Telling your steward leadership story: Changing narratives

Posted by Matthew Thomas

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matthew-thomas-2Recently, we've been talking about how steward leaders tell their organization's story. Over the past few years, I've been having conversations with organizational leaders as they run up against a community or organizational narrative that works against the sustainability and growth of their business or mission. 

Overarching narratives, as we have seen, can deeply affect how we appear to others. Often, we find ourselves trying to write a new story into an environment where the broader story works against us.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe Now! In these environments, we often see that a steward leader builds a coalition of other leaders around a new way of telling a story - usually by starting with a vision. Successful visions typically build upon that leader's fascination advantage. This vision gives leaders the opportunity to form a new picture of new outcomes, and paint in new characters. Then, steward leaders begin re-telling the story. The new narrative competes with the old narrative - often using new characters and a new storyline.

When winning over an audience stuck in the old narrative, parable often helps. Parable tells a story that gets the audience to root for the side they would not normally root for in the narrative you are trying to tell. For instance, if your audience opposes the vision or the initiative you propose, tell a parable that uses the audience's own values to get them to see the world differently.

20150822_105655Here's an example: In a membership organization, the overarching narrative was that decline was inevitable, the opponents were the people who were no longer as institutionally loyal as previous generations were, the heroes were those faithful few who were involved, but they couldn't stand against the tide of apathy and cultural shifts that were running the organization into the ground. They saw themselves as the agents of a cause fewer and fewer people cared about.

A new steward leader came in to this organization. He quickly realized that they had, for years, depended on decades-long relationships with members for the core of their business, and hadn't paid any attention to what value they provided to the members and to prospective members. Steward leadership meant that he had to develop new vision that would demonstrate value. In order to do so, he had to change the primary value conversation from institutional loyalty to the value that the institution provided to its members. This meant also overcoming the negative attitude of the loyal few toward the less committed folks. It took some time, but eventually the story changed. Instead of perpetual decline, the narrative became about what valuable things the members were able to do, assisted by the membership organization.

What opposing narratives do you encounter regularly? What do you do to change them?


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Topics: vision, steward leaders, Matthew Thomas, steward leader, steward leadership, Mission and vision, Vision and mission, organizational story

Steward Leadership: Brand, Identity, and Agility

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Over time, an organization's brand can become damaged. This can happen for a variety of reasons. In the mission-driven world (and especially in the Christian denomination and religious organization sphere) brand and identity are very closely intertwined.


In many of these groups, identity and brand have been used to identify a historical tradition, a longstanding relationship or association between entities, a particular theology or philosophy, and a particular set of services provided to others. The brand identifies in-group / out-group as well as history, tradition, and mode of doing business at the same time.


Add to this difficulty, then, when the damaged brand is part of a damaged brand class - not just our restaurant, and its other franchisees, but all of "fast food" altogether, for instance. This makes transformation all the more difficult. The same could be true of a church identified with a particular Christian denomination in its name and core identity, where not only that denomination, but denominationalism in general, has experienced some level of brand damage.


In these cases, identity is so intertwined with the brand that many organizations cannot break in to emerging demographics where the brand does not have any power. The fear is (and justified, to an extent, by historical experience) that a change of brand would cause a loss of identity, which would cause a shift away from core mission and purpose to something that the enterprise cannot or should not do or be. In many cases, the emerging demographics now outnumber the existing demographics, and the brand-loyal demographic is shrinking. Moreover, in many of these same cases, the capacity of the brand to deliver services is decreasing. What can be done?


The trick is in many of these cases for steward leaders to use identity differently to re-brand to reach emerging demographics without losing core essence. When identity has formed around history, tradition, (historical) relationship, core theology/philosophy, or business mode, loyalty outside of established relationships will be difficult, if not impossible. This is especially true when the existing demographic is shrinking. Instead, clearly defining the core identity from the perspective of vision, direction, and values, and defining the enterprise by what it will be and become rather than what it has been, or how it contrasts with others, will propel the enterprise forward and help it develop new branding and connect with new demographics. (Note that this may, or may not, require a name change, depending on the level of brand damage. However, just changing the name without doing the vision work probably won't do much.)


In essence, this shift is about shifting from using identity as boundary setting to using identity as a platform. When we use identity to set boundaries, we often identify ourselves in contrast to others, and spend much of our time ruling on who (or what) is in and who (or what) is out. When we use identity as a platform, we use who we are (and have clearly defined and developed deeply) to launch into new space (whether blue ocean or a competitive space). Once identity, based in vision and forward direction, becomes a platform from which to operate, the enterprise can become significantly more agile in responding to new challenges. In this case, this shift in the use of identity can help the enterprise gain both organizational flexibility and strategic responsiveness - in this case, often gaining responsiveness by gaining flexibility.


In the end, steward leadership of brand and identity doesn't require forgetting or losing history, tradition, (historical) relationship, core theology/philosophy, or business mode, but there will be a different emphasis with them, and they will be used differently. Every brand has a story - every brand IS a story. Shifting from a historical story to a visionary story, and using the story as a platform rather than as boundary-setting allows for the story to reach new people. And for any enterprise to exist long term, it must have a constant pipeline of new people connecting to the story. What story are you telling? What do you need to tell?


Wheel or Spiral? Which is your organization?

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Topics: vision, vision statement, Identity-Vision-Core Values, steward leaders, Matthew Thomas, steward leader, steward leadership, Mission and vision, Vision and mission, antifragility,, agility

Organizational Health: Answering the Growth or Decline Questions

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2I read a blog post by Seth Godin recently that discusses a variety of options on how to organize one's business for growth. The article is spot-on and illustrates the high demand we see for process design: the right answer isn't clear from the outset, but must emerge from values and vision, not just from reacting to the current situation. There is more than one way to design one's work to meet the demands of the present based upon what the desired outcome is. Choosing that is where wisdom and discernment meet good process.

Growing a business (or nonprofit, or congregation, or federation, or network, or franchise, or brand) can be just as challenging, and sometimes just as frustrating, as leading a declining, shrinking organization. Just think through these questions:

1. How can we maintain quality service with such limited resources?

2. Our staffing model is struggling to meet new, unanticipated needs. How do we restructure without destroying morale and effectiveness? 

3. We aren't as relevant to our most solid customer/client/constituency/membership base as we were, and increased disaffection from them saddens us in terms of relationships and challenges the bottom line. Do we retool to rebuild these relationships, pursue the new relationships, or somehow do both?

4. My training didn't equip me for this situation. How do I get up to speed without losing momentum?

5. If I introduce some new product / service / program, what will that do to the current items on offer and those loyal to them? Growing_and_Declining_Orgs

6. If we stop doing what we used to do, how we used to do it, what impact will that have on us moving forward?

7. How do we keep costs aligned with revenues as we scale?

8. Our most loyal and vocal relationships are connected to a net loss event / service / product / program. How do we rectify that while building the brand, not harming it? 

9. How do our key relationships feel about us? How can we find out? 

10. What customer/client/constituency/membership relationships are we missing out on? What do those people want? How do we find out? How do we match up our events / services / products / programs to meet their needs? How do we do all of that sustainably?

11. A disruptor has entered the marketplace. How do we respond?

12. What is our vision, what are our values?

Notice that these questions are the same questions for both growing and shrinking organizations. The tone they take on may be different because of the larger narrative they are written in, but the questions are the same. Those narratives are often growth/innovation/hope, or decline/loss/fear. These narratives speak to the organization's history as well as the vision the leaders hold.

This means there is real opportunity for leaders to wrestle with the overarching narratives of growth, sustainability and decline: for growth can become decline, and decline can become growth, depending on how leaders approach the questions and implement their answers. 

How will you seize your opportunity?

Tao of action-reflection, primer on process

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Topics: vision, Matthew Thomas, organizational design, organizational decision making

Organizational Transformation: Survival and Vision

Posted by Matthew Thomas

One of the most marked signs of an organization in survival mode, long before its balance sheet shortens and its deficits turn the black ink first to pink and then to deeper and deeper shades of red, is how the organization views vision. Some might say that an organization in survival mode doesn’t have a vision. One could also argue that the survival-mode organization doesn’t have a sustainable or effective vision.

Survival KitLack of effective or sustainable vision can hide in plain sight. An organization can have a vision statement (at least so-called) that is either completely disconnected from practice or reflective of such a severe and significant inward-orientation and focus that it primarily gives direction and perspective on how deeply the organization can reinforce the status quo or have high-level conversations about the lint that is gathering in the organization’s navel. Or it can be so overused (or even old) that its impact is minimal and its capacity for direction-shaping drastically diminished.

Organizations live and die by vision – but not necessarily by a vision statement. If an organization has a vision statement, but practices one or more of a variety of competing directions and purposes, then the vision statement is not worth all the wordsmithing in the world. The other visions are driving the organization.  Are they sustainable? Will they build life?  Do they reach far enough beyond the present circumstance? Or are they merely avoiding death, tough decisions, reinforcing the present malaise, or spreading blame?


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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International, Organizational Leadership, strategic planning, vision, vision statement