I Wish You’d Been There

April 22, 2014

I really wish you had been with me in the mayor’s office.

I was in Darrington, Washington, the small logging town hit hard by the March 22 mudslide that destroyed much of the nearby community of Oso. The slide buried about a mile of the highway connecting many of the 450 families in Darrington with their jobs, their grocery shopping and even the shipments to and from their lumber mill.

Though I wasn’t there on vacation, I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

On disaster assignment for the American Red Cross, I went to city hall with our district operations manager to talk about our work in the community. When we entered his office, the mayor rose from his desk stacked high with papers and gave us a hearty handshake. He wore a ball cap and flannel shirt – just what a Midwesterner like me would expect to find in a lumber town quietly tucked away high in the Northern Cascades. A faint smile on his unshaven face, however, failed to mask the strain of his mayoral duties.

“Initially we had concerns about giving up space,” he said, referring to the many outside groups that came wanting to help. That’s a typical response from those living in rugged, close-knit and self-reliant communities. “The Red Cross is neutral and I appreciate that,” he said. “Your work here has been stellar.”

While pleased to receive the compliment, I pushed to uncover unmet needs where we could help. “What advice would you give to us at the Red Cross?” I asked. (Here’s where I especially wish you’d been with me.) Without hesitation, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Keep taking good care of my people.”
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Do You Follow a Leader Who Deals in Hope?

March 27, 2014

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Hope inspires us to believe that better, brighter times are yet to come.

Hope inspires us to believe that better, brighter times are yet to come.

Last week I participated in three days of intense training near our national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I left filled with hope and optimism after I’d met with some of the top leaders in our organization, (the American Red Cross).

On my flight home, I began thinking about my renewed hope, and the quote from Napoleon Bonaparte pushed its way to the forefront of my mind. “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

I thought about the leaders I’ve admired. They instill hope in others because they have:

  1. A vision. Leaders know where they are going. They envision what success will look like, and they paint a vivid picture so others can share in that vision. On the final day of last week’s training, our senior vice president for communications sat at my table in the dining room. As I asked him specific questions about the monumental changes occurring within the organization, he responded by saying, “I have a dream.” He then painted a picture of our yet-to-be-realized future. I could see it! I wanted to be part of it!
  2. A plan. Not only do great leaders know where we are going, they have a plan for how we’ll get there. They may delegate much of the navigation to managers who will guide us through the treacherous terrain, yet they always have a plan.
  3. Situational awareness. I don’t trust leaders who have a Pollyanna-like optimism. I want to follow someone who comprehends the complexity and challenges of the situation, yet is not daunted by that reality. Good leaders are fully aware they will face obstacles such as the scarcity of finances, the machinations of political opponents and the stubbornness of skeptics. Yet they press on.
  4. A team. Good leaders know they cannot achieve success alone. They recruit, train and empower competent team members. Like Moses, they have an uncanny way of reminding their followers that we’re all in this together.  Although we may spend time wandering in the wilderness, our leaders create teamwork by reminding us we are headed towards the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey.
  5. Resources. Too many people wallow in inertia, waiting until they are given ample resources. Early in my career a mentor said, “Resources flow to achievers.” That concept stuck with me. Early victories often are achieved with meager resources, but as momentum builds and success becomes a way of life, resources will follow. After all, wise investors want to entrust their resources to leaders who promise a great return on investment.

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The Sticky Note Organizational Chart

September 17, 2013

The best organizational chart I ever created was made on a white wall using a black Sharpie pen and yellow sticky notes.

The setting was an office in Midtown Manhattan shortly after the devastating landfall of Superstorm Sandy.

Working for the American Red Cross, I had been assigned to serve as the Public Affairs Chief on the disaster relief operation. When I arrived in New York, more than a dozen members of my team were already there, and during the two weeks I served in that role, more than 50 individuals were assigned to the public affairs group, though not all were there at the same time.

In the midst of the disaster’s chaos, my first task was to organize the sprawling staff, most of whom I had never met. Although our disaster headquarters was in New York City, our job was more difficult because we had crews spread out in each of the five NYC boroughs and on Long Island. Their varied assignments included handling media inquiries, writing stories, taking pictures, creating social media content and performing other communications tasks.

At a quick staff meeting in the hallway, we introduced ourselves and each person briefly described his or her experience and areas of expertise. I reviewed the paperwork on each team member and then huddled up with one of my key managers to draw a table of organization. Read the rest of this entry »

Helping People Help

March 19, 2011

During a disaster, people respond to human suffering by wanting to help. They want to do something. If possible, they want to provide some form of tangible support.

This week I received an e-mail from a high school girl wanting my help in organizing a collection of bottled water that could be shipped to the people in Japan affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Many people also called or e-mailed our offices with similar requests.

Some organizations rally public support and garner media attention by organizing collections of water, canned goods or clothes. People who participate feel good about themselves and what they’ve done. They don’t realize that their efforts are not always the best way to help the people they want to help.

It may sound mercenary, but I usually tell people that the best way to help is through financial support. I’ll admit it felt a little cold when I read my own quote in this morning’s newspaper. Yesterday I was talking with a reporter about how much the American Red Cross has raised for the people in Japan, and he wrote:

Duane Hallock, director of marketing and communications for the group’s Kansas City chapter, said the Red Cross was focusing on financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.

To me, that felt cold because it eliminated the human element. In reality, the Red Cross is focused on helping the suffering people who will benefit from the financial support of generous and compassionate Americans.

I was pleased to continue reading, though, and see that my colleague at the Salvation Army explained that they also prefer support through financial donations because of the prohibitive cost of shipping goods as far as Japan.

In our 130 years of experience in providing disaster relief, we at the American Red Cross have learned a few things. We are not being greedy when when we say that financial support is often the best way to help. We have learned that when supplies need to be purchased, it’s usually best to buy them as close to the disaster operations as possible. Not only does that speed up the delivery, it also reduces the costs of shipping.

As a disaster unfolds, the needs of those affected can change quickly. It would be unfortunate, for example, to collect bottled water for people who needed medicine or other specific supplies. Financial support provides agility for the responding organization to better meet the immediate and changing needs.

In a disaster, the economy of the region will likely be hit hard. Sometimes purchasing needed supplies nearby can indirectly help to boost the economy of those affected by the disaster.

In my job with the American Red Cross, I see the outpouring of love and support from my neighbors and friends. I am truly touched by their compassion and generosity. As a good steward of donor dollars, though, I feel obligated to direct them to the channels where their desire to help can have the greatest benefit and where they can do the most good.

So let me close with a message I’ve shared many times during the past week:  You can help the people in Japan by going to redcross.org. You can also make a $10 contribution by texting REDCROSS to 90999.

On behalf of the people you will help, let me say, “Thank you!

Day 16 – Collaboration with National Leaders

October 27, 2010

Engage in interactive conversations with my national leaders.

Our national headquarters in Washington D.C. is staffed by a solid team of marketing and communications leaders who “know their stuff.”

Though I’ve only exchanged e-mails with our national president and CEO, Gail McGovern, I have great confidence in her leadership. I’m also proud of the fact that she left her position as a marketing professor at Harvard University to become our national leader. How cool is that!

Gail is surrounded by professionals who have a lot to share. I mostly interact with those who work in marketing, communications, public affairs and financial development.

Nationally, the Red Cross is becoming one seamless organization, much more so than any other major nonprofit I’m familiar with. I am pleased that our process of becoming “one Red Cross” does not feel like a top-down, dictatorial directive. Rather, it’s a highly-interactive process led by our national leaders. We connect using frequent conference calls, webinars and training sessions. Project leaders solicit considerable input from the field.

As we move forward, I’m eager to continue interacting with people I like and respect.

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