There Is an "I" in Self-Improvement

External challenges unify us.  But the need for personal improvement never stops.

Over the last several weeks, many nonprofits have reached out to me with reports on how their technology programs—and by proxy their technology directors—are performing during this period of external crisis and fully remote operations.  After talking with more than a handful of executives across the nation, I’ve binned responses into two categories:

  • If the technology director had been succeeding, things seem to be great.
  • If the technology director had been struggling, things seem to be great.

Never one to believe in magic, I’ve been trying to figure out whether the industry has been blessed by a miracle or overcome by Pollyannaism.  My conclusion is neither.

Whenever I sit down with an executive who’s struggling, or a management team that is confounded by the subpar performance of a director, I articulate three kinds of challenges:

  1. Internal challenges we face
  2. External challenges partially in our control
  3. External challenges out of our control

Consider a CTO at an urban school operating within a nine-story building.  He leads an understaffed, underperforming team of three, and when he gets in front of faculty his presentations are obtuse and uninspiring.

1. Internal challenge: His lack of proficiency as a trainer and public speaker.  The good news for him is that those skills can be improved, and doing so is fully in his control.  The bad news is just that: he alone must want to get better and then put in the grueling effort to do so.

2. External challenge partially in his control: The subpar performance of the department.  He is ultimately responsible for the annual evaluation, performance plan, and professional development of each direct report.  Additionally, he can lobby senior management for additional positions or personnel changes.  However, realizing employee growth and a staff augmentation is not fully in his control, so to achieve lasting improvement he needs to convince others to both buy into his plan and then execute.

3. External challenge out of his control: The nine-story building.  There’s nothing he or anyone else can do about it.  He can deflect blame on the narrow staircases and slow elevators that hinder responding to top-floor emergencies.  But at the end of the day the physical plant isn’t going to change—so management doesn’t want to hear that excuse too often.

When a leader is struggling, two things are commonplace.  Management often gravitates toward category one challenges, while that leader tends to focus on category three challenges.  Stalemates are not uncommon.  With a little luck, both camps might work together on category two issues—but even that is nontrivial.

So what’s going on right now with all those technology programs that previously struggled and are now suddenly humming?  Without a doubt, as the world tackles this crisis many differences have been set aside.   Almost everyone has rallied together and made personal and professional sacrifices for the common good.

But lest we forget: our shortcomings haven’t gone away.  Rather, we are all hyper-focused on a common category two challenge requiring everyone’s attention.  It’s as if our urban school has collectively decided that nine-stories are now intolerable and change must occur.  If the entire faculty started demolishing walls and pipes, would anyone really notice a copier jam on the eighth floor?

We see this effect in other fields, most notably politics.  National leaders who struggle with domestic relations will sometimes leverage foreign affairs—usually via an external enemy—to rally support at home.  Indeed, entire wars have unified populations and aligned previously hostile nations—albeit temporarily.

But that’s the key word: temporary.  When the external challenge subsides—by defeat or otherwise—internal issues that never really went away reclaim the headlines.  And sometimes levels of frustration with those historic challenges are exacerbated in light of the harmonious climate that just evaporated.

Make no mistake: what we are all doing now is natural and correct.  We have come together to address a true world crisis.  We’ve set aside smaller problems to focus on the big picture.  We need to unify and work cohesively and collaboratively.

The moral is simply that we must all be prepared for another transition.  That day will come sooner than we think, likely before the enemy’s defeat.  Indeed, once we find ways to adapt, this crisis will slowly feel more like a category three challenge—something requiring workarounds as much as new solutions.  Eventually we’ll turn our attention back to pesky copiers and training sessions—with a critical eye.  This “new normal” will require “old commitments” to personal growth.  Are you ready?

Subscribe to the newsletter

Our weekly newsletter, Insights, shares articles, tips, and job announcements for nonprofit and educational leaders!