Strategically Sequencing the Engagement of Great Thinkers

At The Fedcap Group, whenever we are contemplating a new idea to solve a problem, we are deliberate in our approach.

We begin by gathering the most optimistic, creative, positive people both internal and external to the agency. They are invited for their optimism, their confidence that new ideas can work, their belief in all that is possible. We pose a series of clear, bold, and penetrating questions intended to drive new learning and discovery. We spend a lot of time framing the questions. At this phase, we are much less interested in getting to the right answer than we are asking the right questions.

And then we invite these creative thinkers to go at it—building on each other’s ideas and inspired by the idea that we really can change the world. There is little more exciting than a group of positive thinkers who believe in the power of unseen and untested solutions.

Once an idea is formed, we then invite another group of smart, creative people into the room. But this time, we invite people we know to be the pragmatists—the realists—who will argue with us, identify the flaws in our thinking, pose many questions, and who will help us identify the pitfalls and risks we might not have considered in our initial enthusiasm. All too often, people can overestimate the benefit of an idea or a project or a solution, but then underestimate the cost or consequence of whatever it is that we are proposing to do.

The order of invitations matters. I have learned the hard way that you never invite the pragmatists to the first meeting—they will stop the creative flow. And in the second meeting, you need to guard against letting the optimists drown out the voices of those who see legitimate risks.

Good problem-solving needs both. I believe that the strongest organizations possess the internal and external connections to solve important societal problems.

I am lucky in that I work alongside a team of extraordinary thinkers who help me lead and who inspire the best thinking of all of us. Together, I think of us as a team of realistic optimists, knowing that we share one thing in common—a commitment to sustainable and relevant impact and a commitment to the Power of Possible.


Critical Thinking: Unpacking Our Biases

Recently, I was presenting to our Leadership Academy Class on the topic of critical thinking.  I thoroughly enjoy these discussions with up and coming leaders within our organization.

The discussion was rich and full of wonderful exchange.  I am always curious about happens when one takes a step back and truly assesses one’s own thinking. It is a fascinating process and it is a commitment to bringing a “beginner’s mind” to every situation.

One of the most compelling parts of the conversation was around the topic of bias.

We all carry biases and prejudices with us   They come from our upbringing, from our culture, from our education, and from our experiences. Many people think of bias and prejudice as a bad thing—something to be eliminated.  Not only do I think that is impossible, but I believe it misses the point.  We are not a blank slate—hopefully we have had a life of learning, of contemplation, of reflection that has formed a lens for how we see the world.

What is imperative is that we understand our biases and how they act as a filter, sorting the value of information and ideas according to our frame of reference. For the most part, people hate cognitive dissonance.  They reject information that does not align with their understanding of the world.  Once we know this about ourselves, this should open our eyes to the likelihood that if biases go unchecked, we might end up missing vital information. Critical thinkers are loathe to make decisions without vital information.

I shared with the class that while I have several very intentional approaches to informing my biases, one of my most effective is to ask many, many, strategic and pointed questions.  Anyone who has spent any time with me knows that when they present an idea to me, the time will be filled with answering questions.  This is because when I hear information, it naturally falls into my framework (fraught with missing information), and questions help me acquire a level of understanding that is required to make an informed decision.  This process is at the heart of my approach to critical thinking.

How do you assess your thinking? How are you at your own metacognition? What do you have yet to learn to help you think better about your thinking? As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Mitigating Risk: Eliminating Collective Lethargy

Disasters often happen because of limits to the human imagination.  As such keeping an open mind is a critical quality of good risk management.

–Mike Lutomski, Former NASA Risk Manager

In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia suffered a horrible loss. After what was deemed a successful mission, the shuttle unexpectedly exploded upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew were killed. It was a terrible disaster.

In retrospect, and after significant, transparent analysis, it was clear that the accident was the result of a technical issue.  It was also determined to be part of a cultural issue at NASA. What had seemed to be a minor problem—some pieces of loose foam—was dismissed as trivial and a waste of time and money to address.   To call out the issue would have meant raising an irritating flag and so no one spoke up.

This is an example of what can happen in any organization—I call it  “collective lethargy.” This is where those who know that we may be doing something that is not in our best interest—or worse—that we’re doing something that will put us at huge risk—say nothing.

The only way to combat collective lethargy is to instill risk management as a positive and active consideration in everyone’s job—no matter what level of the organization.

Some might suggest that incorporating risk management at every level is too complex. However, I see it as a function of culture and the result of great curiosity. I ask the staff at The Fedcap Group to consider three ways to incorporate risk management into their daily lives:

First: fix it! We are all stewards of the organization. We need to be proud of it as it reflects each and every one of us. If there is trash in the hallway, we don’t wait for a custodian’s shift to clean it up. We pick it up.  If we see water on the floor, we wipe it up.   We own it. If we see someone who needs help—even though it’s not our job necessarily to greet them, we help them.

Second: create a risk profile.  A risk profile at its best is full-on scenario planning. What is the best case in the operation of this program? What is the worst case? What are the factors I can’t see in front of me? What are the consequences of those factors? What has happened in the past that I should be aware of?  This is where our imagination must come into play. There is no scenario not worth considering.

Third: go where you need to go to be heard. If you feel that you are not being heard for some reason, then raise the issue again, and again until you are heard. Imagine if one of the technicians at NASA who was worried about those pieces of foam had pushed harder.

And, mitigating risk every single day—means bringing our best integrity and execution to our work—being proud of what we do and proud to be part of an organization that every day is changing and improving the lives of those we serve.

Striving for Excellence: A Lesson in Courage

Excellence is a moment-by-moment way of life.

–Tom Peters


Any leader worth her or his salt will tell you that they strive for excellence. In conversations with many people about the concept of excellence, I have discovered that some leaders will equate excellence with perfection. And yet, we all know that there is no such thing as perfection. But there is such a thing as excellence. It is, as organizational guru Tom Peters has said, a moment-by-moment way of life. It is ever-changing and ever growing. It is the best mechanism for dealing with ongoing and often, overwhelming, change. And excellence is contagious.

Just how do we inspire excellence in ourselves and in our teams and those we serve? How do we encourage dedication to a shared and bold commitment to solving tough problems? How do we remember to revisit yesterday’s idea of excellence, to know for certain that it will be very different from today’s?

Striving for excellence—and “attaining” it—lies in ongoing acts of courage.

The courage to pursue excellence begins with building a bold, crisp, and clear vision that reflects a common and agreed-upon set of values. That vision is met with organizational strategies and structures to hold it in place. Excellence is built when a leader will truly listen to points-of-view other than her own and question habitual thinking and familiar patterns. Excellence is built on taking risks that might mean failure—and having mechanisms and structures in place that will keep the organization safe in the face of total course correction if it becomes necessary. Excellence means standing firm for what we believe in—and understanding that criticism is a by-product of that stance. Courage requires standing steady. And excellence requires us to have the courage to be willing to dive into the mess and to state, unequivocally: this is how it’s going to be.

Only by flexing these muscles of courage and by building them day in and day out will we truly be able to solve the problems we set out to solve every day. Anything short of excellence lands us in a place of mediocrity and falling short of honoring the integrity of those who support us and those we serve.

My job is to call for excellence, to model the courage I require, and to ensure that the strategies and structures are in place to uphold our agreed-upon vision. It is only by aspiring to a new excellence every day, by calling forth the courage to take risks and model both strategic and practical integrity, will we enliven and realize the Power of Possible.

Leadership as a Value: Doing What’s Right

On this celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded and once again inspired by his simple, yet profound statement: The time is always right to do what is right.

As a leader, people are counting on me to make smart, well-thought-out, and consequential decisions—to do the right thing. I am responsible to our staff, our funders, the people we serve, our board, and to the public at large. And so, every day, I ask myself: Am I doing the right thing?  I have the responsibility to make decisions every day, and with that comes the responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

I have always believed that leadership is an evolution of thought, of skill, of insight.  I don’t believe that there is such a thing as finally “arriving” at leadership competence. I can’t imagine what that could possibly look like.  It is certainly not a role, nor a title.  The longer I am a leader, the more I become convinced that leadership competence is most clearly characterized by how accurately one assesses a situation.  The depth of the questions, the understanding of the situational nuances such as cultural constructs, politics, social constraints, and logistics—when understood—lead to smart, or at least smarter, decisions.

Some leaders believe that their job is to seek consensus. That has never been my focus.  People can come to consensus around the wrong answer. Once again, I am reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr, who said: A genuine leaders is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.  By creating a process where people are driven to work toward the right answer, not simply agreement, there is a stretching of vision, of minds and hearts.   There is an excitement.  There is the possibility of doing the right thing—more than we ever could imagine.  We actually make a real difference–eliminating poverty, inequity, stigma.

And so, as we celebrate one of the world’s greatest leaders this week, I invite all of us—no matter what role we play, wherever we work—to heed his timeless and profound advice: The time is always right to do what is right.

Creating Structure to Support Aspirational Design

The Fedcap Group is made up of an alliance of individual organizations, with a common mindset of aspirational innovation and vision—working to solve and not just serve problems. We are working to build an overarching organizational culture, strategy and structure that support this vision.  Innovation around creating aspirational outcomes that fundamentally improve outcomes doesn’t just happen. There needs to be a framework to test and refine discrete practices and measure impact, disrupting systems and distribution models.

This structure is manifested throughout every internal and external factor of our work. We ask ourselves essential questions. Whether we are on the front lines of service, or in the supportive roles of corporate services, we follow a critical thinking pathway that includes:

What problems do we want to solve?

What specific outcomes we want to improve?

What do we know about where in the service pathway outcomes might be impacted?

What kinds of precise interventions, intentionally sequenced might change the outcomes? 

How can we engage funders in partnering with us to test these innovations? 

Aligning our culture and our structure around aspirational innovation is a deliberate and intentional process. When we gather the leadership of The Fedcap Group, these are the important conversations that inspire and motivate us all.

How do you ensure that your culture, your strategies and your structure advance your macro, aspirational goals?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Opioid Crisis Impact on Life Expectancy: What The Fedcap Group is Doing to Change This Story

On November 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data that reflects a declining trend in life expectancy in the United States. According to the Washington Post, which reported the data on November 29, the trend represents the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan at birth in a century. The last decline was during the period of 1915 to 1918, the result of casualties of World War I and the pandemic flu.

The two biggest factors contributing to the decline in life expectancy are drug overdoses and suicide.

As we know, the opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions. We also know the healthcare industry cannot yet keep up with the treatment needs of those suffering with substance use disorder. Advances have been made around acute care via treatments such as Narcan, the proven antidote to heroin/fentanyl overdose. But statistics prove that those rescued by Narcan continue their habit, strangled by its addictive hold. The problem is far from solved.

Here at the Fedcap Group, we create strategies, systems, and structures to solve some of society’s biggest problems. The opioid crisis is, of course, among these problems. Through Granite Pathways, our groundbreaking company in New Hampshire, we are creating precise interventions that not only have a proven impact on the lives of those in recovery, but we have also created a replicable model that can—and will—work to help improve the lives—and life expectancy—of those with substance use disorder throughout the nation—and the world.

We just opened a residential treatment center for youth and young adults in Manchester, New Hampshire.  This center—the first of its kind in the state—will provide an array of clinical, educational and work readiness services to help stabilize program participants who will then transition to longer term recovery supports.

At Safe Harbor, Granite Pathway’s recovery center located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, our approach is not a “one and done” solution to a moment of crisis. Our approach is a long-term, holistic approach to not only help an individual recover from substance use disorder, but also to rebuild his or her life through building long-term life skills, job readiness, and most importantly connection to those who understand and see them without judgment and without a timeline.

Our recovery coaches work alongside those just leaving treatment. Coaches are peers who have both the experience and the resources to best relate to those in crisis. They’ve been through what the sufferer has been through, and they have successfully recovered. And their work is making a huge difference in the long-term recovery of those we serve.

At the Fedcap Group we are committed to finding solutions and to increasing the life expectancy data nationwide.

Effective Implementation: Can It Be Done?

As the leader of The Fedcap Group, an ever-growing network of non-profit agencies, it is my job to ensure that we are credible, accountable, and responsible to our boards, staff, donors and funders.   And, we do not want to be a part of the well-researched statistic that tells us that 75% of the time, businesses—both for-profit and non-profit—fall short of delivering on their strategy—due to poor implementation..

What gets in the way of implementation? And how do we do it better?

Research tells us there are three key issues that get in the way of successful implementation and that these issues are also at the heart of improved implementation: organizational leadership, structure, and culture.

At The Fedcap Group, we are working to improve and ultimately excel in each of these areas. We talk about it, we disagree about it, we find solutions, and we solve problems together.

Finding top talent to effectively implement strategy is challenging in this current market.   We have to work hard to be considered a premier employer and then equally as hard to ensure that we our outreach and recruitment strategies outpace other premier employers.  We are currently in the process of redefining our leadership characteristic, our job descriptions, our recruitment interviewing and onboarding strategies to make certain that we find and keep the best of the best.

We also need smart and effective structures in place to advance the precision of the work. My staff hear me say all the time: Good people fail in the absence of structure. In fact, organizations fail all the time because of the absence of structure.  Goals, Strategy to advance the goals and Structure to advance the strategy are three effective implementation.  We require that all of our leadership staff are trained and skilled in mapping process—and know how to build structure. At The Fedcap Group we have embraced the concept of a cube.  Advancing the work of our companies by leveraging the national expertise and program models of our practice area leaders, through regional framework supported and sustained through Corporate Services.

Finally, culture as we all know, is said to eat vision for lunch.  Each year, we bring our leadership together in person at least three times. These gatherings are a large investment of time and talent and resources, and worth it. They help to build the culture of the agency.   Here we set the tone, we seek to inspire, to motivate and we work to build a cohesive way of driving change.  We have also instituted a Leadership Academy, Brown Bag Lunches, Fed Talks and a variety of new employee engagement initiatives to support our culture building efforts.

It is through this collaborative leadership, structure, and culture that we are building the kind of organization that effectively implements—meeting the promise of board, staff, donors and funders.

How do you implement effectively?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Working Toward Full Inclusion and Equity

Today, December 3rd, marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities as first proclaimed by the United Nations General Counsel in 1992. Fifteen percent of the world’s population—over one billion people—live with some type of disability. The theme of this year’s commemoration is: empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality.

The discussion around the theme of empowering persons with disabilities sparks conversations around the world about how best to do just that. Here at The Fedcap Group, we spend every day testing and implementing innovative strategies to change the life experience for people with disabilities. Our goal is to design and refine precise interventions to break through the barriers that interfere with an equal platform.

Through our many companies of The Fedcap Group, we break the process of “empowering” into specific, sustainable practices that can be replicated world-wide. These include innovative approaches to skill-building and employer-based training in high demand sectors, job placement, job coaching, and long-term career planning. Our efforts are fueled by partnerships with businesses and organizations who share our commitment to empowerment. This is the work that has propelled us forward throughout our 80+ year history.

Key to being on the foreground of system change is asking the question WHAT ELSE? While we have come a long way, what else can we do to break down barriers for those with disabilities? What else can we do to create access and equity?  What else can we do to eliminate stigma?

Sometimes it starts with us.  What do we believe about the capacity of people with disabilities to work in competitive employment settings?  Are there any biases we hold that impact our ability to help a person with a disability dream big dreams?  As sad as it is, sometimes the helping profession is an unwitting ally to those who would segregate.

Sometimes it starts with families.  In our work with individuals with developmental disabilities, from time to time we meet families who are fearful of having their adult child enter the competitive workforce, because they fear their loved one may be subjected to ridicule or embarrassment.  And the truth is they might be.  Helping families see the importance of their child taking a risk, making their way in the world, feeling pride in earning a paycheck overcomes the fear.

Sometimes it starts with business.  Businesses are interested in making a profit.  And they are interested in community engagement.  The Fedcap Group partners with over 6000 businesses across the country.  While in the beginning businesses may be skeptical, we find that our business partners are delighted by both the productivity and the spirit and work ethic that people with disabilities bring to the workplace. We have heard time and again that the presence of those with a disability raises the caliber of the culture and the integrity of the workforce around them.

What is your approach to working with those with disabilities? What are the “what else can we do” questions that you are considering in order to achieve equity and inclusion?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.