Us.” They are community-focused and self-organize around passion points.
  4. Authenticity of strangers. Thanks to Yelp and other social media review tools, Millennials are the first generation to trust strangers more than friends or family when making purchasing decisions.
  5. Noncommittal. Millennials don’t like commitment. They want to try things, rent for a while and share.

So when designing a campaign that targets Millennials, Sinkinson says to remember these five points:

  • Be a conduit to experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for self-broadcast.
  • Join passion-point online hubs.
  • Leverage strangers over friends.
  • Give them a taste—without the pressure to buy.
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Eliminate the inessentials and focus on the essentials

Man with phone

Photo from

Sitting in a client meeting this past week, I realized that so much of our success as managers and leaders lies in determining what we can realistically accomplish—and what we can’t.

Like most successful organizations, this client has talented people, lots of ideas, but not enough time to get everything done. So that’s where I come in—to help out and provide some guidance.

Leaving the meeting, though, I wondered how much of what we discussed would get accomplished. How would we prioritize the dozens of ideas that were thrown on the table?

You see, I am finally learning that there is a limit to what I can do. I always seem to be overreaching, and that’s when I get into trouble.

Business author Tom Peters was recently interviewed for the McKinsey Quarterly on the topic of leading in the 21st century. I thought his comments were especially pertinent in light of my meeting:

Peter Drucker once said the number-one trait of an effective leader is that they do one thing at a time. Today’s technology tools give you great opportunities to do 73 things at a time or to at least delude yourself that you are. I see managers who look like 12-year-olds with attention deficit disorder, running around from one thing to the next, constantly barraged with information, constantly chasing the next shiny thing.

The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar. That’s why I’m a fanatic on the topic of time management. But when you use that term, people think, “Here’s an adult with a brain. And he’s teaching time management. Find something more important, please.” But something more important doesn’t exist.

I have written before about the importance of establishing priorities and budgeting your time. I like Jim Collins’ idea of creating a “stop-doing” list to eliminate those things that aren’t working. That allows you to focus on those things that are working.

Peter Bregman has a similar idea in his book 18 Minutes. He suggests starting your day by making two lists: a focus list and an ignore list. Your focus list consists of things you need to accomplish as well as what’s important. Your ignore list consists of those things you are willing to forego, i.e., what’s not important.

A few weeks ago, James Clear blogged about Warren Buffett’s own version of the two-list strategy. Clear tells how Buffett helped an employee focus his career by having him create a list of 25 goals. Then Buffett told his employee to circle his top five goals. The employee now had two lists: five very important goals and 20 less important goals.

Buffett asked his employee what he planned to do about the 20 goals that didn’t get circled. The employee replied that he would focus most of his energy on the top five, but he would still try to work on the other 20, too.

According to Clear, Buffett replied, “No, you’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid-at-all-cost’ list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

Eliminating the inessential in our lives is hard because often we feel it is essential. That’s where I think Peters is right. The calendar has this wonderful way of helping us focus. There is a limit to what we can do. So why not focus on those things that we know we need to get done?

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Designers are the unsung heroes of communications

brush with colors

Good designers are one part artist and one part marketer.

I’ve been working on a white paper for one of my clients, and this past week I got to see how the designer turned my copy into a fresh, reader-friendly piece that really pops. I was truly amazed by the transformation of the text, and it reminded me once again how important good design is to public relations and marketing.

I often think designers are the unsung heroes of communications. Their work has a huge impact on how well our collateral, ads or websites are received. Good design is indispensable to reaching audiences.

Over the years, I’ve worked with good designers and bad designers. The bad ones may have a lot of talent, but they focus too much on their design and not enough on the client’s needs. Their artwork doesn’t support the text or the project’s goals. It overshadows and dominates. I guess you might call it art for art’s sake. Just as bad are those designers unwilling to take a chance. Their artwork is merely decorative, more of an ornament or embellishment of the text.

Good designers aren’t just creative; they go beyond their art to come up with design solutions that meet the client’s business objectives and support its brand identity. In a well-designed piece, you don’t really notice where text and graphics begin and end. Words and images combine to create something that is greater than the parts. It’s holistic. It has impact. And it gets results.

I’ve always obsessed over design, even as a word person. When I became the editor of the Chesapeake Post at the ripe age of 24, I spent hours poring over its pages, trying to figure out ways to streamline and modernize the layout of a tiny, sleepy weekly newspaper that hadn’t had a makeover in years.

My interest in design has continued throughout my career in public relations. For this latest white paper, my job was to research and write the piece. Still, I couldn’t help but create text boxes for sidebars and place subheads and pull quotes in the text where I thought it was appropriate.

I was tickled to see that the designer picked up on some of my ideas. But more importantly, the designer created graphics that went far beyond what I had envisioned. It was the difference between me drawing a stick figure and Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa.

You may think that you aren’t in a position to influence design. Perhaps you do media relations, plan events or write content. But even writers and planners can make design suggestions. And if it’s your project, you have no excuse for not taking an active interest in how it looks.

So what do you look for in a good designer, or what can you do to make sure the designer you already have is producing designs to your satisfaction?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • In addition to demonstrating artistic ability, designers need to possess a good working knowledge of production techniques. If it’s a printed piece, do they understand the printing process? How to prepare files? How to select inks? The different types of presses? If it’s a digital design, are they up on the latest technology and creative tools? Do they understand how their designs will change on mobile formats?
  • Take the time to explain the purpose of your piece and its intended audience. This is key. The designer must understand your marketing and business strategy and be able to produce a product that meets your needs. Lisa Nalewik, writing for the blog Savvytalk, suggests that in addition to being talented, designers must have an:
    • Excellent understanding of business and marketing fundamentals, particularly how to leverage business and marketing knowledge to create end products that meet or exceed a client’s goals and expectations.
    • Ability to visualize and experience end products you’re creating through the eyes of the target audience (and sometimes, multiple target audiences)…Another popular way of saying the same thing is “Being able to walk in someone else’s shoes.” In this case, the shoes of your target audience.

These last two criteria are what separate mediocre designers from truly good designers. The designers who can work magic are the ones who understand that the real measure of success is not whether a design looks pretty but whether it achieves the client’s business goals.

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Breathing life into the Valley of Dry Bones

Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” – Ezekiel 37:5

My visits to Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia’s largest prison, remind me of one of Ezekiel’s visions. It’s the one in Ezekiel 37 where God restores a valley of dry bones to life. Ezekiel records that there is a noise and rattling of bones as God breathes life into the dead.

Whenever our Kairos prison ministry team enters Greensville, God causes dry bones to rise up. The spiritually dead are awakened. Our team recently completed a four-day retreat with 42 inmates, and there was no shortage of miracles as life was breathed into the Valley of Dry Bones.

It’s hard to explain what a Kairos Weekend is all about. Some call it a short course in Christianity. While that’s correct, it really doesn’t do it justice. It’s kind of like saying that Jesus was a guy who lived 2,000 years ago and not mentioning that he’s the son of God and the redeemer of mankind.

All I can say is that during our Kairos time, we always see amazing transformations. It may not happen with every man, but it occurs with enough frequency and in such powerful ways that we know that something wonderful is at work. We know it’s not us, so it must be God.

Iron chain link

The Kairos prison ministry program is helping to break chains and renew faith.

There was a time when I would have scoffed if you told me that men behind bars could be changed simply by the power of forgiveness and love. But I have seen it with my own eyes. Men have learned to trust again, to forgive others and themselves, to live with new purpose, and to spread a message of hope and light in a place of darkness.

I admit that there was also a time when my belief in God’s healing power was about the size of a postage stamp. My bones were dry. But Kairos and Greensville changed that. I’ve gone from a postage stamp to a railroad car, and I’m working on a freight train.

On Sunday night at our closing ceremony, a group of us joined the prison’s praise band to sing about an army rising up to “Break Every Chain.” As I looked around the gymnasium filled with well over 200 people, I realized that the Valley of Dry Bones had stood up as an army, an entire room filled with inmates, visitors and our Kairos team moved by the power of Jesus.

You don’t have to attend a Kairos Weekend to see that America’s criminal justice system cries out for change. We lock up more young men in their prime than any other country, and those men are disproportionately black. We do very little to rehabilitate them and support them when they are released. Is it any wonder that many of them return to prison?

Still, we know that Kairos is making a difference in their lives. Recidivism rates go down in prisons that have Kairos and so does inmate-on-inmate violence. We know that Kairos has reunited families, restored relationships and led to jobs when inmates are released. At the very least, it gives them a new sense of decency and respect for themselves and others. For some, it is an absolute lifesaver.

About 90 percent of the incarcerated in the U.S. will be released at some point. They’ll move back home or into new neighborhoods. Not all of them will have the benefit of Kairos, but those who do will be better equipped to start their lives over. If a former resident of Greensville moves next door to me, I know I would want him to have had a Kairos experience.

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Libraries can teach us something about customer experience


The old and the new at libraries seem to make for a good customer experience. Photo from

When’s the last time you went to the library, and what did you go for?

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve used your local library’s services at least once over the past 12 months to borrow books or other media, do research, use the computers or access the Internet. That’s according to a nationwide survey conducted last December by the Pew Research Center.

You’d think in the digital age that library use would have dwindled. After all, most of the research I did as a college student can now be done on a tablet while sipping coffee at Starbucks. And books? Who needs them when you have a Kindle?

But libraries are alive and well. In fact, U.S. libraries circulate something like 2.5 billion books and other materials each year. Getting a library card is still a rite of passage for a young person or immigrant.

“Despite the Internet, it seems, libraries persist—even thrive,” the Carnegie Reporter tells us. The Reporter notes that visits per capita and circulation have gone up even as the Internet has reached into every area of American life.

It was Andrew Carnegie who almost single-handedly created America’s public library system, donating the funds to build 1,689 libraries in the U.S. starting in 1889. The hallmarks of a Carnegie Library were public support for its construction and operation, free service for all, and an open-stacks or self-service policy.

Over a hundred years later, more than half of the original Carnegie Libraries are still in use. In New York City, 31 of the original 39 libraries remain the nucleus of the New York Public Library system.

It’s amazing to me how libraries have remained vital amid change and upheaval. With the exception of schools and universities, what other institution can claim such a lasting and profound legacy as the public library system?

In the Pew survey, 91 percent of Americans aged 16 and older said public libraries are important to their communities; and 76 percent said libraries are important to them and their families.

Libraries have survived and thrived over the years by understanding their mission and putting the needs of their customers first. But it wasn’t always that way. At one time, libraries acted as reliquaries, veritable temples to learning. Librarians were the keepers of rare books and manuscripts, the guardians of knowledge. Libraries were for the privileged few, the learned, the educated, the literati—heavens, not the great, unwashed masses.

The Carnegie Libraries changed that. To have open stacks where everyone could help themselves to books, oh my gosh, what a welcome change!

Whenever I’m at a library, I love spending time in the shelves, exploring or chasing down books I’ve looked up in the catalog.


Did you know that next week (Oct. 19-25) is National Friends of Libraries Week?

When I was an undergraduate at U.Va., one of my favorite haunts was Alderman Library, whose open stacks occupied a series of half-floors, accessible by narrow, metal staircases. Each time I ventured into the recesses of the stacks, it was an adventure. There was no telling what I would find. As a graduate student at George Mason, I also spent many an hour in the stacks at Fenwick Library, always finding something that I didn’t know was there.

Okay, that’s me waxing nostalgic. But what makes libraries hip today?

Here are three things they continue to do right that you might want to pay attention to in your own organization:

  1. A place to go to. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about our need for a “third place” between home and work where people can gather, connect and enrich themselves and society. It could be a cafe, a hair salon, a pub…or a library. As it turns out, we don’t always like to read or study alone. Libraries are inviting spaces where people can spend time lost in a book, engage with others or attend a class or lecture. It’s safe, it’s free, you don’t have to buy anything and you can stay as long as you want. What about your business, how inviting is it to customers?
  2. Improvement. Libraries are integral to our concept of self-improvement, the idea that through education and individual initiative we can have a better life or career. As the Carnegie Reporter notes, “if you think self-improvement is dead, or is only the kind of thing people do at the gym nowadays, you need to visit a public library or two—particularly in a neighborhood full of new Americans. They need a place to go where they can pursue the mission of improvement, which after all is what made them come to this country to begin with.” Does your organization have a culture of improvement?
  3. Adaptation. If you haven’t set foot in a library since childhood, you might be surprised by what you find. Yes, there are still a lot of books. But there are rows of computers, too. And you’ll likely find CDs, DVDs and books on tape. At tax time, you’ll see volunteers helping people prepare their returns. You’ll see kids programs, job fairs, speakers, tutors, translators and teachers. There’s free Wi-Fi, and the library’s website is rich with content and free access to specialty publications and subscription-only periodicals. How much has your business changed in the last decade?

I’m excited about the new technology ideas that Pew Research asked Americans about in its study. Apparently some libraries are already exploring these. See what you think:

  • Online research services allowing patrons to pose questions and get answers from librarians: 37% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use an “ask a librarian” type of service, and another 36% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • Apps-based access to library materials and programs: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 34% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • GPS-navigation apps to help patrons locate material inside library buildings: 34% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies or music without having to go to the library itself: 33% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 30% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
  • “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation schemes that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior: 29% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 35% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
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The power of a handwritten letter

Pen on paper

When’s the last time you put pen to paper?

This week I’ve been writing letters to inmates at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. Forty-two handwritten letters to be exact. And I’m not alone. There are about 45 volunteers on our Kairos prison ministry team, and each of us is writing 42 letters. That’s 1,890 handwritten letters.

We call then Agape letters. Agape is a Greek word for brotherly or Christian love. Agape love is unconditional love. Our letters will be delivered to men who often tell us they never receive any letters at all, not even from family members. So receiving a handwritten note of encouragement with absolutely no strings attached is a very rare occurrence. Now multiply that by 45. It’s powerful.

When I first joined the Kairos team three years ago, my cursive writing skills had atrophied to the point where I could barely write a sentence. My hand cramped up, my lines were slanted, my letters all ran together. It was a mess.

Like many people, I had developed my own style of half printing, half cursive writing that even I couldn’t decipher. Most of my writing was done at a keyboard, not with pen and paper.

But there’s something about a handwritten note. Both the act of writing one and receiving one are heartfelt expressions of our humanity. Sender and receiver are elevated to a higher plane of interaction and connection that transcends normal communication about where to have lunch or when that big project is due.

You put effort and thought into a handwritten note. Holding a pen, paying attention to your letters and carefully choosing your words force you to concentrate. And you treasure a handwritten note when you receive it. My grandmother would send me letters well into her 90s (she lived to be 99) that I held onto for many years.

Writing on the HBR Blog, John Coleman makes a strong case for the lost art of handwritten correspondence, noting that in an age of emails and instant texting, handwritten notes can have a huge impact.

“It may seem nostalgic,” he says, “but I still believe there’s room for the handwritten note in personal and professional communication. They cost something, mean something and have permanence in a way emails and text messages don’t. They let the people in our lives know we appreciate them enough to do something as archaic as pausing for 15 minutes to put pen to paper in an attempt to connect and sustain a relationship with them…perhaps in writing personal notes to our friends and colleagues, we can reach out to others in a way that creates a lasting, positive connection.”

Great leaders, coaches and salespeople know the secret of a handwritten note. In a world obsessed with email open rates, ad impressions and sales conversions, what do you think the open rate is for a handwritten note? I mean a real handwritten note, not a fake one made my marketers to look like a real one.

I would say the open rate for a handwritten letter is 100 percent. 100 percent! Now that’s an awesome rate. Think about it.

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Seven things not to do if you want good volunteers


If you feel your organization is at its best when the boardroom is empty, you may have a problem.

Some years ago when I was volunteering on a board, the chairperson turned to me at a meeting and whispered, “I’ve given up way too much of my time for this organization.” I was surprised to hear her say that because she was one of our most dedicated members. After all, she was the one who recruited me to serve.

I decided later that she was going through volunteer burnout, which happens when organizations demand too much of too few people. The year after she stepped down as our chair, she virtually disappeared. I would see her occasionally at events but only briefly. Then, poof, she was gone for good.

I’ve thought many times about what makes volunteers stick around after their terms are up, serving in various capacities year after year. Or what prompts them to drop out completely, sometimes from exhaustion or frustration, or both.

From homeless shelters and food banks to small-town symphonies and little league teams, our world is a better place to live because of volunteer organizations. Yet, sadly, many of these beneficent institutions are poorly managed. Sometimes they are so badly run that they drive away even the most committed volunteers.

If you want your volunteers—or your paid employees—to stick around, here are seven things I have learned over the years not to do:

  1. Keep your vision a secret. For some organizations, it’s crystal clear why they exist. It’s very easy to see how their mission is impacting people’s lives. Other groups seem to be holding on to the vestiges of a forgotten era. These groups have no clear purpose and are simply marking time. Does your organization have a reason to exist? Make sure volunteers understand they are there to further the mission, not to advance their own agenda or pad their resume.
  2. Provide lousy leadership. Can you blame a volunteer for quitting if everything is disorganized, meetings last until midnight or an ineffective leader won’t step aside? Volunteers aren’t paid, so we really can’t expect much of them, can we? Besides, he goes off the board next year, so why rock the boat? This kind of thinking is dangerous. Developing leaders and holding them accountable is probably the single most important thing an organization can do—and the biggest reason why volunteers leave if good leadership is missing.
  3. Poorly train your people. Just leave them in the dark. They’ll learn soon enough. Don’t pass along any records or notes. Don’t develop any training materials or do any kind of orientation. Onboarding? What’s that? Let them learn through osmosis like the rest of us.
  4. Don’t set clear expectations. I hate to say it, but I have served on committees where I have absolutely no responsibilities. I attend meetings, join in the discussion and vote, but that’s about it. No one has ever said, “Jay, this is what we expect from our members. If you don’t think you can perform these duties, then we suggest that you not serve.” Give your volunteers goals and assignments. Believe me, they will perform better and derive more satisfaction than if you don’t ask them to do anything at all.
  5. Work your best volunteers to death. Volunteer burnout occurs when organizations rely too heavily on just a few volunteers or major responsibilities are consolidated into a handful of powerful positions. Often the unlucky person who has agreed to take on a top job is burdened with a huge amount of administrative work. Look for ways to lighten the load and redistribute work to other members who are willing to help.
  6. Ignore the succession plan. Every organization should have a clear and transparent process for electing or appointing new officers. If you have any say in succession planning, make sure your leaders have term limits. A person who’s allowed continue as chairman for 30 years may think that he’s providing a lifetime of service, but it also means a lot of other people never got a chance to serve. A whole generation of future leaders got shut out. Succession planning is one part continuity and one part new blood. Don’t forget the new blood part.
  7. Don’t thank your volunteers. While it’s true that serving is its own reward, many volunteer jobs are pretty thankless. Take the time to recognize volunteers for all they do. Make people feel good about their volunteer work.
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