You Don’t Get Better By Telling Positive Stories

How should you go about becoming a more productive development professional?  How should your team go about becoming more productive?  How should your institution go about becoming better at fulfilling its mission?

Fundamentally, there are two approaches we can take to get better:

  1. Focus on weaknesses.  We can home in on the weak links, the problem areas, the shortcomings, and build strategies to make those areas stronger.  Say, for instance, your planned giving program hit its overall goal in new, documented commitments, but missed on the dollar amount of CGAs.  If you follow this approach, you would spend time figuring out what went wrong with acquiring new CGAs and strategizing ways to increase the amount of CGAs for next year.
  2. Focus on strengths.  We identify and build upon the areas and strategies that worked best and produced the greatest results.  We strategize on how to make these areas even more productive in the future.  So, in our planned giving example above, you would identify what led to the overall success of your planned giving program and you would create plans that build upon those successes.

To become excellent, I am a firm believer that you work to your strengths.  Find, clarify, and fully understand what you are good at – whether as an individual, a team, or an institution – and then proceed to knock it out of the park.  You are more likely to stay consistent with tasks that you are good at and have an affinity toward.  This leads to success.

When conducting strategic planning I use a particular methodology with clients that focuses on their strengths and values.   It is not uncommon, though, for someone to challenge this approach.  “It sounds to me like we are going to sit around and talk about how good we are, sugar-coat the real issues, and not get at the important problems,” might be the response.  And, of course, the “real issues and important problems,” are concerns, roadblocks, or other shortcomings of an individual, the team, or the institution.  We are conditioned to set a benchmark, assess ourselves, and then do “gap analysis” when we don’t achieve the benchmark.  It’s classic “focus on your weaknesses” thinking.

But here’s the rub:  Focusing on your strengths should never be confused with sugar-coating reality.  We should always look long and analytically at our efforts and outcomes to see how we can grow in our productivity.  We should attempt new strategies and take well-planned chances.  We should regularly ask the most provocative of all questions:  why?  It’s just that the focus of these inquiries is more effective when pointed at areas of strength instead of areas of weakness.  Ask the hard questions.  Have the difficult discussions.  But do so about your strengths.

I once worked with a president who didn’t have a fundraising background.  He told me, “Jason, you folks in advancement always like to tell positive stories.  You don’t get better by telling positive stories.”  I believe he was right.  We shouldn’t sugar-coat our results.  If we struggle in an area we should say so.  But we get better by identifying and understanding our strengths, doing the hard-nosed, analytical analysis on how we can leverage those strengths even more, and being consistent in our implementation.

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