What does it take to build a next-level nonprofit organization? Building from his past mistakes and shortcomings, Dr. Chris Lambert, CEO and Founder of the Detroit nonprofit Life Remodeled, boils it down to four essential elements: team unity, a compelling vision, a sound strategy, and efficient execution. He wrote about this dynamic in his book, Next Level Nonprofit. In this episode, Dr. Lambert joins Douglas Nelson to talk more about these elements and what he learned from his career journey as a nonprofit leader. Prepare to get into the nitty-gritty because Dr. Lambert is not at all hesitant to share the worst mistakes that he made that gave him the best lessons of all. Tune in!
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Life Remodeled With Dr. Chris Lambert, CEO & Founder
In this episode, we have Dr. Chris Lambert. Chris is the Founder and CEO of Life Remodeled and the author of the new book Next Level Nonprofit. In our conversation, he talks about the great work of Life Remodeled, mobilizing more than 77,000 volunteers, investing more than $43 million into Detroit neighborhoods, and beautifying over 2,000 city blocks.
Chris shares his methodology for growing and scaling his organization and offers great insights for leaders looking to build their teams, work with their boards, and set audacious and realistic strategic plans in the same breath. You’re going to love his energy and his advice. Please enjoy my conversation with Dr. Chris Lambert.
Doug, it’s great to be with you.
I’m always excited to have guests from the United States. It offers a different perspective and it’s nice to compare the similarities and differences between the two countries in our social profit world. Before we go down that road, can you tell us a little bit about your organization, who it serves, and how?
I am the Founder and CEO of a Detroit-based nonprofit called Life Remodeled. I always love to start with why we exist before I get into the what or the how. The reason we get out of bed six days a week and do the work that we do is because we’re absolutely convinced that Detroiters have all the talent they need, but many don’t have access to all the opportunities they deserve.
What we do in response to this reality is repurpose large vacant school buildings into one-stop hubs of opportunity for entire families to thrive. We fill these buildings with the best and brightest nonprofits who are moving the needle in three particular areas. That would be youth programs, jobs, and health and human services. We help them collaborate to make a far greater impact together than they could ever make alone.
That sounds far too logical to get off the ground. There are a lot of moving parts in what you described there. Tell me about the first time. How did you get started? How did this go from an idea to the machine you shared with us?
I started the organization in 2010, and our original strategy was quite different from what we’re doing now. We started off very similar to the then popular reality TV show Extreme Makeover Home Edition, which if you ever watched it, they built these massive homes and then said, “Move that bus,” and then the family went nuts and all that stuff.
I ended up learning that 17% to 25% of families were losing their homes within the first 2 to 5 years. We created a much more holistic initial strategy where we would build houses in six days and give them away to low-income families, but then we would invest in the surrounding community. We would invest in the family holistically.
We did that for a few years before we evolved significantly and started renovating existing schools. We did that for three years. We then discovered our true niche, which is what we do now, and that is repurposing vacant school buildings. This evolution for startup nonprofits is often common where it takes us a while to truly discover who we are and who we aren’t, and what value we bring to the world that’s most effective and impactful.
You’re describing a very common iteration you’d hear in the private sector in a startup environment. We have an idea. We’re going to start out. We’re going to do the social profit version of Extreme Home Makeover. We’re going to renovate existing schools to provide a better learning environment. Here’s this third opportunity that is the niche that we can excel in. In our social profit sector, it’s uncommon for organizations to have the space and the resources to experiment. How did you keep the oxygen in the room for that iterative growth and finding that true purpose?
I am not here with you to talk about how I am this perfect nonprofit leader because I have made a litany of epic failures. When I talk about failures, very serious yet avoidable missteps, the result of my ignorance, and yet it was my responsibility to know better. For instance, I hired people with yellow and even, in some cases, red flags that I would’ve seen had I known what to look for. If our existing team members weren’t already rockstars in their own right, I had no idea how to truly help them grow and develop, let alone become a thriving team.
When it came to strategic planning, our plan might’ve looked good on paper, but it truly wasn’t operationalized. The good news is after about years of being very messy, we eventually hit our stride. The way we were able to do that was by incorporating some timeless principles that you often find in thriving for-profit companies. We created the system we call Next Level Nonprofit. That structure allowed us to work on the organization, not just in it, to the point where we could get to a place where we truly had the right people in the right seats and became a united team. We discovered this strategy that works. It is measurable.
I think it was a commitment to not just being reactive but truly working on the organization that got us to where we are. Just to rattle off what that difference looks like, over the next eight years, we were able to invest $43 million into Detroit neighborhoods. We renovated four school buildings. We mobilized 77,000 volunteers and beautified over 2,000 city blocks. What I hope to do now is to help nonprofit leaders or anyone who’s tuning in to this in the social sector avoid some of those major mistakes that I made early on.
It’s one of the reasons I was so excited to have you on, Chris. In our sector, often if you go to a conference, people present their hero’s journey. There’s a problem, they make a plan and execute it, and then they are the hero. That is not how any real hero’s journey ever works in real life or even in a good story. Your willingness to share those mistakes and things that were avoidable if only you’d known.
I think our sector benefits so much from that honest look at how we create change in the issues that matter so much in our sector. If the problems that the social profit sector was trying to solve were easy, they would’ve already been solved. It is very complicated often. I want to jump into that Next Level Nonprofit concept and tell us a little bit about what that is because I think it offers a window into a way forward for a lot of our audience.
Next Level Nonprofit is an organizational operating system. It is not a software but a series of timeless principles that, when properly implemented, ensure that all of us can build the dream teams we’re longing for, serve more people, and serve them far more effectively. There are four major components to this organizational operating system.
1) Team unity. 2) Compelling vision. 3) Right strategy. 4) Discipline and execution. If you think of these almost as if they’re a wheel on a car, every time you improve these four components, you’re going to get the wheel turning faster and faster. As your car goes faster when the wheel turns, your organization is going to go to the next level every time you improve these components.
It’s not strictly linear. It’s not as if we say, “Let’s focus the next three months on building the best team ever, recruiting the best talent ever, and then we’ll come up with a compelling vision, and then we’ll get the right strategy.” You’re always working on these four components, but every time you improve them, you’re increasing your impact and you’re building a better team every time.Every time you’re working on your unity, vision, strategy, and execution, you're increasing your impact and you're building a better team. Click To Tweet
You’re right. It is not sequential. You need to have all of these four pieces operating pretty much at the same time. Maybe the sequence needs to be the right strategy, and then you can focus on execution. A lot of organizations have deliverables that they need to make every day, every week, or every quarter. When they look at their strategy, they feel like that’s something in addition to the work they’re doing. It makes for less ambitious strategies. For an organization that’s already operating. How can they get started with Next Level Nonprofit as an operating system?
I’ll start at the foundation, which is the right people at the right seats, and not just hiring the absolute best but truly creating a team of one. I like to use the analogy of reindeer. We say we look for reindeer, not unicorns when it comes to hiring people and developing talent. It all goes back to when I was five years old. Sorry, this is a spoiler alert for some of you out there. That was when I first discovered that Santa Claus was not real.
In my five-year-old mind, I came to the conclusion that reindeer weren’t real either because I associated them with Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen, and all the ones, I forget the other names, but you get where this is going. Honestly, it wasn’t until my teenage years that I discovered reindeer were real. They are these truly remarkable creatures, by the way, that are almost mythical in their own right.
A lot of times, I think when we are writing a job description, we might come to a conclusion when we’re searching for a new person that either this person doesn’t exist or they’re like a unicorn. Maybe they do exist, but they’re never going to want to come to work for us because this is such a special person. It is absolutely essential that we find the absolute best talent. That’s why we say we look for reindeer. To use words that the audience may be familiar with, you might have called these individuals rockstars or A-players. Doug, do you have a word that you use or a term that you like to use?
I’m going to use reindeer from now on.
All right, reindeer. Here it is. When you’re looking for new team members, it is essential you find the top 10% of talent out there and you want to attract them to your team, but you also want to retain them because every other organization wants reindeer too. They’re going to come after your reindeer if they’re smart. You want to develop people who aren’t yet reindeer but have the capacity to become reindeer or people who already are reindeer who could become even better. They can get the red nose and become Rudolph and all that good stuff.
As I mentioned, I had no idea how to do this earlier. Frankly, I didn’t even value the reality that building a great team is absolutely everything. You can have the most compelling vision in the world and the best strategy, but if you don’t have the right people in the right seats, your work is always going to be limited by your lack of team unity and your lack of talent and skill.You can have the most compelling vision and the best strategy, but if you don't have the right people in the right seats, your work is always going to be limited. Click To Tweet
One of the tools that we’ve created to simplify this concept of discovering “Do I even have reindeer on my team and who are reindeer?” is called the Culture and Capacity Assessment. It’s divided into these two categories. One is culture, and two is capacity. I’ll stay on culture for a quick minute. Culture is simple. It is a core value. I want to say a caveat out there because some of our audience may be rolling their eyes, “Yeah, core values. We tried that. It didn’t work.”
Brené Brown is one of my favorite authors. She said in her experience that only 10% of organizations are operationalizing their core values. Core values are not made for marketing. They’re not aspirational values that we wish we could be these things. Your core values are who you are really. Who is your culture? What are the defining characteristics of what makes up your culture?
If the audience already has core values, you’re in a good place to discern if you have reindeer. If you don’t have your core values, that is an absolutely essential next step for you to go through that process of discovering what are the non-negotiable characteristics of what it means to be working in your organization.
Once you have your culture, you’re committing that you will never hire anyone who does not already embody that culture. That doesn’t make someone bad if they don’t align with your culture. It just makes them not a fit. When we’re assessing people on our team, we always are assessing how they are performing in our culture. We have a green, yellow, and red system.
Green means most of the time they exhibit these characteristics. Yellow means some of the time, and red means usually not. Yellow and red are non-negotiable. The second someone dips into yellow or red, their coach, which we use the word coach instead of a manager, responds with a candid conversation within 24 hours to let them know that they’re no longer embodying that core value most of the time. That coach is discerning if this person is coachable, and 9 times out of 10, they are. They help them get to a place where they’re back on track.
However, if you discern that you have a team member that is not living your core values, any one of them or they no longer are living that and they don’t want to change, that is where you need to work to offboard that person out of the organization. I’ll talk about that in a minute. The second category is capacity. There are three questions when it comes to capacity.
Those questions are does the person truly understand the full requirements and expectations of their role? The second is, are they passionately committed to doing everything their role requires? The third is, do they have the capacity to do everything that their role requires? These sound like basic questions, but day in and day out, these are the three most important questions to determine if you have the right fit in your organization. Again, it’s green, yellow, and red.
I want to come back to the core values conversation because one of the things in our sector is we have very lofty ideals in terms of the values of our organization, let’s say service, integrity, and trust. All of those can be harder to operationalize or comment on the mission work, and not necessarily on the work that happens within the organization. The difference between the values that line up with the strategic plan and the core values that are at play in an organization every day can be different. How do you keep those core values alive in Life Remodeled? How do you recommend others keep those alive on a daily basis?
I’ll challenge what you said there from my perspective and obviously a lot more nuance that we could discuss, but are there aspirational values? Sure. I have no interest in those because I am about building real organizations that are candid and authentic. They know where they stand, they know who they are, and they know who they aren’t. That may align with where you’re coming from on this.
I’m not interested in people coming up with aspirational values. We live in a world that’s already overflowing with way too much information. What is incredibly important in a team is that they discover what their core values are. Those are non-negotiable. They don’t change ever. By doing that, you’re going to clearly articulate a culture that can be embodied throughout the entire organization in a way that aligns with achieving that strategic plan.
I want to touch for a second on the strategic plan. I cannot stand when organizations create aspirational vision statements. For instance, I’ve heard statements like, “We envision a world where no child is hungry by the year 2040.” If you are an organization today and you have a plan to achieve that, please show it to me. I will become one of your top supporters immediately.
Here’s my problem. That is if you don’t have a plan to achieve that. You have told everyone in your organization that you’re not going to hold them accountable for the things that you say. You have told all of your donors that you’re going to blow smoke up there to make them feel good, but you’re not going to achieve that.
When we make statements about who we are and where we’re going, these statements need to be absolutely true and very ambitious, yet realistic and achievable. Culture is something that we discover. It’s not something that we say, “We want to be patient.” Let’s say that one of our core values is patience because we should be more patient. If you’re not patient, that’s not a core value of yours.
Values need to describe what is and the commitment to keeping it that way or keep holding yourself to that standard. In that strategic plan discussion. You said you don’t have time for that. We’re in 2023 now, but the number of strategic plans that we saw were vision 2020 and what the world was going to look like in 2020. At great eyesight or clear eyesight, here’s our vision. The number of organizations that hit what they had in their vision in 2020 is exactly zero because it was so aspirational.
I think one of the big issues that we face in our sector is you come with an executive director or a CEO comes to the board with a very tangible, “Here is our evidence-based lived experience of what we can achieve over the next 3 to 5 years.” Some board members will say, “This is aspirational. Shouldn’t we be dreaming bigger?” What advice would you have for an executive director facing that board member or board members who are saying, “Come on, we need to say we’ll leave no child hungry by 2040. We need this big vision to motivate people.”
Before I respond to it, I want to say one last thing on culture that hopefully we’ve all heard. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. That’s why right people, right seats, and a team of one is the foundation for all of this. Now we’re talking about strategic planning. I want to go back to something. In 191, former President Kennedy made this statement. He said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
Now, I wish he would’ve said person. I wish we would’ve been more evolved at that point beyond patriarchal language. What I do want to say is that the statement that was made in 1961, in some senses, was potentially perceived as ludicrous because the technology did not exist at that time to achieve this mission. We did not even know the math of how to get that spaceship effectively and safely back to Earth.
What we did as a nation was work backward from that statement because it was ambitious and it was realistic. Now, let me park there for a minute. If President Kennedy in 1961 had said,
“We’re going to go to Mars and back before the decade is out,” that would’ve been impossible at the time. We could say something like that now.
If President Kennedy would’ve said, “We’re going to go to the sun and back,” I’m pretty sure that’s in the realm of absolute impossibility. I don’t know. Maybe the technology will exist 1,000 years from now. This is where when an organization creates what we call a ten-year moonshot vision statement. We just call it a ten-year moonshot.
It’s incredibly important that this statement is both ambitious and realistic. Obviously, we all know that we achieved this statement in 1969, which was incredible. When organizations are creating their strategic plans, they are looking at the future and envisioning ten years from now and saying, “What could we accomplish that would take incredible discipline, unity, alignment, and commitment to achieve it?” It’s possible, but when we achieve it, we’re going to look back and say, “Wow.”
That’s why making a statement that we’re going to make sure that no child goes unfed in the entire world, that’s ludicrous because I don’t know an organization that has the ability to do that. Don’t say that. Instead, say something that you can do that’s going to push you, and that you can rally the entire team around internally first. You can then start rallying your external supporters, your donors, and your volunteers to help you achieve that.
When you do achieve that, you are going to build even more credibility than you ever had. You brought up COVID. The organizations that strategize like I’m discussing are the organizations that can pivot the quickest. I think if organizations did what I’m saying, I don’t think many of them would change their strategic plans coming out of COVID. They figured out how to achieve that in new and creative ways, but there are cases where the ten-year moonshot does change.
That last point is important. The organizations that tried to change their ten-year mission or tried to change the moonshot during COVID even ran the risk. Many of them did become even further disconnected from the people they serve and the donors that empower them to be able to do the work. In our work here at the Discovery Group, the organizations that did the best that we had the privilege of working with were focused on execution.
The way that we’ve done our work before has been challenged or threatened or is not possible right now so we need to find a new way to pursue our mission, a new way to achieve our strategy, and a new way to execute and support our teams. It’s that innovation, even more than resiliency, contributed to organizations being able to live their purpose successfully through the pandemic and well beyond.
There’s so much in there around setting realistic and audacious goals and finding that balance, but I think it will be different in any organization where that balance lies. If you’re an executive director or a CEO and you’re not having that conversation with your board about, “Is this a big enough plan? Is this bold enough? Is this going to motivate? Given what we can do now, how achievable is that?” If you’re not trying to find that balance, you’re not going to come up with a strategic plan that’s credible. You’re not going to have a strategic plan that you’re able to execute.
You gave some numbers about the success of Life Remodeled at the outset. One of the ones that jumped out at me is because this is an issue across our sector, both in the United States and in Canada. You talked about mobilizing 77,000 volunteers. Many organizations, particularly in this post-COVID environment, are struggling to recruit and retain volunteers right now. How have you been able to be successful in that? What strategy have you used when it comes to volunteers?
Every organization that’s engaging volunteers is going to be doing it differently and unique to who they are, what they do, and what they do well. They’re going to appeal to different audiences, different crowds, or in many cases different individuals. Life Remodeled, in particular, does a project we call the Six Day project every year. We like to call things what they are. It’s six straight days of thousands of volunteers removing blight on vacant properties, cutting down overgrown brush and weeds, getting rid of illegal dumping, and mowing the lawns of veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities.
This type of project creates an opportunity to mobilize very large numbers of volunteers, whereas most volunteer opportunities don’t create that capacity opportunity for thousands and thousands of volunteers. To your point, pre-COVID, we would’ve mobilized 10,000 to 12,000 volunteers over six straight days. Post-COVID, we’re only mobilizing 5,000 to 6,000 volunteers. Corporate volunteer is our largest bucket.
Our volunteers typically come from three different sectors. 1) The community itself, where we are focused. 2) Corporations, 3) Faith-based institutions and we pick up a few individual volunteers here and there, but the largest is corporate volunteerism because many companies love high-impact volunteer opportunities where they can see the results of their volunteerism in a matter of a few hours and where there can be a lot of comradery and team building.
This is why what I’m going to say right now doesn’t apply to everybody because every organization has different volunteer needs. Some of you have needs where you just need one volunteer in a room by themself. There’s not anything wrong with that. In fact, that’s a wonderful and beautiful thing. I think this all goes back to having a strategy that truly is aligned with who you are as an organization and not chasing after where the wind is blowing or where the money is coming from and saying, “There’s money for workforce development. Let’s do that now,” or “There’s money for youth programming. Let’s start doing that.”
Once you truly discover who you are and what you’re best at, money and people will follow vision and people will gravitate to the most well-run organizations. I used to coach organizations in fundraising. I did some study on fundraising at Harvard and read a lot of books. I love to raise money, but I have found that when it comes to the questions that organizations have about raising money, they want the tactics of, “How do I raise more dollars? How do I get more volunteers?” Every single time, it goes back to those four foundational components that I mentioned earlier.
Even when you mentioned developing the best and brightest strategic plan, that still goes back to right people, right seats. Who is always greater than how. If you have the right whos in the room and you become a team of one, you are going to solve the challenges much quicker and much more effectively than any other organization that doesn’t have that.
I am so committed to right people, right seats. One of the things I want to say about that, even when it comes to identifying the answers to the challenges of recruiting volunteers or do we have a truly ambitious, yet realistic strategic plan? Not only do we need the right people in the right seats but a big part of becoming a team of one is creating a culture where we can truly be our authentic selves when we are meeting.
One of the best tests of whether we are truly being our authentic selves when we’re discussing strategy or when we’re trying to solve issues is how much conflict is in the room. If we’re leading organizations right now where there is not a significant amount of healthy conflict, that is an indicator that there’s not a very high level of trust. I don’t know about you, Doug, I don’t think the same way today as I did a year from now.
There are many things that I believe now that I disagree with what I believed a year ago, or even in some cases, a month ago. That’s part of the beauty of the human journey. We’re constantly learning and growing. When we’re making decisions as nonprofit leaders as a team, or developing a strategic plan, if we’re not truly hearing exactly what each diverse team member is thinking and feeling, then we’re going to make decisions that aren’t the best decisions because we haven’t heard the full picture. To create an environment where we’re getting the best decisions, there has to be a tremendous amount of healthy conflict. The only way that’s truly going to happen is if people feel they can be vulnerable without being criticized unnecessarily for saying exactly what they feel.We're constantly learning and growing when we're making decisions as nonprofit leaders. Click To Tweet
In the Canadian context, we refer to the avoidance of those conflicts as being Canadian. The probably more constructive way of thinking about it is how leadership teams can avoid that crush of consensus. That team of one that you talk about is so appealing. We want to all be on the same team, particularly if we have a great leader. We want to support that leader.
We don’t want to be the one that says, “What about this? We haven’t thought about this. I don’t think that’s going to work because we only have enough money to do this for 3 months and you’ve made a 12-month commitment.” How can leadership teams create that space for people to be able to voice their support for the organization, and their participation as part of the team of one, and still raise issues and criticisms of particular tactics or strategies?
I believe it always starts at the bottom. That may sound contrary to what you’ve heard.
I like where you’re going.
I think you do know where I’m going. We completely flip what you would typically call an organizational chart where we put the CEO at the very bottom and all the other positions go up from there. We don’t call anybody a direct report. We call them direct supports because we take the posture of servant leadership, whereas the context of the direct report is subserviency, where you exist to report to me and I’m your boss. There’s a hierarchy here.
There’s absolutely a flow of accountability in what we call our function and accountability overview. This is not just semantics. The CEO is at the bottom. It always starts with the CEO’s posture or executive director because no one is going to rise above the level of vulnerability and humility and what we call the bold humility of the CEO or executive director.
If you’re tuning in to this and you are in that C-suite level, or you’re on the executive leadership team and you have team members that aren’t being as vulnerable as you hope they will be, it always starts with the man or woman in the mirror. Practicing that vulnerability in front of others opens the floodgates for others to follow suit.
One of the rules or guidelines that we have is never to criticize another team member in public with the exception of the CEO and COO. At Life Remodeled, we regularly invited people to constructively criticize me and our CEO on the spot when you see us saying something or doing something that doesn’t feel right in your head and your heart or in your gut, or you see a microaggression or maybe a macroaggression. Anything you perceive as not representative of our culture or our capacity or anything, please say it on the spot in front of others.
Not at a fundraising event. Don’t grab the mic from my hand and say, “That was a terrible speech.” When you’re in the office or in the building and you see that, please say it in front of others. Don’t pull me aside and do it privately. Of course, we’re not going to criticize you if you do pull us aside and do it privately, but here’s why we ask you to do it publicly.
That gives me an opportunity to model in front of everyone that I not only embrace constructive criticism but I learn from it on the spot. I acknowledge it, I receive it, and I put a plan in place. “Here’s what I am going to do next with that correct constructive criticism.” If it’s constructive criticism that I don’t believe is accurate, I will say that in the moment.
I’ll say, “You know what? I am struggling right now to see from your perspective. I want to hear more of your perspective.” I’ll ask them questions to learn more from it. If I still disagree, I’ll say, “I need 24 hours to process this and then I want to pick this conversation up again.” All the while, I am demonstrating a healthy perspective, a response to constructive criticism, and then others will follow suit.
I’ve seen that to be helpful. Honestly, there are a lot of executive directors out there who are concerned that if they do that, they’re being too vulnerable and that they’re going to lose respect. I’ve seen it do the opposite. There are ways that you can overly expose yourself, but I don’t think anything that I’ve said crosses those lines.
You mentioned Brené Brown earlier. Her definition of being vulnerable in a professional environment is helpful. It’s not sharing all of your emotions or sharing all of your trauma. It is being present and appropriate and being human in the moment, which is an important distinction. One of the things in working with CEOs and executive directors that I always recommend is you need to get through the process of interviewing for your job.
Interviews are often the process of talking about all of the great things you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished. Even though a good story is often challenging, you only tell the stories where you win, when you won the season, or when you came back and won the championship. In interviews, we don’t typically see people coming through as successful candidates if they spend 90 minutes talking about all the stuff they screwed up.
It’s one of the advantages of being a founder, Chris. You can tell all of those stories and no one is going to argue. I think once you get into those roles, CEOs and executive directors need to come up with their 1 to 3 stories of failures. What are three things that you did and have done in your career that you thought were going to turn out one way and it turned out another way? Follow that quickly with what you learned from it or how you approach those issues differently.
To be vulnerable, lead authentically, and get people to criticize or express what they think about a strategy, they need to know that the executive director or the leader is open to learning and open to change when they’ve made a mistake. If they don’t believe it, they’re going to stay silent.
I think you agree with this too. This is a journey. This is a lifelong journey. I am never going to arrive at perfect vulnerability or the combination of boldness and humility. To be perfect is not my goal either. In fact, that’s something we have to get rid of. For any of us who are perfectionists, that’s one of the biggest killers to growth and innovation as well.
One of our rules is 80%. When we’re making decisions, we say, “Are we at least 80% confident this is the right decision?” We’re always evaluating our decisions so that we can go back and pivot as necessary. When it comes to growth in something so important to relationships, i.e., vulnerability, I’m not expecting anybody, including myself, to do that with excellence at all times. That’s why I wouldn’t make that a core value, by the way. I wouldn’t make vulnerability a core value because that’s too high of a bar to expect people to be able to live out all day, every day.
You mentioned growth as a person and as an organization. You talked about the different iterations of Life Remodeled as you were finding that perfect core business for the organization. If you could say something to the person you were when you started the organization, what advice would you give?
I would say to myself in 2010, “Chris, the most important thing that you can focus on over the next three years is building a team of people far smarter than you and helping that team become the best and highest version of themselves individually and collectively rowing in the same direction.” Here’s where I screwed that up royally. I’m a very passionate innovator and entrepreneur. I would find solutions to problems so much so that I wasn’t as worried about if people weren’t able to do their job at the highest level of excellence after a while, and then we would fire an individual and find another one.Build a team of people who are far smarter than you and help that team become the best and highest version of themselves, both individually and collectively. Click To Tweet
We created a huge wake because, frankly, I had too much confidence in my own abilities. As an entrepreneur founder, I wanted to hold that baby instead of delegating, elevating, and embracing that there are people far more talented than I am. There are a number of aspects that this organization is going to be much more effective by finding those individuals and creating space where they shine. I had to become less so people could become more. I think that’s a struggle for a lot of founder CEOs, but it is a major drawback to actual innovation and excellence.
That’s what you were able to find. It is obviously a part of the success of the organization and the work that you talk about at Next Level Nonprofit. From time to time on the show, we have a founder and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you the question I’ve asked every other founder. If you could go back to 2010, would you do it again? Would you start the organization again?
A hundred percent. I absolutely love what I do. I do what I love. As I look back on those failures, which are many, I’m still failing. We all fail. My failures now and our failures now are more failing forward rather than the result of massive missteps out of ignorance. As I look back on those failures, I embrace them and we learn from them. We utilize those as opportunities to help others and teach others. We’re in a beautiful place.
Too many of my friends in the nonprofit sector are super burned out and or just tired. They’re not achieving what they know their organizations are capable of. That is what led me to make this switch from Life Remodeled focusing on Detroit to us taking on this initiative of sharing what we’ve learned with organizations globally through this book Next Level Nonprofit.
I’ve written it in a way that you can self-implement this model anywhere in the world and experience significant growth from self-implementing these principles. We’ve also made available the opportunity to coach organizations that are accessible. What I write in this book, there’s almost nothing new in here. These are not fad ideas or experiments that we say, “Try this out. See if this works.”
These are timeless principles that have been written in several other great books. If anyone here has ever read Traction by Gino Wickman, who’s a friend of mine, that is a brilliant book. Also, Scaling Up by Verne Harnish, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, and The Great Game of Business, all of these are business books.
Here’s something else I’ve evolved on drastically. I used to invite nonprofits to operate more like businesses. I discovered that was very shortsighted and wasn’t enough. We need to be far better. For instance, if you were to imagine with me right now two organizations. One is a for-profit and the other is a nonprofit. I know you used the word social profit. It’s the same thing. Let’s stick with nonprofits for a second because there are social-minded companies and L3Cs out there. I don’t know what they’re qualified for in Canada, but let’s say nonprofit.
Imagine that they’re both about the same size in annual revenue and staff. In my opinion, leading a nonprofit organization is far more complex. In the for-profit world, if we keep our customers happy, we’re going to generate profit and win because our customers are paying market value for their goods or services.
In the nonprofit world, this is not the case. Our clients are not paying market value for their goods or services. We have to keep them happy. We have to keep our donors and volunteers happy. Let’s not forget our board members. All of them have very different needs, desires, and agendas. I say agenda in the best sense of the word. We aren’t allowed to pay our people what the for-profit companies can pay their staff.
We have two bottom lines, our financial statements, but a far more important bottom line is social impact. We’re making a tremendous emotional investment into the lives of the people we’re serving. All the more reason that truly working on our organizations is essential rather than just working in them. I have experienced the reactivity of working in an organization. It’s draining. It’s demoralizing. It doesn’t produce the results that we hope for so we’ve made a major shift.
It is impressive. Certainly, no one would accuse you of sounding like you were burnt out, given the energy you’ve shared over our conversation. Two last questions before you go. I want to know, with the momentum you have, the lessons you’ve learned, the great work you’re doing with Life Remodeled, and the excellent work on Next Level Nonprofit, Chris, what are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to the exponential impact of this Next Level Nonprofit endeavor. When you think about the work that we’re doing in Detroit with Life Remodeled, it truly is making a massive impact on Detroit neighborhoods, families, children, and access to opportunity. The work of Next Level Nonprofit is exponential. I’m turning a lot of focus toward this work on a national and hopefully global scale. It’d be amazing if we were able to be in Canada.
I’m here in Detroit. We’re only twenty minutes from Canada from Windsor. Not a lot of people know that around the country in the United States because we don’t learn our geography as well as we do in Canada. That’s a whole other conversation. That excites me because my passion is not for organizations to be run more effectively, although that certainly is a means to an end.
My passion is for the people that we serve to be served at the highest level of excellence we can give them. I know that’s true for every social profit folks here. You’re right. I’m not burning out because I’ve been able to get into a place where I’m able to operate in my sweet spot where I’m most gifted and I’m delegating and elevating. That’s a lot of fun. I’ve had to wear all the other hats before too, and sometimes there’s a season for it. If you have to do that for too long, God bless you.
Find that zone of excellence and stay there even as the zone of excellence continues to change. Chris, before you go, tell our audience how they can learn more about Life Remodeled and especially where they can find your book Next Level Nonprofit.
Our Next Level Nonprofit site is NLNCoaching.org. You can buy the book on Amazon or anywhere where audiobooks are distributed. If you want to learn more about Life Remodeled, that is LifeRemodeled.org.
Chris, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your great work with us here on the show.
Doug, I love what you’re doing and it’s an honor to be with you.