Engaging Employee Minds and Hearts | Marketing Tools for Nonprofits

It’s special to write a post inspired by the new book by my friend, Sybil Stershic, a champion of the key role employees play in the success of any organization. Sybil gives voice to the intimate connection between marketing effectiveness and the engagement of employees who deliver on the organization’s promises.

Her first book, Taking Care of the People Who Matter Most: A Guide to Employee-Customer Care framed her message for business. This book, Share of Mind, Share of Heart: Marketing Tools of Engagement for Nonprofits, aligns marketing strategies with employee engagement essentials tailored to the challenges faced by nonprofits. The book’s concise principles and guide format will help you frame a plan. It’s rare to have a marketing guide specific to the needs of nonprofits. Sybil has filled the void.


It’s a downer when we murmur to ourselves at work, “My heart’s just not in it today.” It’s even worse when we realize we feel that way most days.

Explaining away malaise may be easier when we’re doing work that feels mechanical without an  “I’m making a difference” dimension.

What’s not so easy is feeling de-energized even when the work we’re doing, either paid or unpaid, fills an important human need in the community through a nonprofit organization.

I’ve been there myself. Years ago I worked for Head Start where my job included all of these duties: grant writing, coordinating volunteers and parent programs, supervising cooks and bus drivers, and schlepping government surplus food. Yes, there were many days when my mind knew how important the work was but my heart couldn’t overcome the weariness.

Nonprofit jobs are just as demanding today, maybe more so. Employees in nonprofits are the mission’s engine. Most aren’t there to get rich but to enrich. Nonprofit leaders need to recognize that their jobs include being in service to their employees.

The  essential link

Most nonprofit leaders face challenges to sustain their organizations, meaning they need to bring in the revenues that keep things going.

What too many leaders forget is that they need to invest considerable time and attention in their employees, the very people who are the real faces of the organization and the credible voices “marketing” the good work being done each day.

Sybil Stershic’s new book, Share of Mind, Share of Heart: Marketing Tools of Engagement for Nonprofits, provides nonprofit leaders with a fresh and practical approach to marketing their organizations with an inside-out strategy.

She starts by reminding us that:

Proactively marketing your nonprofit enables you to:

  1. create an effective presence in the marketplace that helps differentiate you from competing organizations, and
  2. pursue your mission through positive relationships with your stakeholders (consumers, members, volunteers, donors, referral sources, influencers, etc.)

Then she quotes marketing professor Philip Kotler who posits that: “‘marketing is supposed to build up…share of mind  and share of heart for the organization.'”

Further defining this concept, Sybil writes that:

  • share of mind “is about creating and maintaining public awareness of your organization”
  • share of heart “is creating and maintaining an emotional bond with people who are important to your organization.”

Leadership is the mission within the mission in successful nonprofits. Executive directors and all others managing operations need to balance their marketing outward look with an internal one.

The employee as marketer

Taking employees for granted or inadvertently making them feel that way invites an organizational downward spiral. It’s like shooting yourself in your marketing foot.

Sybil reminds us that:

Engaged employees stay for what they give–they like their work and are able to contribute, whereas disengaged employees stay for what they get–a comfortable job, good salary, and decent job conditions. Who would you rather have work in your organization?

She makes this essential point:

An “inside-out marketing” approach enables you to take care of …internal stakeholders so they can take care of your external stakeholders….”

Many nonprofit leaders then ask: “How do I do that?”

Sybil’s answer is straight-forward:

To gain employee and volunteer commitment and facilitate their engagement with an organization, internal marketing strategy is based on what I call ‘The Three Rs Formula':

  • Respect–ensure your staff members and volunteers have the necessary tools and support to do their work.
  • Recognition–catch them doing something right.
  • Reinforcement–continually support a mission-based, customer-focused culture.

She drives home her point writing:

The difference in how volunteers and employees are treated on a daily basis depends on the management style of the…people in charge. Are employees and volunteers recognized and respected for their roles in fulfilling the mission or are they considered disposable commodities?

Minds and hearts

Nonprofit employees are the faces and voices of the organization and its mission. They need to have their hearts and minds fully engaged to feel fulfilled.

Nonprofit leaders need to pay attention to what  employees need and listen when they provide  feedback, verbally or by their actions.

Marketing needs to be an organic function that starts with a strong internal message voiced by engaged employees. When the heart and mind work together, we can make big things happen.

Dumb Stuff Happens If We Let It. Do You? | Change to the Rescue

Change fascinates me, so when I was invited to review and blog about Neil Smith’s new book, How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things, I was all in and never looked back.

Do you gnash your teeth about:

  • Procedures that don’t make sense and processes that weigh you down
  • Managers who don’t/won’t fix things or crush new ideas
  • Band-aid decision that don’t cure the problem
  • Money wasted on products/services that customers don’t like

Well, you’re not alone.

Every company or department or work unit suffers certain inadequacies that get in the way.

The antidote is to make those “dreaded” changes that we know we need but often paralyze us.

But we can’t have improvement until we make change part of the way we work. So it’s time to buck up and do what needs to be done.

Pin-pointing the problems

Neil Smith’s book, How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things, is a great place to start. His focus is in his subtitle, Breaking the 8 Hidden Barriers That Plague Even the Best Businesses. Get a handle on those barriers and you’re ready for action.

He starts out with this resounding observation:

How do I know that your company is like all the others? Because there are two things that every single company has: hidden barriers that prevent great ideas from surfacing…and employees with great ideas for how the company can do things differently.

His eight hidden barriers are:

  1. Avoiding Controversy
  2. Poor Use of Time
  3. Reluctance to Change
  4. Organizational Silos
  5. Management Blockers
  6. Incorrect Information and Bad Assumptions
  7. Size Matters
  8. Existing Processes

Neil covers each one with compelling observations that drive home the behaviors and attitudes that get in the way of improvements, growth, and change in the business. Then he includes fascinating and illustrative real-life examples of how each barrier plays out.

I’ve written frequently here about problem managers, so I was struck by his on-the-mark portrayal of barrier #5–Management Blockers.

He writes about managers who block improvement ideas suggested by employees:

  Good ideas can get shot down not for perceived lack of merit but because a manager feels threatened by them in some way:

  • Fear of a boss’s reaction
  • Fear of underlings shining
  • Fear of losing power and influence
  • Fear of having to do work

As a consequence of this barrier, he adds:

Employees are generally powerless in such situations.

Companies have to ensure there is are processes that allow ideas to be surfaced and considered in an objective way.

Neil advocates identifying all the barriers to change, both behavioral (he includes perspectives  by personality expert, Dr. Richard Levak) and business bottom-line, before crafting a change plan to turn things around.

The fix

Change isn’t easy, so Neil reminds us that everyone has to be in the game.

He offers “12 Principles for Breaking Barriers” to achieve the change that’s needed. His first two are, in my view, the backbone of them all:

Principle #1

 The process is personally led by the CEO and supported by senior management.

If the CEO does not take the change project seriously, no one else will. People need to think of the change project as the CEO’s own.

Principle #2

The entire organization is engaged–not merely involved–in the change process.

His reasons are:

  1.  Everyone feels invested in the change process….
  2.  Involving the whole company demonstrates that…every part of the organization is expected to contribute to the change.
  3. Middle management may provide the big-dollar ideas, but small impact ideas matter.
  4. Taking the entire organization through the change project at the same time creates a cross-organizational momentum that allows ideas to be considered and quickly resolved by the right people.
  5. Just occasionally there is a brilliant idea…hiding in the workforce.

It’s about leadership

Effective leaders don’t accept “dumb things” taking place on their watch. Each of us, no matter our job title, is positioned to take the lead around our work. That means we each have an obligation to recommend and/or participate in change with full commitment.

Neil’s book is rich with insights and strategies, case studies and encouragement. At the very least, he helps you to see more clearly what’s really going on around you and a way to get the “dumb” out of the system.

Hungry for Leadership Success? Whip Up a Batch of Principles

Serve them to your employees. They’re as hungry for success as you are.

Employees know the drill: They’re expected to deliver specific results for which they’re compensated. The better they perform, the more likely their careers will advance. 

When they understand what matters to their bosses, they can perform with minimal uncertainty. Bosses who aren’t clear about what drives their leadership and who act inconsistently give their employees a stomachache. 

Use organic principles. 

There’s so much written about leadership (a lot of it really good) that it’s hard to get our practical heads around it all. 

Clearly, the higher up we go in the organization and the broader our accountabilities, the more complex and strategic our leadership requirements. The closer we are to work output, the more linear and tactical it is. 

No matter our level, leadership includes: 

  • Principles—our core beliefs about what good leaders do; the standards that drive us
  • Traits—the distinguishing features marking the way we lead, like courage or optimism
  • Behaviors—our conduct, specifically the actions we take to get results like building partnerships or making timely decisions 

Role models (family members, coaches, bosses) are often how we first learn about leadership. But those people aren’t us. We’re unique. What drives our way of leading is a reflection of what we value—our principles. 

The recipe 

Step 1: Get clear about the principles that underpin the way you lead. You can’t lead consistently when you’re confused about what you value. Your principles are your daily guide and are tested when you face tough decisions. 

Step 2: Write your principles down and share them with your employees. That includes talking to them about why each principle is important to you. Let employees ask questions and generate clarifying discussion, so that you understand each other. 

Hold yourself accountable. 

If we are true to our principles, we’re willing to go to the mat to protect them. Here are some examples and what they require of leaders who own them

Principle: I believe that all employees should be treated with respect, patience, and consideration. 

That means: 

  • I will intervene immediately where there may be bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
  • I will listen and consider all feedback from employees, including differences around performance appraisal, hiring/promotion decisions, and personal requests.
  • I will make time to meet with employees face-to-face, when requested, to hear ideas and provide information, providing actionable direction. 

Principle: I will assign accountability for results, delegate responsibility and authority, and support progress by removing obstacles as appropriate. 

That means: 

  • I will allow employees to succeed or fail in the assignments they own, not “rescuing” a faltering assignment, but offering support and direction.
  • I will not micro-manage delegated assignments.
  • I will treat employees as professionals by empowering them to manage their assignments, using my position to help them overcome obstacles as needed. 

Principles abound. You just need to focus on the ones you know will help you lead more effectively in the situation you and your employees share. 

You can write principles about: 

  • Vision and strategic direction
  • Employee engagement and group problem-solving
  • Achieving business and individual goals
  • Employee growth and development
  • Mistakes, code of conduct, ethics and integrity
  • Teamwork and trust
  • Can-do attitudes, collaboration, and sense of humor 

There is no leading without followers. You need to develop principles that motivate your employees to follow because they share your core beliefs and see the reward in them. 

Your principles let your employees know what they can expect of you, particularly when the chips are down. 

When you compromise your principles, you sully your relationship with your employees. Each time to stand by them, you strengthen it. 

Please take some time to whip up a batch of your principles. Then serve them up with a cold glass of milk! Enjoy. 

Photo from Matt McGee via Flickr

10 Wake-up Call Questions for Employees in Denial

Employees just tune it out. They stop hearing the company’s messages about sagging profits, increased competition, and high operating costs.   

Even as supervisors, we start to believe it’s probably just a scare tactic to get employees to work harder.  So we tune out the implications when our employees need us to lead. 

Look reality in the eye 

No one wants to be caught at work with their proverbial pants down. That means, as supervisors, we need to pay attention to what management is saying. 

As the supervisor, you’re the one expected to communicate what’s going on to your employees. You’re the messenger and sometimes the message isn’t very palatable, even to you. 

Even if your employees act skeptical, push back, or become dismissive, communicating what you can (some things may be proprietary) is a must.  

As a supervisor, your job is to get and keep the attention of your employees. You need to make sure they understand the realities of the marketplace and how they might be affected. 

You are their teacher and guide to their future success. So when they are at risk, you need to focus them on ways they can influence their future. 

Some work groups become particularly vulnerable when a business is feeling the financial squeeze—human resources, marketing, IT, customer service, finance—because some of their services can be subcontracted. 

These employees often feel the need to justify their cost-benefit to the company. Their tendency is to become defensive rather than to take the offense. 

Smart supervisors refocus their employees what their collective value to the company can/will be going forward. They help them self-assess and then reinvent themselves with their eyes wide open. 

Promote inquiry and vigilance. 

Here are ten questions every supervisor should work through routinely with his/her employees to wake up awareness and excite new ideas as part of planning and goal setting, no matter what conditions the company faces. 

In a working session or as part of routinely scheduled meetings, resolve each question through open discussion: 

1. What business are we in? For example, is it… 

  • Delivering training programs or promoting more effective performance?
  • Trouble-shooting software or building a tech savvy workforce?
  • Answering customer questions or building a loyal customer following? 

2. If our work group no longer existed, who would notice or care?  

       Employees in other work groups, customers, regulators, suppliers, no one

3. How are we perceived within and outside the company? What’s our brand? Are we… 

  • Sought-after specialists or just an after-thought
  • Customer-oriented or internally focused
  • Innovative leaders or status quo protectors 

4. Whose support do we need?

       Executive leadership, other department managers, internal clients, key customers,   regulators, media, each other 

5. How do we expand our influence?  

     Increased visibility, relationship building, collaborative activities, high quality work 

6. What do we need to do better?  

     Improve skills, output, processes, communication, trustworthiness, service  

7.  What’s at stake if we don’t retool/reposition ourselves?  

     Dissolution, downsizing, absorption into another department, loss of funding and/or   influence 

8. How much time do we have to get it together?  

     A year, six months, a quarter, asap! 

9. What do we need to do now?  

     Answer our unanswered questions, gather more data, generate more ideas, build a plan, distribute assignments, engage others, implement actions, debrief results, continue to improve

10. Who’s accountable for what? Make assignments.

     You as supervisor, individual employee team members—everyone has a part to play 

Work together—as a team! 

It’s been documented frequently, through workplace studies, that most employees trust what their immediate supervisors say over anyone else in the company. So what and how you tell them make a big difference. 

The more successful you are showing your employees how conditions in the company are likely to impact them, the more engaged and willing they’ll be to follow your lead. Do this and you’ll see resistance decline and teamwork increase.   

Try asking your employees these ten questions. You’ll be amazed at what you hear.

Photo from Minarae via Flickr

When the Boss Is Out to Lunch, Share a Dish of Calamity.


Bosses are supposed to avert workplace calamity not cause it by being indecisive, indifferent, or disinterested!

Too many bosses insulate themselves from the real work their employees do, believing that it’s somehow not relevant to their job. They would be wildly wrong.

The price of neglect 

There’s nothing pretty about arms-length leadership. It frustrates employees and leads to problems. Employees pay up front and the bosses later, if at all.

I saw this firsthand when I spent a day in the field with Ed, an electric utility company serviceman in my department. At the time I was the new director of customer service where overdue accounts receivable were through the roof. I was supposed to fix that. “Really?” I thought.

For starters, the company needed to terminate electric service for accounts seriously in arrears, particularly businesses, in accordance with regulatory and fairness standards.

Part of Ed’s job was to collect or cut service, and I needed to see how the process worked. That day we had a cut order for an Italian restaurant that had defaulted on its payment arrangements several times.

We arrived to discover the owner was not there, even though he knew we were coming. It was about an hour before the lunch crowd was expected, so employees were scurrying to get things set up.

We told the restaurant supervisor what we were there to do. Once the employees heard, they started pulling out all the stops to get prepared.

To locate the meter, Ed and I had to walk through the kitchen past pots of marinara sauce and down a rickety staircase into a dark cellar divided into eight storage cages. That made me pretty nervous!

When Ed had found the meter, he yelled upstairs, “Are…you…ready?”

“Wait,” someone yelled, “we have to get the fish back into the freezer.”

A couple minutes passed before we got their okay, and everything went black.

We followed our flashlight back upstairs to find employees still doing what they could to protect the food and figure out how to handle things over lunch.

The supervisor knew we needed a check from the owner to restore service. He was making frantic phone calls trying to reach him. We explained that we’d be back early afternoon and hopefully he’d have a check for us.

When we returned, the owner still hadn’t been reached. The supervisor handed us a signed check for $500.00 made out to Sal’s Seafood. He’d crossed out the fish store’s name and wrote in the electric company’s. I really felt for him, but that wouldn’t fly.

It’s about being there. 

When that restaurant owner heard this story, he likely shrugged it off, making the utility company the bad guy. He wouldn’t be able to relate to how stricken his employees felt when the lights went out. He won’t have heard the complaints from his customers or seen them leave.

He might, in fact, have blamed his supervisor for being unable to talk us out of cutting the power. He probably wouldn’t praise his staff for saving his food inventory or finding a way to appease his customers.

When leaders aren’t in the thick of things, seeing them firsthand and internalizing their impacts, they never really get it. For proof of that, one episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss should be enough.

Frontline employees are the business.

The people who do the work are the business. Executives and managers direct. First-line supervisors and frontline employees deliver. When things go wrong, they’re the ones that execute the fix.

Arms-length leaders and owners are a liability to their companies. They drive employees out, discourage engagement, and compromise the health of the business.

Every owner and manager needs to get out from behind his/her desk and spend time with employees, seeing what they’re seeing, understanding what they’re doing, and finding ways to remove obstacles.

How about scheduling a day a month with one or two of your employees starting now? Or invite your boss to see what you do? You’ll never regret it!

Has there been an arms-length boss in your work life? I’m all ears!


When Leadership Goes Bad, The Reasons Run Deep!

It’s no picnic running things, especially when dysfunction runs rampant or performance is tanking. All too often, we get promoted to leadership positions when things are in disarray. 

The lure, of course, is our chance to be heroic, a miracle worker, a superstar! So we say, “Yes, I relish the challenge.” They say, “Great! Good luck,” something we’ll desperately need. 

Classic mistakes 

As soon as we get tapped as the “leader,” we want to get into it. Bring on the challenges: 

  • Take on the budget
  • Get programs implemented
  • Develop new initiatives
  • Rally the employees
  • Resolve old issues 

In time, we may sense that things are going but not all that well. There’s edginess in the air, push-back by some employees, intermittent complaining, and a lack of enthusiasm. 

Surprisingly, your staff starts branding you with labels like: 

  • Impatient and driven
  • Insensitive and uncaring
  • Blunt and disrespectful
  • Arrogant and self-centered
  • A poor listener and distant 

Smart leaders know that the focus of their jobs is not the work per se: It’s on the people doing it—their employees. 

The right fixes 

Demoralized, angry, and unhappy employees become the ruin of any leader. It may take a while, but it gets you in the end. 

When leaders realize or are told that the problems they have inherited are not being resolved, two erroneous conclusions are often drawn: 

  • “It must be my personality or the way I’m coming across.”
  • “I just need to give my employees more pep talks or maybe a team- building program to get us on the same page.” 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Smart leaders, facing difficulties, don’t ask, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead they ask, “What’s wrong here?” 

Employees rally around a leader who shows them how they can make a difference. They thrive on structure, role clarity, performance expectations, and feedback. 

If you want to turn dysfunction into employee engagement, here are the essentials: 

  • A current state of the department presentation by the leader
  • A goals grid, specifying the specific financial, operations, stakeholder, and employee goals for the current year
  • Updated position descriptions that identify job scope, accountabilities, responsibilities/duties, and qualifications
  • Specific performance goals for each employee, cascading from the department goals
  • Quarterly reports of department performance against goals 

These tools let employees know the priorities are that you, the leader, are committed to. This is how they know what counts and what doesn’t. 

I worked with two standout leaders who hired me because they were told that they had behavioral traits that were problematic. One was told that her communications style was too blunt: The other that he came across as being impatient. They both: 

  • Had taken over organizations that were in death spiral
  • Went hard at trying to right a sinking ship
  • Assumed that employees understood the severity of the situation and would follow their lead 

Instead, employees resisted, criticized, and became obstacles. They really didn’t understand how dire things were. They couldn’t see the big picture, blamed these leaders for problems past and present, resisted change, and created crippling organizational noise. 

The reality was that each leader was strong, smart, and committed. What they lacked was knowledge of performance best practice tools and how to implement them.  So they wisely regrouped, took stock, and put into place the structure employees needed. As a result, they each created a lasting fix.

Great results 

It’s a leader’s job to give employees the tools, support, and environment they need to do great work. Leaders can’t succeed without their employees, since leaders do very little “real” work. Instead, they provide structure, information and insights; remove obstacles; develop the employee capabilities; and generate momentum.   

It would be nice if every leader had a personality that we liked, but that isn’t necessary. No matter how business fit we are, we still need our leaders to provide the platform we need to do good work. If they haven’t, be bold and ask for it! 

What have been your experiences with a leader who ran amok? Was there ever a fix?

Working From the Heart? Check Your Pulse! | Spirit and Drive as Brand Boosters.

Jobs are what we make them.  When we bring nothing, they become nothing. When we use them to unleash our spirit, they become an adventure.

Jobs give us a chance to show what we’re made of, what we stand for, and what we care about. When we take them to heart, there’s no hiding it. We do the work with an eagerness that spills over to others.

No spirit. No drive. No fun. 

I’ll grant that a lot of employers do all they can to take the joy out of working. Creative, enthusiastic employees with a “can do” attitude and the energy to go with it are told to:

  • Stick to the formula
  • Follow the pack
  • Slow down
  • Be more careful
  • Know your place 

These companies see employees like machinery. Only robots need apply.

We aren’t androids. We come with a beating heart and an active mind. Our life history, our sense of self, and our world view are high octane motivators. So it’s important for us to keep our spirit and drive alive as we build our careers.

A personal brand is more than credentials, skill sets, and performance. If you’re not sure what your brand is, ask people the first word or phrase they think of when they hear your name. Will they say you’re someone who will:

  • Say, “Yes, I can do that”
  • Volunteer in a pinch
  • Defend and/or do what’s right
  • Accept a risky assignment
  • Stretch yourself 

Every day we show what we’re made of by the way we approach our jobs. An effusive, uncontained, and generous spirit drives a vigorous career and strengthens us.

Let your heart be your guide. 

Nothing’s better than an “I’m going for it” spirit. I thought you might like to meet a few folks who have it as the centerpiece of their personal brand:

Carla was the new executive director of a high visibility, non-profit child care agency in dire straits. She was a fearless, undaunted advocate for disadvantaged children, determined to increase public awareness, improve services, and stabilize funding. Nothing was going to stop her.

She became a national voice for these children, built a high-performing organization, expanded services, ran a capital campaign to build a multi-million dollar facility, and didn’t rest until the needs of these children were served.

Peggy was a marketing supervisor for a technology company bought out by a giant. She was considered an outsider after the transition and didn’t like that one bit. She knew her marketing creativity and leadership skills were strong but not being utilized.

Knowing that she could do more, she set out to showcase her talents by asking for high visibility assignments. Each time she stepped out, more higher- ups recognized her. She put herself out there as a speaker, executive event planner, global representative, and marketing manager. Her respect for her talents and drive to serve the company earned her executive status.

Mark was an entry-level hire with a degrees in English and government at a Fortune 500 energy company. As a non-engineering employee, his career growth opportunities seemed limited. But Mark has an exceptional ability to learn and understand business and technical operations.

He also has an uncontainable desire to make a difference and a strong commitment to employees. By saying “yes” to some ugly assignments, Mark succeeded in saving the company tens of millions, fixing major process failures, and building the company brand—all a reflection of his willingness to take personal career risks for the greater good. He has never lost his drive. 

Let your spirit be your guide. 

We need to do all we can to nurture our spirit as we work. That inner drive that lets us know we’re doing something that matters is served by each heartbeat. Business fitness starts by understanding what kind of success we really want. Our heart tells us that. Our spirit and drive make it happen. And the beat goes on!

What drives you in your career? Still searching? Your discoveries and your questions will be helpful. Thanks.