Turbulent Times: CEOs Identify 2 Keys to Thriving

Insights & Reflections from a Recent Meeting of Top Minds

By Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

I recently had the opportunity to join a select group of chief leaders representing a broad swath of industries who were providing winning products and services both in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. 

The concept behind this CEO Consortium was to determine if there were commonalities among the focus and challenges of top leaders – none of whom had prior relationships with one another – and to identify themes or key strategies to take personal performance to the next level and help organizations thrive in this season of rapid change, disruption, and even volatility.

Personally, I was surprised at the continuity of what I heard across the board over the several days. As different as our organization’s output may be, the struggle leaders face is very similar. I’d argue that these are all important things to think deeply about today as leaders at all levels in an organization – not just folks in the “C Suite.”

First, a reason for gratitude

As I sat with leaders and discussed their unique ecosystems, honing-in specifically on and areas of focus and potential improvement, I was acutely aware that I was among peers of thriving organizations. I also was reminded that we are not alone at our companies or ministries while pursuing excellence and impact. Something I hear often, not only from our trusted partners and clients at BDI but in the business environment generally, is that this is a very challenging time – and success can be feast or famine. 

It makes me appreciative to have the challenges we do at BDI and to partner with you to navigate the same at your nonprofit. Today, it’s estimated that more than 5 million – yes, FIVE MILLION – businesses in America are on the bubble (of destruction), in rapid decline, and have a better than 60% chance of closing forever. Thank the Lord that none of us find ourselves in such dire straits.  

4 universal challenges CEOs identified   

As such, with “challenging” being a universal condition, the group asked: “How are we and our organizations matching up?  Are we having a harder or easier time than others?” 

What we concluded was that there were four challenges being experienced universally: 

  1. It is harder to communicate externally AND internally.
  2. It is harder to get products and services on time.
  3. It is harder to meet expectations of clients (and donors).
  4. And it is harder to make money (and receive support).

So, what is a progressive leader to do?

CEOs focus in on 10 key issues

In my experience, having the right questions and areas of focus can be far more impactful and productive than having the answers to a specific question at any given time.

These are the Top 10 Issues that many successful CEO leaders are focused on right now. Whether leading a for-profit, a nonprofit or a ministry, the thinking was more similar than you’d expect.

  1. How are you Managing Your Relational Solar System?

Who Is in your “Top 5”?   

Determine who are your:

  • Top 5 at your organization – Then who are the top 2 people?
  • Top 5 outside your organization – Then who are the top 2 people?
  • Top 5 in your personal life – Then who are the top 2 people?

–    When and how often should you change the prioritization of these relationships?

–    How are you connected to and in relationship with them?

–    What do you need/expect from them and they from you?  Do you both understand those expectations and needs?

  1. What are the 3 things that can or will impact you personally most?  Which things do you influence or impact or control the least?
  1. How are you Managing and Measuring Self-Driven KPI’s?

–    Personal Health: Physical and Mental

–    Work: Your Influence and Impact

–    Stakeholders in your Life: Your Relationships

  1. What are your sources of accurate change information?  How do you know or learn what industry-defining and influencing/regulating elements are in play?
  1. How to get and stay up on tax law changes (challenges and opportunities) as those changes occur rapidly and regularly? 
  1. What are you doing to address CEO’s greatest pain points today?

–    Succession-training and up-delegating

–    Leading in crisis, chaos, massive change

–    Costs up, profits down

–    Boards and staff looking for “CEO Messiahs” who have all the answers for today and a compelling vision for the future

–    Being a changing leader as leadership needs change. How much time, energy, and money to spend on keeping up and growing up vs. applying what you have and know?

  1. Where are you in the CEO Growth and Impact Cycles?  How long of a term of service is “long enough” to do 80% of what you’re capable of at an organization? When is staying too long bad for everyone?  When is not staying long enough destructive to leaders and to their careers?
  1. How do you get out of “doing” so much in or for your firm?  How do you delegate responsibilities for core functions in your business’ flow?  A true refined CEO should be additive to everything he/she is part of but a “structural” part of very little.  If you’re busy “doing” too much, you’re not busy thinking deeply.  You’ll have to “‘buy back” time to think.
  1. How do you become indispensable and replaceable at your firm – simultaneously – by design?  How do you add the most value in your own unique ways that stem from your experience… while not building a kingdom in your own engine that is fundamentally dependent on you, ever?
  1. If you can be loved/respected, or followed/obeyed, what’s most important to you and to your firm? Pick one. What more can you do to enhance the impact and value of that priority?

Without question, wrestling with these Top 10 Issues and their related questions can help leaders of all kinds focus on prioritization of values, make decisions about time investments, and improve their efficacy. 

Doing so will help in tackling the major challenges of communicating effectively, shoring up supply chains, meeting expectations, and generating support and profits that undergird impact and organizational success.

The 2 leadership pillars CEOs value most in turbulent times

Perhaps the most interesting thing I heard out of all the conversations was in fact related to the CEO’s consensus regarding the two most influential organizational traits required to overcome those 4 great challenges.  It wasn’t tactical pivoting.  It wasn’t innovative ideas.  It wasn’t even elevating performance.

It was COURAGE and AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP. When those are pervasive across an organization’s teams and are true about the culture, the winds of change are unlikely to blow you off course. PLUS, those are critical character-based qualities we can all work on to enhance right away… no matter the environmental conditions!

Finally, I also wanted to share a conversation I recently had with BDI’s Creative Director, Sarah Wallin.  As we downloaded my insights from the CEO Consortium, she reflected on how this connects directly to the realities we’re all facing serving in the nonprofit world in these challenging days.

“I had an interesting conversation with the Director of the Nonprofit Counseling Center that I sit on the Board for.  She was saying that this season post-pandemic had depleted her more than the actual year-plus when the pandemic swept the nation.

She talked of having no driving will to take bold leadership action, instead going through the motions of creating budgets, managing the staff, cutting the checks… but there was no energy to do anything more than ‘survive.’

When she realized it, she prayed and asked God to give her the will to be the Director the center needed again.  And as she prayed that prayer, she began feeling the passion and responsibility to not just get by, but to lead again.  It took those two same characteristics you spoke of – courage to pray and the will to lead – for her to step out of her doldrums.”

This is a great place to land today, I think.  My heart for you, as you press forward with commitment and a deep desire to serve well while stewarding your resources and the influence you yield, that you too are filled with the courage to pray, the energy and will to lead, and both a spirit of joy and appreciation to be engaged in such wildly meaningful and important work. 

It’s no small blessing to be shoulder-to-shoulder with good people with whom you share alignment of values.  I believe almost anything and everything is possible – in this any and every environmental climate – with these core principles and resources at your command.

I remain your advocate during these turbulent times. 

One last note: With humility, I’ll add one practical footnote to this discussion today. As I mentioned, the CEO Consortium meeting brought together leaders from 20 organizations that are based all over the country.  It was wonderful to really engage and get close with these folks. It ended and we went home to our families and businesses. But 14 out of 20 of us picked up a parting gift to share – a nasty strain of Covid. Ugh. What a painful reminder that still, regardless of how fatigued we are with masks and safety protocols, routine steps of prevention are a good investment. I’d say of myself and that wise group of CEOs – we just got too comfortable. Getting sick was very costly personally and professionally in terms of the interruption of our crazy lives and full schedules. Please – be safe out there!

Want more nonprofit inspiration from BDI? Check out our EVP Client Service Lolly Colombo’s recent article, “What Decreasing Donor Confidence Might Mean for Fall Fundraising” >>

  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is an accomplished marketing and media executive who has developed highly successful fundraising programs for faith-first charities and organizations across the U.S. and abroad. He brings more than 30 years of executive leadership in business and holds a master’s degree in Organizational Management and Marketing.

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