Noble Purpose Category

Front Foot NPOs?

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In the late noughties I was watching the box set of West Wing. It took quite a while. I was impressed by the dynamic of the way the White House team worked for and with President ‘Jed’ Bartlett.

Having viewed quite a few episodes one weekend I came up with an alliteration I quite liked: how the team from CJ to Josh, from Leo to Sam was fast and focused, with some fun at times as well. There was lots of feedback to each other (even if it wasn’t wanted!), yet this forthright way of working was quite forgiving too (at least to those in the team).

I called this the features of the Front Foot Organisation (FFO). Over the coming months we developed the initial ideas into a set of actions to help achieve these characteristics – actions to achieve greater direction, momentum, co-ordination and balance within a team or organisation. We provided an assessment and even applied the FF idea to the family as part of a talk for fathers and sons at a school I was working with.

The FFO idea has proved to be one of the most popular and enduring of idenk ideas since first outlining it in 2008. Despite the fact that the genesis of the ‘front foot’ idea is unclear (though it is rooted in sports and even politics) it has a broad face validity and is widely used. You regularly hear how people want to put their ‘best foot’ forward, not be on the ‘back foot’, avoid being ‘wrong footed’. Our feet are in our mouths, literally!

I truly believe that each and every Noble Purpose enterprise should be a FFO. People who join them certainly expect them to be. The standard we assume is high – very high. However, often Noble Purpose Organisations are far from beacons of front footedness.. And when that happens, as we have noted, expectations are dashed and cynicism grows.

The CEO or Director of an NPO is actually their ‘chief culture officer’. The ideas on the FFO provide a handy checklist for that senior person to start working on the awareness, alignment, attitudes needed. They provide pointers about what to tolerate and what to hold firm on.

Social workers use a simple acronym to think about what to do ‘upstream’ to achieve the results that are needed when working with a young person. For example, when supporting a child in care they try to consider any Antecedents to observed challenging Behaviour and the negative Consequences that can result for a child and those helping them.

The Front Foot ideas offer some pointers to Antecedent Actions that leaders can use to get the outcomes they want. Results that achieve the purpose of the NPO.


NPO: The A List

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A recap:
– Working in Noble Purpose Organisation can be much harder than imagined.
– Though when it works, the experience is hugely rewarding for those working in the organisations as well as those served.
– There is a real potential for disillusionment and cynicism from frustrated expectations.
– This experience of challenge (and uncertainty) can lead to burnout and the tolerating of poor practices.
– Leading NPOs are very hard management ‘gigs’, requiring the most skilled team and organisational leaders.

The A list?

The things to keep checking on and working towards
– The necessary Alignment: agreement about direction and priorities. Between strategy and operations; between divisions; between organisational and personal priorities.
– The appropriate Attitudes: that the desired behaviours are clearly spelt out, embodied by senior staff and reinforced in who is hired (and fired), rewarded (or warned), promoted (and demoted).
– The need for Accountable Autonomy: encouraging initiative, within the frameworks of Aligned purpose and suitable Attitudes.

And the critical A? Building Awareness of what is expected, and how that fits (or doesn’t) with personal motivations and goals, from the philanthropic to the those for personal gain. Spending time talking about some of the tensions and issues is at the heart of this. Hearing what others have to say. Examining the experiences of working in a NPO. Building a culture of supervision and mentoring? Stepping back from ‘fire-fighting’ – and avoiding ‘navel gazing’. Keep learning.

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NPO – the upside

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Whilst there can be disillusionment and burnout and pain in Noble Purpose Organisations, I have had two conversations just this week that illustrate the potential, the upsides too.

One friend has recently joined a national mental health charity. She is hugely impressed with the systems and procedures so everyone knows what is expected of them. Some of the features she has experienced in other NPO jobs (eg ignored poor performance, erratic sickness leave) are clearly checked. She is happy, and reports her colleagues are, despite their pressured jobs.

I met someone else a couple of days ago. A nurse, nearing 60, working part time on a busy ward in a teaching hospital. She is independently wealthy and has many other interets, but is not planning to retire. Why? She loves the work and the patients (the purpose). And critically, I think, because she has fantastic colleagues on the same ward every time. They support each other to do the right thing in frequently trying circumstances.

This links to the “NPO A list” (see next time).

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Leading NPO

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I have assumed, and so have others, that the task of managing teams in Noble Purpose Organisations should be quite easy. The combination of…

Powerful purpose
Passionate people

…is easily assumed to make things better, easier, more successful.

However, I truly believe that leading NPOs requires more fully honed leadership skills as:

– Staff expectations are high (so there is further to fall)
– Many are hurt from previous experiences, so cynicism is not far from the surface
– Plus there are some co-workers with veiled ambitions: a few are only in it for the power and perks, or at least have come to be that way.

This heady mix of high motivation, high expectations, an element of burnout and overwhelming personal (or tribal) vested interests makes NPOs fascinating places – from the highly productive to the deeply toxic.

With this we turn back to the power of


Accountable Autonomy
Alignment and positive Attitudes

(to be continued…)


s=f(x) again

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Now for a non-Noble Purpose Organisation illustration…

On the way to the train station the other day, I suggested then promised to a friend, a bacon sandwich to take on our 3 hour journey.

The problem? The Cornish Pasty Company (a purveyor of surprisingly good bacon baps) had sold out.

Pain and frustration where only 15 minutes earlier there was none.

s = f(x).

Satisfaction is a function of expectation.

How much more so in an Noble Purpose Organisation.

Cynicism is a function of expectation.

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Expectation vs cynicism management in NPO

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In my discussions and presentations about Noble Purpose Organisations, I am keen to be a positive help. I am happy to engage with cynicism but don’t want to fan its flames.

Why engage with cynicism? As I have outlined here I do see cynicism as a buffer between stress and burnout in NPO. Scratch a cynic and you regularly find someone who’s heart has been broken or their high hopes dashed.

However, cynicism isn’t something that helps us live fulfilling lives or do great work.

This balance between helping and making things worse is a hard one.

Take this example, from a few years ago:

I see the group of new recruits through the window of the seminar room.
I join them for a morning.
They are new to the NHS from commerce.
Already managers there. Wanting to be leaders here.
Buoyed up with excitement at the chance to make a difference.
Now weeks later, their hearts are heavy. They are pretty sad and down.
At the politics (small p), rudeness, disinterest, unkindness…
I explain my ideas on NPO. They are not alone.
That seemed to help.
But now to find the next step.
I hope I left them inspired to act.

How did I do?
Maybe the score was
Positive helping 1 : Fanning the flames of cynicism 1


An example of shattered expectations in an NPO

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Bob, is a well-qualified clinician in his thirties. He has wanted to help development work overseas since a teenager.

He has been waiting for THE job. In an organisation doing the most important work. Somewhere that would be a joy to work for.

And then he got it.

In one of world’s leading development charities.

But Bob became deeply unhappy with what he considered the personal empire building amongst some of his colleagues plus some of the narrow rules and systems that seemed designed to control the many motivated middle level staff.

So he left. Disillusioned. Almost burnout. Definitely dispirited and pretty cynical.

There are at least two interpretations to this sad tale.

First, Bob doesn’t like fitting in – as a ‘true believer’ he sees himself as highly motivated and wanting the space to determine his own priorities. Others in the organisation, especially those more senior or long toothed, know the value of management systems in these difficult roles as a way of holding to account young, self-centred idealists.

Second maybe Bob was just overwhelmed by the self-interest of others, just as he said. Frued is reported to have said in the cliché: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

Knowing him (and the organisation), I think the it is probably latter. Others might say former.

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NPO, TLA and s=fx

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Two TLA  so far in this series. And this is only the second post.

So here is another, sort-of, three letter acronym – and I think the most important.

s = fx

Actually this is a bit of a formula.

It should probably be: s= f(x)

That is, satisfaction is a function of expectation.

I believe that when looked at in a variety of ways (be it a theory, framework or assessment), noble purpose organisations perform much like any other institution or outfit. Neither better or worse. Leadership, team and individual performance is on a spectrum from the stellar to the spectacularly disappointing. Much like other places. From heart-warming and hopeful to a real headache and source of ‘heart sink’ feelings.

I have run many assessments with groups from Noble Purpose Organisations. The pattern of results is similar to those from other sectors and places: for example, in one assessment based on Lencioni’s work there is often an avoidance of conflict and accountability. I have found familiar findings with the idenk wheel assessment I have been using since 2006: the scores with this regularly show meetings are far from productive, whilst poor performance and behaviours are not tackled.

So if NPOs are similar to other types of workplace, what is the problem?

This is where the ‘x’ comes in. s=f(x). Satisfaction is a function of expectation. If we go to a see a film or eat in a restaurant others have raved about, our threshold for disappointment gets lower – we are more easily frustrated and more easily dismayed.

When people enrol with a NPO they expect something better, much better. In joining a charity or part of the public services youngsters fresh into the workforce, or mid-career staff looking for a change, or volunteers looking to be helpful, all expect one thing: that is the organisation is deserving of their commitment; ways of working are worthy of the purpose; there is agreement about what needs to be done and how it should be achieved.

When these features are not there to any greater degree (and possibly co-exist in equal measure with politics, jobsworth-ishness, personal ambition etc), then hearts get broken. Ideals are shattered. Stress increases. Cynicisms spreads. Burnout brews.

The NPO Paradox (see the previous blog) is encountered.

So, what can we do about it?

I argue a first step is to acknowledge this problem: that we are expecting so much of our peers and places of work. Only then is it possible to do something about it. And that something might lead to expectations being surpassed, in quite dazzling ways.

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NPO? Here we go…On the way, to the Triple A?

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Today I start a series of blogs on Noble Purpose Organisations.

The world of worthy work can be perplexing. They can be hard teams to lead, not easy places to work in. And yet…they can provide a way to achieve some of the most beneficial gains for humanity and the planet.

In my pamphlet from earlier this year, building on my earlier post, I define the range of organisations (from small charities to the fairtrade arms of major multi-nationals) and describe how:

“the common feature in many Noble Purpose Organisations (NPOs) is what I call the ‘Noble Purpose Paradox’. In a nutshell, it is a pattern that not only bewilders and frustrates long serving managers but also comes as a shock to new recruits. Why is it that the more compelling the mission, the more tricky it can be to get the best collaborative behaviours and the necessary focused action? And how can some places that are trying to achieve the most crucial and needed changes to the world we live in can be so riven with petty politics and driven by individuals sometimes ruthlessly pursing their own agendas?”

Do you recognise that? In this case, this series is for you. If this doesn’t echo your experience, please do challenge me!

I don’t want to come over too negative or bleak: my aim for this series is to be an encouragement. I will raise some challenging issues – but mainly as questions for further research and reflection. Overall, I want to provide ideas for action. Ideas to inspire…

So, getting going – his is my version of the Triple A rating.

A quick test…do you think your team or organisation
1) Has clearly Aligned staff?
2) With an embodiment of the Attitudes that you are promoting more widely (eg care, learning)?
3) And an Awareness and acceptance that not everyone has to see things the same way?

I am going to guess that 1 and 2 are hard.

However, for me the key place to start is at 3: exploring how people see things differently. Asking what others see – not advocating a point of view. My recent business briefing provides some pointers.

Once that sort of curiosity is in place it is possible to pursue a balance that is at the heart of positive working experiences and outcomes in NPO. I believe truly excellent results come when staff have the autonomy to follow their passion and use their initiative – whilst working within the systems of accountability to guide that energy. That balance brings us back to the leadership work needed to ensure aligned action (1) and appropriate attitudes (2).

[To be continued!]


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