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The Most Focusing WHY Question for Leaders and Visionaries

Start with Why is a best selling book and one of the most viewed Ted Talks of all time. Simon Sinek introduces the concept in the context of marketing but the importance of ‘starting with WHY’ applies to all dimensions of communications, management, and leadership.

The WHY question is one of incredible utility.

This nugget is about moving from utility to power (i.e. GREATEST IMPACT and FOCUS) through more nuanced WHY questions.

There are dozens of ‘WHY’ questions. To name a handful…

  • Why (are we doing this)?
  • What is our purpose?

    Note: Do not be fooled. ‘What is our purpose’ is a WHY QUESTION.

  • What’s our mission?
  • What’s our reason for existence? Raison d’etre?
  • What’s our cause? Or, for WHAT do we stand?

The reason we use the Altitude Framework is because it represents ALL of these questions (at 30,000′). The mental picture here is that of a kaleidoscope; depending on which way you turn the WHY question you’re going to get a slightly different picture at 30,000′.

In the WHY kaleidoscope, one question consistently has the greatest power to focus and guide:

TOWARD WHAT END?

This question sharpens the WHY. It takes it somewhere.

Toward what end does your organization exist?
We want to start a new program. Toward what end?

Communication is an art. To land on the right clarity and communication, leaders should play around with the entire ‘WHY-kaleidoscope’. If one WHY question isn’t teasing out enough power, or focus, shift to another question.

Start with: Toward what end?

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The Assumptive Close

In the sales world, there is such thing as an ‘assumptive close’. This is where a sales person ASSUMES the customer is ready to buy – So they skip past the close and work on the mechanics. For example, “Tell me when you would like to take receipt of your item and we can get started on the paperwork.” 

In our social impact world, I’d like to repurpose The Assumptive Close. I don’t think of this as a closing technique, instead, I think of it as an attitude and a mode of communication that helps you continue toward a closed commitment.

There are times when a prospect is CLEARLY ‘in’, but we haven’t yet confirmed the commitment. Perhaps you had a great visit and the prospect said, “I want to help – financially – give me some time to look at my other obligations…”
If I were to coach you through this follow up strategy, I’d say, don’t think about HOW or IF you’re going to have a numbers conversation on the next visit. Instead, remember the prospect has already said, “I’m IN!!!!”  

So, you can continue to move forward with this ASSUMPTION in the next conversation.  

Too often, we see uncertainty and doubt creep in. I was with an Executive Director last week, and in this case, she was trying to figure out how to bring up the gift again. She had doubt about the commitment and – absent of a mental model – moved backward and started trying to figure out how to ask – again. Just thinking about this as an ‘Assumptive Close’ helped her frame the next conversation.

The predisposition (framing) for the next conversation was as simple as this: “I’m looking forward to getting together tomorrow and talking next steps. It’s great to know you’re ‘in’. We are so incredibly grateful for your support.”

You can ASSUME it will close and you can communicate with that belief in mind!

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The Zeigarnik Effect

I picked this nugget up while reading Deep Work, by Cal Newport.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes the effect of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.

Newport introduces this effect in the context of discussing the processing powers of the conscious and subconscious minds. He says it’s important to ‘shut down’ (the conscious mind) routinely – both for the sake of resting the conscious mind AND in order to let the subconscious mind do it’s work; the brain literally needs to switch modes of thinking.

Some tasks require deep focus of the conscious mind – like writing and math. Other things are more complex and can be better solved by the subconscious mind.

Note: I recently read that our conscious mind can process 32 bits of information at one time and our subconscious mind can process BILLIONS of information at once! (Source: Stealing Fire).

Newport suggests we are prone to leave action items open, or incomplete. They then dominate our attention. I know I’ve experienced this — processing the same to-do over-and-over. This is the Zeigarnik Effect.

Newport describes how he shuts down work each evening. He closes up action items and writes up the plan for the next day. This helps to turn off the conscious mind.

Incomplete tasks both dominate our attention AND (therefor) rob you of the ability to switch modes; they wear down your conscious processing mind AND they prevent you from using your supercomputer — the subconscious mind. So, beware the Zeigarnik Effect!

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Predisposition – Video Nugget

Predisposition!

This is a crucial part of the selling process.

Our definition would not work well in a dictionary but here it is: Predisposition is EVERYTHING you can do to make the visit NOT a COLD CALL.

We all know what a ‘cold call’ is… so what can we do to make it NOT a cold call? It includes your strategy to secure the visit but it’s much more than that.. it’s about setting the total CONTEXT and the STORY for the visit / ask.

We need to be predisposing to these three things:

  1. The cause or the case.
  2. The ask.
  3. The team. (WHO ARE YOU?)

Effective predisposition accelerates the entire sales cycle.

Here is a short video nugget to help you understand and leverage PREDISPOSITION.

(Click here to view the video if it’s not loading in your email / browser.)

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Transformational Gifts Are Not Always the Largest Gifts

Transformational gifts are not always the largest gifts. Sometimes a commitment made at the right time – early in a project, or perhaps when a campaign is stalled – can be transformational.

When funding for a project is unclear, or when funders are not coming through with commitments, confidence can decline. On a team this often manifests itself in the form of more meetings, lack of team cohesion, and increased turnover. We cannot overstate the importance of confidence – for individuals, for your advancement team, for your complete enterprise.  

The nonprofit sector is the largest sector of our economy. We would love to be able to calculate the lost productivity, or lost output, due to uncertainty, fear, or simply a lack of clarity that arises from (or, in many cases, produces) a lack of funding. 

We’ve witnessed how a gift commitment at the right time can provide more than just momentum – it can transform a team and an enterprise. It can validate the vision and trigger a state of flow in an organization. In the funding function, this translates into increased confidence in the story, more presentations, more asks, and more revenue.

There are times when we can share the internal uncertainty with a funder – to talk about the impact the commitment could have on the psychology of the team.  Any funder that’s ever had to lead will understand the importance of validation, clarity, and the morale boost that follows.

In a way we’re saying, “Your impact is not only going to be on the kids, or homes, or projects.  It’s going to have a very, very real impact on our team. They have been putting in long hours, fighting for this plan.”

It takes a particular command and control to share this kind of message with a funder. It’s not about showing weakness. It’s… a real opportunity to transform. This is the kind of thing we mean when we talk about being ‘a real partner’ with the funder and standing ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’.  

So, transformational gifts can be about something other than huge gifts that give scale; they can be about well-timed funding commitments that give confidence. Confidence and team-cohesion is TRANSFORMATIONAL.

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It’s Easier to Get into Something Than It Is to Get out of Something

It’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of something.

This isn’t something most people think about, but upon hearing, say, “Yeah, isn’t that the truth!?” This is a human insight with implications for anything we start – like a new partnership, position, or program.  

In the natural world, it has a parallel with Newton’s first law of motion: An object in motion tends to stay in motion.

And, while the insight would seem to be a caution about jumping into things quickly, I think of it more as a law of human behavior. For instance, with a new program commitment we might want to think about the exit strategy – in case it’s needed. For a new funding relationship it means we should (often) be less concerned with getting a maximized gift commitment and maybe just focus on getting a new prospect ‘in’ and committed to our work (at any level).

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Future Cities Accelerator at the Unreasonable Institute

We are deeply committed to the formation of talent, leadership and ‘sales skills’ in the social sector. One of the ways we think about giving back and impacting the sector comes in the form of our partnership with The Unreasonable Institute.

We’re really proud of the team at the UI. They now provide accelerator and support programs to Social Entrepreneurs in over 30 countries!!! Since the institute’s inception, we’ve provided pro-bono mentorship and coaching to these entrepreneurs.

We think of Unreasonable Institute as a platform that finds, attracts and supports the most promising Social Entrepreneurs on the planet – they are GREAT at this.

For our part, we benefit from proximity and relationship with entrepreneurs all over the world – working on some of the most complex problems ranging from clean water, to climate change, to housing, to health (access). In terms of impact, we view this as a huge leverage point. We get to be with these entrepreneurs as they BEGIN their journey (toward scale).    

 

The Future Cities Accelerator:

Kerry and I are preparing to leading a two-day Boot Camp around Storytelling and Sales at the Future Cities Accelerator. This is a new Unreasonable Institute concept developed in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation to find, support, and scale ten game-changing ventures supporting poor and vulnerable populations in the US.

As we prepare to spend time with these entrepreneurs, here are some key refrains we will share:

  • We become what we think about.

    In addition to the global power of this insight, we caution social entrepreneurs from getting too caught up in messaging ‘earned-income revenue’ or ‘biz model’. These are HUGELY important, but entrepreneurs can get distracted as they make their way through awards circles, fellowships, and conferences. They seem to be sucked into a world that debates the how at expense of story about the why and the what.


    Eyes on the prize. And the prize is the impact.
  • There are no rules.  

    (Assuming ethical and legal baseline, but beyond that, there are no rules.)  Everything we share in terms of our frameworks are simply constructs that we’ve made up (and tested A LOT). Don’t ever think there is some magic fundraising (or entrepreneurship) secret that you don’t know. There isn’t.
  • We are taught to present, not to engage.  

    Simply ask yourself before every pitch, or sale,  
    “What would ENGAGEMENT look like in this situation?”

    Use more visuals. Be simple. Ask questions. (Despite the fact that every entrepreneur is going to have you make a pitch deck – outside of silicon valley, boulder and wall street – nobody uses a pitch deck.)
  • Think Big. Build Simple. Act Now.

    We don’t believe that ‘Changing the World’ has to be cliché. ‘Changing the World’ is the epitome of THINK BIG! And it’s only cliché if you can’t follow-up with how you’re going to do it – SIMPLY and IMMEDIATELY.

Entrepreneurs will complete the boot camp next week after which our team will provide coaching and support for nine months. I hope to be able to share some great stories about innovation and promise for impacting our most vulnerable populations.

 

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Set Your Intent at the Start of the Visit

Set your intent at the start of a visit. In conjunction with strong predisposition, an INTENT will help you TRANSITION throughout the conversation and DRIVE toward an ask.  

Stating intent could be as simple as outlining the FLOW for the visit, “Thanks for taking time to visit with us today. As George shared, we’re hoping to connect with people that really have a similar passion for helping youth. What we would like to do is take a few minutes to get to know you [the OPEN]. We would like to share a little bit about what we’re doing [the STORY]. And, then, if it’s okay, we would love to talk about ways to help [the ASK / Presenting the Opportunity].

When they’re not able to navigate the ‘flow-of-the-visit,’ Development Officers have a hard time transitioning to the ask. It’s as though they are waiting to be invited to have a discussion about how the prospect can help.

In a broader and universal sense, any discussion is more productive when framed by a clear intent. As a reminder, here is the framework we use to illustrate the ‘The Flow of the Visit.’

 

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The Development Professional Triple Legacy

Most of us hope to leave a legacy – for our families, communities, those we serve, our world… And many of you reading this have an even more unique opportunity to leave a mark.

As a development professional (in many cases, this includes executive/volunteer leadership), you have the chance to be a part of three legacies:

  1. The Legacy of the Funder. It’s your job to help funders and leaders move from success to significance. That cannot happen without you.

  2. Your Personal Legacy (or Brand). Think of this as the positive energy, attitude and optimism you bring to your team every day.

  3. The Mentorship Legacy.  Every great leader and every great sales professional became great because of hard work AND because of great models. Be intentional about this legacy. Your impact will not be contained to your organization – it will multiply (for better or worse) as the next generation assumes leadership to be for impact.
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Purpose Clarity

This month’s print edition of HBR makes mention of a new study supporting ‘the purpose-profit’ connection (p32).  The study looks at the relationship between strong purpose and public company financial performance. I believe the insights apply to all organizations – That is, any organization with a strong purpose will see increased performance.

The study finds there is a strong link between PURPOSE and PERFORMANCE (or, in my adjusted language, IMPACT). Researchers make a distinction in two types of high purpose organizations. The first is what it calls ‘high camaraderie’ where everyone simply has a sense that they are doing something great, TOGETHER. The second type of purpose is ‘high clarity’ from management. This is noted as the type where managers excel at translating purpose into action.

The statistically significant performance bump was only found with organizations that have ‘purpose clarity.’

As a leader, think not just about PURPOSE, but ‘PURPOSE CLARITY.’  To help you with this, I would bridge some of the findings of the research with some of the For Impact teaching. Think about PURPOSE as an anchor for your STORY. And, by story, I don’t mean a narrative with a beginning-middle-end. I mean how you FRAME the organization.

A GREAT STORY…

  • Is anchored in hope-filled purpose (Start with WHY!)
  • Simplifies WHAT you do.
  • Serves as a litmus for action.

Some of the writing in the research study further supports thinking about placing PURPOSE inside of STORY.  “The company’s primary purpose – the real one, which isn’t necessarily the one written in the official documents or etched in the wall plaques – [that] guides its actions and decisions.”

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Gartenberg, Claudine Madras and Prat, Andrea and Serafeim, George, Corporate Purpose and Financial Performance (June 30, 2016). Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 16-69. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2840005

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