Archive for October 2015

When A Plan Comes Together

I was fairly young and had just become the headmaster of a small Christian school. I knew that the school had been operating with an interim headmaster, that enrollment had drastically declined over the previous couple of years, that they had recently gone through a major shift in identity, that resources were very limited, and that a desired plan for building a new school facility appeared to be stalling out. I felt the emotional mix of excitement about the possibilities and anxiety of feeling overwhelmed and in over my head, but I also knew that God had clearly and specifically directed in my life to put me in this position. I had previous administrative experience, but not as a head of school, and I had had no real training on strategic planning. I simply knew that I had a major project ahead of me, and so I rolled up my sleeves and began to assemble a plan of action.  

I wish I could say that I took time to listen to people as I prepared my plan, but I didn’t (this was one of the other major lessons I learned in the process). I did, however, begin an intentional process of trying to determine the current status – resources, people, programs, obstacles, etc. – and identify direction and goals, followed by prioritizing those goals and deciding what steps would need to be taken to achieve them. My simple process involved writing these things (both the current status items, and the goals and needs) on individual, notebook sized sheets of Post It notes, and placing them on a large empty wall. When they were all up on the wall, I stepped back and began to look at them, individually and together, and then began to sort them into categories and themes and to look for connections, arranging them by groups, priority, and sequential order of process. When I was all done, I had my first official strategic plan.

Strategic planning could be defined as the process of creating and initiating a specific plan to address a determined and identifiable goal need, and my own process in that school was a very crude (although efficient and effective for me at that time and place in my leadership development) form of strategic planning. In the years since, I have learned from experience, education, and training much more about effective – and ineffective – strategic planning (and about the importance of listening to people and giving them a voice in the process). Therefore, even though I helped to facilitate excellent change and growth (with credit actually going to God much more than me; I was only the instrument He chose to use) I now know a number things I would have done differently, or additionally, in my first attempt at strategic planning.

There is an experience that takes place in the book of Ezra, in chapters 9 and 10, that provides a great source of learning for us on this topic. Ezra had already successfully led a group of leaders back to Jerusalem from their place of captivity. The physical temple had already been reconstructed, and now Ezra had returned to facilitate the restoration of the spiritual temple – the hearts of the people. After he arrived in Jerusalem, he took the time to assess the situation and determine the issues (in this circumstance, they were the issues of unfaithfulness and unholiness), and prepared a strategic plan to address the issues and restore the people and the nation before God.

This is the process we see when we focus in on Ezra 10:6-17. When we analyze the description of this event that takes place in these verses, breaking it down into its sequential steps, what we see illustrated is an eight-step process of strategic planning. We find a description of the process, from inception to implementation, of a specific and measurable plan to address the issue that they faced. In this process, Ezra led the way by his example and his intentional methods, showing us how we too can undertake the task of strategic planning for our ministries and organizations.

1. Preparation: Step one in the process is preparation, which Ezra models in verse 6, where we learned that he “ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity.” As a leader, you need to enter the process ready, and with the right attitude, taking ownership. Spend some time in reflection and analysis, resolving yourself for the task ahead and building your own enthusiasm and commitment. And as Ezra demonstrated, this includes your spiritual preparation, humbling yourself before God, ensuring that your own heart is clean and submitted to him.

2. People: Step two is to gather the right people together, and in verses 7 through 9, there is an important guideline that we can glean about gathering people. The guideline centers around identifying who should be part of that process, and these verses reveal that they should include (a) all those who will be affected (“ all the descendants of the captivity”), (b) those who will help make the process happen (“the leaders and elders”), and (c) representative leadership from among the followers (“ all the men of Judah and Benjamin”). These three categories are the same three that we need to include in our own process of gathering the right people. In addition, we can see illustrated the value of providing the appropriate motivation to get the right people to participate (“ whoever would not come with three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly”). Notice that Ezra’s method of motivation was appropriate for the time, the culture, and the circumstances; we would not use the same method in our time and place, but the lesson of providing motivation is just as valuable.

3. Need: Step three is to identify the issue or need that must be addressed, and for Ezra, that issue was sin that needed to be resolved, as we see in verse 10. He stood up in front of the people and stated simply and clearly, “You have transgressed,” and then proceeded to tell them in what way they had transgressed. Likewise, as leaders, it falls on us to provide a succinct and understandable statement of the issue, problem, or need that must be addressed, attacked, or resolved. Before you can prepare a plan, you must be able to articulate what it is that needs to happen, or where it is that you need to go, based on where you currently are and what you are currently doing. Identify the issue and state it clearly, and don’t make it complicated.

4. Goal: Step four is to identify the goal or goals that are to be achieved. This implies identifying the means and steps of correcting or resolving the need that has been identified. More specifically, it means determining what will need to be accomplished that, when done, will fulfill the plan. For Ezra, this was communicated immediately following his expression of the need, when in verse 11 he stated, “Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.” He identified for the people the goals or steps that would need to be accomplished in order to meet the need (confess, obey, and separate), and these goals which were necessary for the restoration of the people were specific and achievable. In the same way, you need to follow your identification of the need with the establishment and communication of how that need must be met. You have given the vision and direction, now give the steps it will take to get there.

5. Listen: Step five is to listen, giving people a voice in the process. People need to be given the opportunity to to respond to the information that they are hearing, which we can see happened in verses 12 and 13. After Ezra spoke, the people responded and said, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do,” indicating that they had heard and had bought into Ezra’s vision. However, their next word was “But . . .,” and they proceeded to give input into the issues and factors that would impact the outcome. The key here is that Ezra let them speak, and he listened to what they said. Likewise, we need to let people have voice, especially those people who may be impacted or affected and those people who have “ground floor knowledge.” Then, listen to what they say, and let them know that they have been heard.

6. Process: Step six is to establish a process for implementing the plan, and there are four pieces to the process that we can infer from verses 13 and 14, which state, “Let the leaders of our entire assembly stand; and let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of their cities, until the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter.” In this establishment of the process that the Israelites chose to implement, we can draw out these implications: (a) it is important to determine the steps in the process, from start to finish; (b) it is necessary to select leaders to oversee the process of carrying out the plan, and this also helps to provide accountability; (c) a calendar, schedule, or timeline needs to be created; and (d) when all is said and done, it needs to be more than just talk, and so the process has to be initiated.

7. Obstacles: Step seven is to identify and prepare for obstacles and opposition. Ezra’s experience illustrates this in two places – in verse 13, when the people said, “there are many people; it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside. Nor is this the work of one or two days, for there are many of us who have transgressed in this matter,” and in verse 15, when we learn that “Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite gave them support.” The first instance illustrated the importance of seeing the obstacles early that will hinder the plan, and the second instance shows us that we can expect both opposition and support, yet neither one needs to be the primary factor for determining direction. There will be obstacles, there will be opposition, there will be support, and you need to develop the ability to “foresee,” learning to identify where these might or will come from so that they can be addressed or responded to.

8. Implement: Step 8 is the final step, the one of implementation. It is the action of implementing the plan and the process, which we can see that the Israelites did in verse 16, which says, “Then the descendants of the captivity did so.” Verse 17 also points out that not only did they start, but they continued until the goals were reached, when we read, “By the first day of the first month they finished.” The lesson for us is a reminder that words and ideas have little value if they are never put into action. Once we have the plan prepared and communicated, put it into action, keeping the end in focus, and identifying when the goals have been reached.

I am sure that there are other tools, strategies, and principles for strategic planning that can help you in your effectiveness as a leader, but these eight that are illustrated through Ezra’s experience provide some basic steps that we can use. Along the way, one of the tasks of a leader is to periodically assess what is happening, in order to confirm that the process is working (so that adjustments can be made, if needed) and to ensure that the goals are being reached. And then, when you arrive at the end, take time to celebrate!

Week of October 12, 2015

Quotable (Jeff McMaster, the 3 p’s of planning)

“These three things – permission, people, and “presources” – are not a guarantee of an outcome of victory, but they will bring the greatest likelihood of a successful beginning, and a successful beginning increases the likelihood of a successful outcome.”

The 3 P’s of Planning

A couple of years before our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I began to plan a celebratory trip. We had long wanted to see the coast of New England and eastern Canada in the fall, when the leaves were turning, and we had decided the best way for us to do so would be by taking a New England cruise. So, we began the preparations. We searched out cruise lines to find the one that we thought would be best, and made reservations over a year in advance; we went through the process of updating our passports; we made flight reservations to and from Boston, MA (the departure port for the cruise), and hotel reservations for the days before and after the cruise. In addition, we made sure our personal arrangements were in order, by updating our will, giving all the travel information to our children and our parents, and reserving a kennel for our dog. And finally, as the time for the trip approached, we reviewed the itinerary and planned out our anticipated schedule and activities.

We had planned this trip for a year and a half, and when the day finally arrived, we embarked on a wonderful and memorable trip that, for us, was worthy of our 25th anniversary. We thoroughly enjoyed the food, the scenery, the amenities and the celebration of the big day, and in the end, we felt incredibly grateful and blessed to have been able to enjoy this experience (and even more so that we were celebrating 25 wonderful years of marriage!). However, a big part of the reason that it was such a wonderful trip was because we had done the work of planning it out in advance.

This is an important concept for good leadership: planning in advance. Although it may occasionally happen, spontaneity is very rarely an effective tool for planning. Instead, leaders and organizations need to be intentional about what they do and why they do it, which is why so much effort and time goes into activities like strategic planning, committees, and focus groups. Within this intentional planning process, I have learned that there are three things that you need to get before you can start: permission, people, and “presources.”

  1. Get permission. Getting permission means getting approval from two directions: above and below (and both are necessary and important). Those above would be the supervisors and financers, the ones with the authority to grant official permission. Those “below” are the followers, the subordinates, and the consumers, the ones who have to choose to accept your direction or your what you have to offer. If either one fails to give you permission, you will not be able to successfully move forward. Think about it – if those in authority over you don’t grant permission, you can’t begin, and if those on the receiving end aren’t willing to accept what you bring, you won’t get anywhere.
  1. Get People. Getting people means gathering the right mix of people that have the necessary skills, temperaments, and experience. For this to happen, the leader needs to decide what skills, temperaments, and experience are going to be needed, then must intentionally bring those people into the process. In other words, you must determine what it is that you need to do and what this plan is likely going to involve, then look for and select the people with the various areas of expertise that together will best meet those needs. Doing this on the front end helps to ensure a successful beginning because, even though you cannot foresee every outcome, having the right combination of people prepares the group for the most possible contingencies by virtue of their knowledge and abilities, relevant to the expected plan or idea.
  1. Get Presources. Now, this is a made-up word, so let me offer a little explanation. This refers to those resources, knowledge, or supplies that need to be gathered before the start of something – the “pre-resources,” or, presources. Like gathering the right mix of people, this involves determining what initial start-up resources will most likely be necessary to begin, and then gathering enough of those resources to start. This may include finances, facilities, tools, or any number of other things, but regardless, they are the things that need to be in hand before you get underway.

I unknowingly learned how to do this the first time I learned about a program of internships for high school students, I knew that I needed to implement a similar program in the school in which I was working at the time. I then went to a workshop on the concept, one that was being presented by an administrator of another school who had successfully implemented this program, to gather the information I needed. I took the idea to my supervisor to get permission to explore the possibility, and shared the idea with a group of parents and students to get their input. I spoke with several parents and faculty members to get their commitment to support the idea, and gathered a team who had organizational and promotional strengths. I considered the needs, including dates on the calendar, contacts for students, and procedures. I collected written forms and documents from other schools (with their permission) that were doing the same program. Without realizing it at the time, I was gathering permission, people, and presources, and these steps went a long way toward helping me to successfully initiate a program that became a valuable component of the school’s identity.

In much the same way, an effective leader will do these same things before undertaking a project, which will in turn set him or her up for a strong start. These three things – permission, people, and presources – are not a guarantee of an outcome of victory, but they will bring the greatest likelihood of a successful beginning, and a successful beginning increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. So, before you begin, get what you need, and that starts with getting permission, getting people, and getting presources.

Week of October 5, 2015

What Do You Think . . . How has your personality impacted your leadership?  

We are each unique individuals with different personality characteristics. One of the primary temperament scales we use to assess this is the introverted/extroverted scale, and each of these types brings value to leadership. I know that I have more introverted tendencies, and I also know how those tendencies influence my style of leadership. What about you? What is your personality type, and how does that affect your leadership? Please share in the comment box below.