Bad things happen when we least expect it. The economy turns upside down. Enrollment in your school declines. Registrations in your camp go flat. A new technology results in a rapid decline in your business. Your pastor unexpectedly dies. While not everything is predictable, we as leaders should know that our organization’s sustainability is only one step away from an economic downturn, a loss of a key staff member, or an unexpected change in competition or market preferences.
Think about this quote published by The Harvard Economic Society on Nov 16, 1929: “A severe depression like that of 1920-21 is outside the range of probability.” Even the best and brightest can fail to see what is emerging in front of them – this was stated at the start of the Great Depression. In Proverbs 27:12 we are reminded that, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” In other words, wise leaders PREPARE in advance for what is coming and then ACT accordingly. Here are 10 ways to make your vision more sustainable.
1. Compelling Vision
When the unexpected happens, people get anxious, fear takes root, and a culture of darkness can begin to dominate. Sustainability requires first and foremost that you have a compelling vision before the unexpected happens. It is this very vision that will be vital in fueling momentum and inspiring hope. Yet, there are far too many organizations whose vision does not pass the test of being compelling in terms of tangible results. We must remember that our organizations are not guaranteed eternal life. They often rise because of a compelling vision, and they often decline when the vision is no longer compelling and unifying. As leaders, we must not focus on survival, but instead on our vision and why it is worthy of sacrifice.
2. Attainable Vision
What do you do with 82,000 acres in a desert? Not much. In the late 1950’s, two very intelligent men speculated on real estate and bought this land to build what they called California City. They built roads, installed utilities, and sold a number of lots. But the project never went further than a small number of homes and a few commercial enterprises. It was not an attainable vision. There are plenty of examples of churches, nonprofits, and businesses that over sold but under delivered on their vision. A sustainable vision is one that is not only compelling, it is attainable. Otherwise it will never become more than a dream.
As leaders, we need to be aware of what is happening around us in culture as well as in our unique field of work. Sometimes those closest to the business may also have the most clouded view of what is emerging. For example, retail stores watched but dismissed the emergence of online retailers like Amazon, and university faculty laughed at education being delivered any way other than in the classroom. Their sense of invincibility resulted in a lack of awareness – and the price was costly. External perspectives of board members or consultants can help avoid nearsightedness.
4. Cash Reserves
Crises will hit. That is certain. It is only a matter of when, not if. Those organizations that have financial reserves are not only better positioned to survive, they are also better equipped to make the most of the opportunity. As an example, organizations should have a minimum of 3-6 months operating reserves in savings. The specific amount will be influenced by the unique nature of your organization, debt-load, borrowing capacity, and revenue sources. Without such reserves, an organization will have to make sudden and often ill-advised decisions which may result in even further decline. And you can’t always count on banks or donors for help during a crisis.
5. Succession Plan
People have moral crises. People have accidents. People die unexpectedly. And even if they are fortunate enough to avoid these sad events, they eventually retire and move on from the organization. Yet, it is estimated that 60% of people still do not have a will! Something that is so simple and extremely beneficial! And I would say at least that many organizations do not have a plan of what to do in the event of a sudden loss of a leader or a plan for the leader’s positive retirement from the organization. Yet without both “emergency” and “anticipated” succession plans, the likelihood of long-term sustainability goes dramatically down.
6. Focused Spending
You would think that during a major crisis, the number one goal is to cut spending. WRONG. The number one goal is long-term viability for our organizational vision. While making cuts is often a necessary step, it is not the end, it is only a means. The real goal is to focus the limited resources on those activities that are most essential to our vision. And if cuts must be made, the top of the organizational chart cannot be ignored. Servant-leaders do not look out only for their own interests, but for the greater good.
7. Waste Prevention
The longer an organization exists, the more it can have the tendency to develop bloat such as wasted spending, over-staffing, and blurred focus. This, on top of not seeing the signs of change, can be deadly. Bethlehem Steel once employed 300,000 people. In 1973, they opened the extravagant Martin Tower corporate headquarters, yet only 14 years later, it was almost empty and the company was on a high speed track to bankruptcy. The longer an organization exists, the harder it is to control costs and focus energy on what is most critical to the vision. Organizations would be wise to continually assess and prevent egregious spending prior to a crisis, but in the event of a crisis, elimination of waste will be essential.
8. 10/20 Rule
Every nonprofit, business, and church should have a plan for reducing expenses BEFORE it is actually needed. Most organizations can reduce by 10% without causing excessive pain or harmful impact to the vision. Reducing by 20% takes a lot more work and a lot more courage. But it is important to create these plans. While most activities and positions provide at least some value, we need to focus on eliminating those services or positions where the value may not justify the cost. Remember, the goal is not just reduction in order to survive. Rather, it is freeing up some capital to invest in those aspects that are most essential to a sustainable vision. It’s about good stewardship!
9. Wise Counsel
When the pressure is on, human nature tilts in one of two directions: avoiding hard decisions or making impulsive decisions that may compound the problem. A successful plan for mission sustainability can be enhanced by objective professional guidance. An experienced coach or consultant can help you test assumptions, know what questions to ask, and provide you with both encouragement and accountability to make hard decisions. Proverbs 11 says, “There is safety in counsel.” Not asking for help during such challenging times is like a person having a heart attack but afraid of spending the money for an ER visit – unwise and potentially deadly.
Winston Churchill said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”Show me an organization that is thriving and has a sustainable mission, and I will guarantee there are leaders making hard decisions. It takes courage to focus spending and develop succession plans. It requires courage to seek advice. And courage is always needed to make the changes necessary to adapt to shifting trends and conditions.
Our experienced consultants can help you identify if your vision is sustainable and also help you take the steps needed to make sure your organization can withstand the unpredictable. Contact us to learn more!
Jay Desko is the Executive Director of The Center Consulting Group and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA. Jay brings experience in the areas of organizational assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include an M.Ed. in Instructional Systems Design from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership from The Union Institute.