Cultivating a Strategic Thinking Habit

Cultivating a Strategic Thinking Habit

I love to scratch things off the to-do list. It is tempting (and easy) to deal with what’s directly in front of me—I feel accomplished and as if I have actually executed on something and achieved it. And then it’s on to the next thing.

Scratching tasks off the list is great, but as a leader, I know I need to be spending the majority of my time thinking strategically—and doing things that are most strategic for my organization. To be a strategic leader and thinker, and to lead other strategic leaders and thinkers, there are a few key traits I try to cultivate and that I look for in my leadership team. These are not necessarily traits that can be easily scratched off a list.

The first is critical thinking. Critical thinking means challenging the status quo and basically questioning everything. It means looking at the root cause of whatever problem needs to be solved and asking how it became a problem in the first place, why it is a problem, what the consequences are, and what the long-term results will be. It means flipping orthodoxies—meaning questioning even the most basic premise–and determining if there is a better way. It means being creative—often wild—in thinking beyond the boundaries of what is. No question is too much. No solution is too crazy (at least at first).

Another trait is the ability to anticipate. You don’t drive a car forward by looking in the rearview mirror. You look ahead and you look from side to side to see what is in your peripheral vision. The same is true as you think strategically. You look ahead—always—and you watch what’s coming around the corner. What are the political trends? What social trends are creating a force beyond your immediate vision? What is happening with the life of foundations that might affect your funding? What risks might you encounter that you haven’t yet anticipated?

A strategic leader also needs courage. This means anticipating and managing risk. It means naming the “elephant” in the room and bringing tough things to the surface. It means being willing to stand alone in a roomful of dissenters.

And a strategic leader needs to be willing to decide. It’s so easy to get caught up in “analysis paralysis.” By bringing together great critical thinking, well thought-out anticipation, and brave courage, decisions come more easily. And yes, sometimes the decisions will not be perfect so a strategic leader must be willing—and able—to pivot. And even if a decision is not perfect, it’s okay to move to a decision that is good enough.

What other characteristics do you think can help cultivate a strategic approach to leadership? As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Survival of the Adaptable

Survival of the Adaptable

There is an old adage about people who can’t, won’t, or have trouble with change: “Like the dinosaurs, they didn’t adapt…” And what happened to the dinosaurs that didn’t adapt? They were doomed to extinction.

With today’s complexity and rapid change in both the for-profit and the non-profits worlds, adaptability to change is at the top of the list of skills that are required to lead and to execute innovation and the work of the day. Without adaptability, extinction is a real possibility.

Adaptability to change is a skill. While there are some people who find it easy to embrace change, those who struggle with it can acquire the approach and the skills necessary to move forward—and to lead—change.

Being adaptable to change means first, recognizing any resistance you have to it. Resistance is natural, as change can challenge our feelings of competence, rearrange relationships, and make us uncomfortable. What if we reframe our mindsets? What if, instead of resisting change, we think of it in a different way: change is growth; change is learning; change is improvement. When I think of change in this way, I get excited: What can I learn that will help me know more and make better decisions? This way of thinking lessens the anxiety about negative consequences of what might happen in the absence of knowing, to a “what if” mindset. I become a great experimenter, knowing that some ideas will work and some will not. Either way, I’ve learned something new.

Second, that the key to being change-agile is to be willing to experiment—quickly, often, and in a way that doesn’t sap too many resources. In this way, pilots, rapid response teams, and innovation incubators become a significant piece of strategy, structure, and approach to growth and problem-solving. With this experimentation comes a mindset that ensures quick mobilization once a solution or an approach is deemed worthy of pursuit. Sometimes this might result in a process improvement or, it could result in an entire course correction. I choose not to be afraid of either of these outcomes as I know that change is most often for the better.

Third is, of course, identifying the risks with any approach. Using the “what if” mindset excavates creative scenario planning, which helps create a safe and solid base from which to experiment.

And, fourth, key to being adaptable to change is to hire and cultivate those with an inventor—or a maverick—mindset. As a CEO, I certainly count on our extraordinary staff to challenge our processes, push back, and help us learn as an organization.

These days, if we focus solely on content and technical expertise in our respective fields, we are doomed to extinction. But if we become really good at learning new things and being open to growth and experimentation, we will remain fresh, we will keep learning, we will keep growing, we will keep making mistakes, and we will ultimately survive and thrive.

Veterans Day: Getting to Know Our Veterans

Veterans Day: Getting to Know Our Veterans

Seventy-nine years ago, Veterans Day was officially designated as a national holiday by an act of Congress. Since then, November 11 has been a day to honor our veterans for their service to us all.

Many people see Veterans Day as a day to say, “Thank you for your service.” While this is a heartfelt greeting, many veterans will tell you that they would prefer a different sort of greeting. Instead, they would like to hear: “Tell me about your service.”

Fifty-seven thousand veterans are homeless. One and a half million veterans live at or below the poverty line. Progress is being made to help these veterans, but there are still many—particularly female veterans and those who are disabled—who are most at risk. Making connections, being heard, telling their story—are all ways our veterans can be honored even more than simply thanking them for their service. We would all benefit from hearing their stories—it won’t take very long—and it will go a long way for making many veterans feel seen, heard, and honored.

As the CEO of Fedcap, I am thrilled that we have combined with the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services. This extraordinary organization exists to improve the quality of life for veterans and military families. Their vision is that every veteran can succeed in the communities where they live. Making connections between military and civilian life is an essential piece of their mission. We can all contribute to that noble mission by reaching out and connecting with veterans when we meet them, hearing their stories, and yes, thanking them for their extraordinary service.

To all United States veterans, I send my thanks, and I look forward to hearing more and more of your stories. I am eager to understand your experience and to celebrate all that you have contributed to this country. Happy Veterans Day.

The Power of Possible: Locked Up, Fitting In, and Finally Free

The Power of Possible: Locked Up, Fitting In, and Finally Free

In a little less than a month, we will be gathering supporters of our family of agencies in a celebration of the Power of Possible. There, we will be hearing from individuals whose lives have changed because of the dedication, the passion, and the commitment of those who spend their days serving in one of our agencies—and from some who have been inspired to give back.  One of the populations that Fedcap serves is the previously incarcerated.  We are convinced that we can impact the high recidivism rates by working behind the walls to address mental health and substance use disorders that impact successful reentry, ensuring inmates have access to top notch training in high growth sectors and placing those leaving prison, and working with our 500+ business partners to create meaningful, living wage employment opportunities.  We do not have to accept the poor outcomes for individuals leaving prison.

Steve Hickman was born in Harlem to a large family with four brothers and sisters. His father worked hard, but on Friday nights he drank away his paycheck, which led to terrible fights with Steve’s mother. Eventually, his father left, and his mother raised the five children on her own.

Steve was savvy, “entrepreneurial” and tired of being poor. He dropped out of high school in the 12th grade and started selling drugs, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers. He never took drugs and never even drank alcohol…but sadly he sold many drugs to people who were addicted. Steve said, “I just wanted to fit in….then I got locked in….and then I got locked up.”

Steve’s first arrest came in 1991. He was sentenced to a 90-day boot camp. When he got out, he went  back to selling drugs. Steve recalls it being hard for him to walk away from all of that money. In 1993, he was arrested along with his two brothers and charged with conspiracy to sell drugs, which carried a 25-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, Steve missed his children growing up, the world changing, and the experience of living his 20’s and 30s as a free man. During this time, his mother died, and neither he nor his brothers were able to attend her funeral. To this day, he has not been able to shake the pain and feeling that his incarceration had contributed to her death. “The heartache was so bad I ran out of tears,” he said.

Prison life was difficult. However, at least the three brothers were together. They leaned on one another and kept each other on the straight and narrow. Even though they were doing time, they were also committed to becoming better human beings. Because they had each other, they did not get into drugs or gambling and, for the most part, no one caused them any problems. By the time Steve was released in 2012 (14 years later), at the age of 45, the world had changed completely for him. Despair set in and he didn’t know how he would be able to live or support himself in a world that seemed unrecognizable. Fortunately, Steve’s sister took him in and helped him get back on his feet. He had been working at a minimum wage job for about four months when his brother introduced Steve to his mentor at Fedcap, Mike Dunne. Fedcap saw great potential in Steve and hired him in 2013 to supervise Wildcat cleanup crews in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Within a few years he was promoted to area manager, supervising over 150 workers at 11 sites Recently, he began a new job with NYC Department of Homeless Services. Now he also serves as a mentor to the justice involved. He understands that they need what he needed – guidance, the courage to persevere, and a second chance. “Fedcap believed in me and gave me a second chance,” he said. “I have seen first-hand the difference I can make in helping to turn a young person’s life around, and it is the best feeling in the world.

Our Gala will be a remarkable celebration on Monday evening, November 27, in Manhattan’s Gotham Hall. It will be an opportunity to see and feel what it is like to participate in changing the lives of people like Steve Hickman and many others who have been inspired and helped by our family of agencies. With enthusiasm, we welcome your attendance at our Gala.

Celebrating the Power of Possible

Celebrating the Power of Possible

Possible [posuh-buhl]

  1. being within the limits of ability, capacity, or realization
  2. having an indicated potential

Every day here at Fedcap, we experience the Power of Possible. We hear story after story of individuals—and their families—who have crossed the threshold from thinking that their recovery, their re-integration into society, their ability to live and thrive alongside their disability, or even their ability to get a job were once just a dream—and who now know that they have a future that offers promise, economic well-being, and hope for a new path to dignity and worthiness. They have persevered and triumphed. And they have won.

In a little over a month, we will be hosting our annual Gala in what will be a magnificent celebration of the Power of Possible. We will be celebrating the lives of those individuals who have experienced  transformation and those whose lives have been changed because someone believed in them.

One such success story belongs to Fernando Santiago. Fernando says, “It was easy to fall into the wrong crowd,” growing up where he did in the Bronx. Living in a tough neighborhood riddled with crime, he, too, ended up breaking the law, selling drugs and ultimately landed in prison. The statistics tell us that recidivism among men is 40% within three years of release. But Fernando beat the statistics. He got training and skills through Fedcap Career Design School and learned custodial skills. And, it is because he had the right tools at the right time with the right kinds of support that Fernando went from potential statistic to thriving individual who today, has employees depending on him and his strong leadership. His is a story of the Power of Possible.

Here is Fernando’s story.

Stay tuned to more stories in the coming weeks as we gear up to celebrate The Power of Possible.

Each one of us—through our support, our interest, and our contributions can also become part of the movement that is the Power of Possible.

How might you contribute to transforming a life and helping to create a Power of Possible story?

Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture

Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture

“An entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”                                                                                                                                                                  — Peter Drucker

When one thinks of entrepreneurship, one thinks usually of a “fast” company—one that is steeped in product resources and that holds profit as the top and bottom line. But entrepreneurship is not relegated to fast-paced for-profit organizations. For a nonprofit organization to thrive, entrepreneurship must be woven into the day-to-day fabric of our work.

It isn’t enough to invite our staff to “be” entrepreneurial. Instead, we must work together to build an entrepreneurial culture so that it is embedded in the conversations about the what, the why, and the how of our mission and vision.

What does it look like to promulgate an entrepreneurial spirit and culture in a nonprofit?

To be entrepreneurial, we must talk as entrepreneurs do. This means actively and intentionally looking at a variety of factors:

First, are we questioning the status quo? Are we asking questions that assure us that we are working to solve the right problems? Is the way we’ve always done things the right way to address the problem we are working to fix? And importantly, how do we know? Have we analyzed and examined the politics, policies, and practices that affect the populations we serve? Have we talked with our consumers, outside stakeholders, and colleagues in the field?

Second, are we cultivating a spirit that invites innovation? Are we ensuring that our staff—at every level—feels safe in introducing a new idea? Are we encouraging our staff to share their learnings? Is there a regular forum for sharing what we’re learning? How do we incorporate our learning into our work so that we’re not just talking about new ideas, but we are implementing them?

Third, are we inspiring an internal culture that embraces—and seeks—risk Are we openly talking about risk on a regular basis? Are we experimenting with rapid-paced pilots or projects that we can assess and potentially spread throughout the organization as a way to balance the tension between trying something new and managing outcomes?

Fourth, are we using data and metrics—both quantitative and qualitative—to measure our success? Is process improvement a regular part of our lives? Do we know what measure of data we would need to determine that we need to do a rapid course correction?

These are four of the essential elements of entrepreneurship. Asking ourselves these questions on a regular basis will help cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurship as well as establish a culture that embraces change on a daily basis so that we continue to learn and to grow.

What are some  other questions you might consider as you cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit?



Last week, we held a Leadership Forum for staff from across our growing family of agencies. In it, we started planning for 2025, explored trends in the nonprofit marketplace, in human resources, in technology, in government funding and we identified strategic directions.  We then identified the DNA of leaders required to effectively advance us toward our goals.

Included in that DNA are vision and the ability to operationalize that vision, integrity, influence, analytical skills, compassion, resilience, and the skills required to drive change.  AND in addition, we discussed two traits absolutely critical to leadership: the willingness to stand for something and the ability to take bold, yet calculated, risks.

I’ve heard many leaders pay lip service to the idea that they want their “followers” to disagree with them. However, what I’ve discovered in my career is that while many say that this is what they want, in actuality, they want to have the people they lead follow them by operationalizing their vision.   There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but frankly, I prefer people who really will disagree with me.  I want to be shown a better way, invited to a wider vision.  I want to engage in discussions where staff share perspectives different from my own. I want to work with people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise. I want the people I work with to be here because they stand for something and because they will be fierce in standing for what they believe.

It is in this diversity of perspectives that we are truly better together.

Besides leaders who stand for what they believe, we also need leaders who are able to see the ways the environment is rapidly changing and are able to call forward the next “thing.”  We need people who can understand the environment enough to take smart, planned risks— understanding that without some degree of risk there is no future.  We need leaders who are students of their profession, who never stop learning and as such, the risks they take are based on knowledge, wisdom and instinct.

What do you stand for? What risks do you take in your organization? What is the DNA of your leadership?

Busting the Myths around Employment of Those with Disabilities

Busting the Myths around Employment of Those with Disabilities

I am so looking forward to our Solution Series discussion next week on the Employment of People with Disabilities. (See info below.) This exciting panel discussion is an opportunity for the business community to hear the compelling arguments about why it is not only a socially responsible practice to hire those with disabilities, but also why and how it is a proven boost to the bottom line.

There are some perceived myths about hiring those with disabilities. Those perceptions only add to the stigma that we spend every day here at Fedcap trying to dispel. Next week, we will be hearing more from business leaders about their own experience with increasing the bottom line based on their hiring of people with disabilities. Here are some of those perceptions and some realities that disprove those misconceptions:

Myth: “We need fast workers! The person with a disability will slow us down.”

The Reality: Those with disabilities are generally better able to solve problems—and quickly. They have had to navigate barriers that many of us don’t see. They have had to find short cuts, workarounds, and process improvements—many times just to perform daily tasks with ease.

Myth: “It will cost me too much to install expensive accommodations—way beyond ‘reasonable.’”

Reality: According to the President’s Job Accommodation Network Committee (courtesy of AMSVan), beyond employer-required ADA accommodation, most individuals with disabilities do not require special accommodation. Of those who do, 50% cost $500 or less, 12% cost between $501 and $1000, and 22% exceed $1000. These are small investments given the overall contribution to the bottom line.

Myth: “My workers’ comp payments will go way up.”

Reality: Actually, there is no difference in workers’ comp claims between those with disabilities and those without.

Myth: “Those with disabilities will call out sick more often.”

Reality: Statistically, there is no difference in absenteeism between those with or without disabilities.

Myth: “I can’t count on the job performance of those with disabilities.”

Reality: A Dupont survey of 2,745 employees with disabilities found that 92% of employees with disabilities rated average or better in job performance compared to 90% of employees without disabilities. Surveys by Walgreens, 3M, AT&T, Pepsico had similar findings.

Another reality about hiring those with disabilities is that employers, once leery about hiring, discover that as they get to know their employees and get to see the type of commitment and work that they do, they become champions of hiring those with disabilities. Part of the problem is lack of exposure to this segment of the workforce. My own experience bears out the statistics and realities I’ve outlined. Hiring those with disabilities isn’t just a socially responsible thing to do—but it contributes mightily to the culture and to the bottom line of any organization.

There’s still time to register for our Solution Series on the morning of October 3rd at the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue. Our roster of speakers represents business, government, and foundations all united in common commitment to educating employers about the benefits of hiring those with disabilities. This forum promises to be fascinating. I urge you to join us!

The Next Chapter in Business Innovation: Hiring Those with Disabilities

The Next Chapter in Business Innovation: Hiring Those with Disabilities

Hiring and engaging people with disabilities isn’t about being nice, or being charitable. It’s smart business that can positively impact your bottom line and your talent needs from the mailroom to the boardroom.

Kris Foss, Managing Director, Disability Solutions @Ability Beyond

On October 3rd, we will be hosting our 14th Solution Series—an initiative of our Community Impact Institute, which is the research and innovation arm of our work here at Fedcap. The Solution Series convenes business, thought leaders, academia, and policy makers to engage in a conversation about  issues affecting business in the 21stcentury .   From the conversations we have in this forum come ideas, systems, programs, and solutions. The Solution Series events are among the high points of our year.

This fall’s series is entitled Employment of People with Disabilities: Moving Beyond Social Responsibility to a Business Solution. I am particularly excited about this forum as it reflects the heart of our work here at Fedcap.   There are close to 40 million people in the U.S., about 12.6 percent of the population, living with a disability. These individuals – your sisters, brothers, neighbors, parents, friends and colleagues – can perform the same work as people without a disability. Yet as of May, 2016, the US Bureau of Labor cites that only 28.3 percent of working-age (16-64) persons with a disability were employed, compared to an employment rate of 72.3 percent for those without a disability in the same demographic. By not integrating people with disabilities more fully into the workforce, we are neglecting a source of energy, productivity and talent that could address the needs of business in the 21st century. The social and economic vitality of our nation is also impacted. The poverty rate for people with disabilities ages 21 to 64 is 28.8 percent – higher than any other demographic group – compared to 12.5 percent for individuals without a disability. Their average annual income is $38,300, $5000 less than their peers without disabilities.

But there is reason for optimism.  On our panel are national experts and business representatives who will highlight efforts being made across the country to significantly expand the number of people with disabilities who are employed.   The business case  for doing is strong.  Hiring people with disabilities reflects a clear commitment to creating a more diverse workforce which in turn delivers a better return for shareholders.  To not hire people with disabilities means missing out on an untapped pool of creative, educated, and experienced individuals who bring a critical perspective to the workplace. For example, generally speaking, people who are living with disabilities tend to bring with them an innovative mindset. Because they have had to navigate a world that is often not easily accessible, they have had an opportunity to build resilience. They have often worked hard to find solutions to a variety of challenges those without disabilities may have never considered. Kevin Cox, the Chief HR Officer at American Express, suggests that hiring people with disabilities is the “next frontier” in business. He believes—and has proof—that hiring those with disabilities has improved the overall culture of the organization and has clearly impacted the company’s bottom line.  This has been my experience as well.

There’s still time to join us for this informative, engaging, and important discussion.  Please click here to register for this timely event on October 3rd in Manhattan. I look forward to a great discussion and I hope to see you there.

Organizational Alignment: Flexible Talent is Key

Organizational Alignment: Flexible Talent is Key

My colleagues often hear me say that our growth is about looking forward—not looking in the rearview mirror.   What I mean is that we have to be continually looking down the road at what environmental, political, cultural, and evidence-based practical changes are taking place in our nonprofit landscape.  If we are not looking ahead, we are missing out on opportunities to meet the needs of our constituents.  We are also missing out on excavating the skill sets, the capabilities, the processes, and strategies that ought to be in place in order to keep up—and lead—the relevant solutions to community and societal problems. And, as we evolve and grow, we need to ensure that all of these systems and processes are growing along with us. Otherwise, we are doomed to play catch up, which will result in stunted growth.

Creating and capitalizing on opportunities requires that our organization works to be a nimble, agile institution.

As leaders of an organization, it is our charge to inspire a mindset and a culture that is steeped in flexibility, one where leaders are able to take in new information rapidly, assess its relevance and importance, and then make smart data driven decisions.

This type of flexibility requires a specific type of talent and the ability to build the “muscle” in the form of skills that will meet the future.  Hiring talent who are experts in their respective fields, and who have the ability to stretch themselves, to hone the skills to see around the corner, take calculated and well-thought out risks is critical to organizational long-term success.

This type of talent is not easy to find and not readily discernible in the traditional interview process.  Knowing what to look for, too, requires stretching of leadership muscles. Over and above content expertise is the need to work with staff who think critically, who are brave, and who are willing to challenge the status quo. We look for individuals who are unafraid to ask the hard questions, who will inspire innovation and risk-taking, and who are capable of managing that risk from a multifaceted lens—including financial, reputational, and existential forecasts. This approach to our talent is the foundation of Fedcap’s organizational DNA.

I attribute the success of Fedcap over these past 80 plus years and our recent growth surge to an overarching culture of courage, calculated risk management, and to a flexible mindset and capacity of our staff.

What is it like in your organization? Your department? Your lens? Do you cultivate a flexible mindset and culture? If so, how does that translate into your day-to-day operations?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.