What to Make of the Wizard of Oz

We all know by now that there was really no wizard, even if he did keep Oz in thrall for quite a while. He was just a man behind a curtain with a bunch of gadgets, some flame-throwers, and a microphone.

Yet, in the last scene of The Wizard of Oz, he does, indeed, perform some magic.

The scene begins with Scarecrow demanding, “But what about the heart that you promised Tin Man, and the courage you promised Cowardly Lion?!” The Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion then chime in, in unison, “and Scarecrow’s brain!”

Without missing a beat, the Wizard proceeds to produce three totems: a diploma conferring an honorary degree of ThD (Doctor of Thinkology) for the Scarecrow from the ‘Universitatus Commitiatum E Pluribus Unum;” a Triple Cross medal from the “Legion of Courage” for the Cowardly Lion; and a heart-shaped clock for the Tin Man.

Upon receiving his piece of paper, the Scarecrow recites the Pythagorean Theorem from memory. Upon being pinned with his medal, the Lion, miraculously, feels brave. The Tin Man’s ticking heart makes him believe in his capacity to love.

What happened in that moment of official conferral in which an object and a story from a “wizard” made them each believe in something that was within them all along?

More confusing still, what do we make of the Wizard who gave them trinkets that transformed the stories they told themselves about themselves, and which, therefore, transformed how they showed up in the world?  Is he a pure charlatan or, as he claims, “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”

And, before we get too far down the path of asking whether placeboes really work, let’s remind ourselves that every degree or fellowship or job title is nothing more or less than conferring of an official title and set of expectations, and these things are no more or less real than Scarecrow’s fake degree.

Sure, some of these things – degrees from prestigious schools, time spent working at blue chip firms – do communicate that we’ve gone through rigorous selection criteria, been exposed to certain curricula or training, been socialized in a particular way, and jumped through other sorts of hoops. But it is far too easy to get lulled into the belief that each rung up the ladder of life requires us to be picked by someone else. While it’s true that each prestigious marker that we collect opens certain doors, it’s a siren’s song to be tricked into believing that it is someone else’s job to decide when you are worth praise, recognition, and the right to lead.

I’ve known too many amazing people in the social sector who need “just one more” degree, fellowship, or job in a fancy mainstream firm, after which they’ll finally have everything they need to make the difference they hope to make in the world.

The truth is that the opportunities for you to lead are too many and too urgent, the gatekeepers often don’t know what to look for, and what makes the most difference is that terrifying moment when you realize that the important stuff doesn’t come after you get your next medal, piece of paper or ticking heart: it’s already there inside of you.

That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

Success

So often we toil away for months or even years to hit the markers for success we’ve laid out for ourselves. 

Often when we arrive we end up disappointed. We had focused so much on the toiling and the achieving without ever having figured out, in the first place, the “why” behind it all. 

What would have happened if, at the outset, we had imagined what exactly we’d do – who we’d be and what steps we’d take next –  when we hit those markers. What would have napped if we’d pre-imagined our success, been sure that we could pull it off, and planned from there?

Better yet, what would have happened if we hadn’t been so quick to accept anyone else’s markers?

Impresario fundraising

It’s very easy for fundraisers to forget that they have a superpower.

The best fundraisers are network hubs, people who build strong relationships and who make change happen by connected trusted people to meaningful opportunities to do good in the world.

And yet many fundraisers feel stuck. Stuck in a role that they might like (or that they are good at) but that feels too narrow. Stuck in a career path that doesn’t obviously lead to the top. Stuck hearing an unspoken story that the people who “really” do the work are someone other than them.

Here’s a playbook to get unstuck.

Recognize that the relationship currency you have invested in and built is an underutilized asset.

See that the funders you know and trust – and who know and trust you – nearly always feel like there’s more they could be doing in addition giving money.

Also see that there’s an important new set of things your organization could be doing if it had the right kind of capital to make that happen.

And realize, most importantly, that the story that’s been handed to you about what your organization is, and the boundaries around what it does and does not do in the world, is just that: a story.

Your opportunity is to reconfigure these resources in a new way. And it is YOUR opportunity because the hardest-to-acquire and most important pieces of this puzzle are the trust and relationship currency you and only you have with funders.

This is a trust that you can translate into a conversation that pulls together all of these pieces in new ways: trust that will get 10 funders into a room for a real brainstorming conversation; trust that gives you license to talk to folks internally about what they could do if they had new, different, more ambitious funders; trust that allows you to dream of new products that people could invest in, new structures that would allow you to take on more risk, new stories that could make sense of what your organization is and does, and new relationships that could actually change all of those things for the better.

Great new things happen because an existing set of relationships and ideas are brought together in new ways; because we discard old stories (of self, of our organizations, of how these pieces fit together) and dare to write new ones together.

The fundraising impresario is the person who picks herself, who sees the unique role she can play in painting a new picture of what is possible, and who takes the first steps to reassemble the puzzle pieces. She is a person who is willing to go out on a limb to host and curate the conversations that make crazy, new, important things happen. And she is the person who discovers, the moment she gets out on that limb, all the people who thank her and say, “finally, here’s something we can all get excited about!”

Seth Godin’s Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work

File under: Things I wish I had written & Things to print and have up on the wall.

The question this makes me ask is: is there ever a time that I’m not part of a small team? Is there ever a time when I’m not working on a tight deadline? Is there ever a time when the work isn’t important?

And, if no, then here are the rules of the road around communication, making and keeping promises, having a real Plan B, and keeping it personal, all while remembering not to question goodwill, effort or intent.

Thanks Seth.

A Manifesto for Small Teams Doing Important Work, by Seth Godin

We are always under tight deadlines, because time is our most valuable asset.

If you make a promise, set a date. No date, no promise.

If you set a date, meet it.

If you can’t make a date, tell us early and often. Plan B well prepared is a better strategy than hope.

Clean up your own mess.

Clean up other people’s messes.

Overcommunicate.

Question premises and strategy.

Don’t question goodwill, effort or intent.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” is not a professional thing to say. Describing and discussing in the abstract is what we do.

Big projects are not nearly as important as scary commitments.

If what you’re working on right now doesn’t matter to the mission, help someone else with their work.

Make mistakes, own them, fix them, share the learning.

Cheap, reliable, public software might be boring, but it’s usually better. Because it’s cheap and reliable.

Yesterday’s hierarchy is not nearly as important as today’s project structure.

Lock in the things that must be locked in, leave the implementation loose until you figure out how it can get done.

Mostly, we do things that haven’t been done before, so don’t be surprised when you’re surprised.

Care more.

If an outsider can do it faster and cheaper than we can, don’t hesitate.

Always be seeking outside resources. A better rolodex is better, even if we don’t have rolodexes any more.

Talk to everyone as if they were your boss, your customer, the founder, your employee. It’s all the same.

It works because it’s personal.

At their best

It’s difficult, in the swirl of the day-to-day of getting things done, for everyone in your organization to fully see each other.

What you can look out for, though, are moments of greatness, those glimpses of someone shining in ways only they can shine, delivering something that is truly exceptional.

This reminds us what to look out for, and it reminds us how to get noticed.

“Exceptional” “shining” and “greatness” don’t need to be flashy.

You can be exceptionally responsive, exceptionally amazing at hitting deadlines, exceptionally quick to help out a colleague.

You can shine at research, shine at learning new skills, shine at building relationships of trust that allow your organization to hear real feedback.

You can be great at collaboration, great at giving constructive feedback, and great at helping colleagues be courageous.

Go above and beyond in ways that make a real difference, expect that in yourself and in others, and always be on the lookout for glimpses of people at their best.

 

Tick tock

There’s no half hour longer than the one we spend waiting for something: our table to be ready, the show to start, the gun to go off.

We know this when it comes to the small things, but not the big ones.

So we’re content to sit back and wait for that next big project to land on our laps. We’re happy to cool our heels until we get promoted, because we believe the new title will get folks to listen to us in a new way.  We’re OK with holding court at the water cooler while we wait for our boss to figure out what we already know.

Speak up.  Act now.  Stop waiting.