No Geographic Bounds to Talent

Photo of a rough-hewn desk with an open laptop on it on a beach with the ocean in front of it.

We have a new neighbor on our street who moved into her home in April, at the height of the shutdown across the entire nation. She is a graphic designer for a magazine in the Washington D.C. area and in mid-March her entire team began working remotely. She looked around at her tiny, expensive apartment with a view of an alley and remembered her roots back in Minnesota, where her dollars would go farther and her view greatly improved. She found a house in a friendly neighborhood and is renting an adorable story and a half with a porch the width of the house. I’ll wave to her from the sidewalk as she sits on her porch, coffee at her side and laptop in front of her, working away on whatever project is next on her list.

The current pandemic has changed the way the world works, possibly forever.

With a Covid vaccine on the horizon and businesses talking about plans to return to the office, an honest assessment of why work offices exist is needed.

Is it to collaborate? With tools like Trello, Basecamp, Wrike and others it’s easy to manage projects virtually.

Is it to have work meetings? Welcome to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or one of many other video conferencing tools that allows people to meet from virtually anywhere. It takes effort to have side conversations in virtual meetings, be it through a chat function or on a separate device, so meetings are shorter and more effective.

Are people working in offices to share data or projects? Welcome to the cloud where documents, projects, spreadsheets and data are all stored for anyone in the organization to access. All you need is an internet connection and a login to access any of the documents you need.

Clearly one reason for in-person work environments is the benefit of getting to know your co-workers on a personal basis, in having casual conversations at the coffee machine and creating the comradery and teamwork many employees find fulfilling in their work environment. And yet, there are always team members who would rather get their work done and go back to their homes and families, valuing time spent outside of work with loved ones above connecting with their co-workers.

This doesn’t make them a less valuable employee, but it makes a work office a less valuable asset.

Ask the person who spends 2 hours every morning commuting to their office if the benefit of connecting with co-workers face-to-face was worth being on a train for 4 hours.

Companies in some fields have embraced remote work environments for years, while others believe that their work is best done in a formal office environment with cubes and offices filled with people. Companies that do not embrace remote employees will lose talented people to companies that embrace remote workers.

Working remotely during a pandemic has its challenges, especially for those with children at home for whom child care is closed, schools are also in distance-learning mode, or other aspects of their lives have been temporarily suspended due to the safety measures that are needed to contain the spread of the virus. But imagine the world after the pandemic, when schools can safely re-open, child care centers are operating again, and gatherings with family and friends fill our lives with the social connections human beings need.

Wouldn’t this improve workers’ work-life harmony and overall happiness? Doesn’t that make for better employees and human beings?

Business is Business, but People are People

Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with a former co-worker and good friend, LeAnn. She and I met 25 years ago when she became the fourth person hired at the then-fledging ParadyszMatera office in Minneapolis.

We reminisced on some fun times — brainstorming sessions while standing around in a large open space between our offices, using golf putters to hit a beach ball from person to person as we talked through client challenges. That beach ball became our mascot for a while, finally dying on the end of a well-executed drive from the putter.

We also told stories on our fearless leader, Mike Cousineau. He founded the Minneapolis office and is a strategic, smart, quirky guy. We talked about how we all had to take turns making the coffee in the morning and according to Mike, no one made it strong enough for him. When it was finally strong enough for him, none of the rest of us could drink it. Finally he started buying his coffee from Dunn Bros. and bringing it in every morning and the rest of us made the coffee the strength we could tolerate.

He then developed the habit of leaving those Dunn Bros. coffee cups around his office, to the point that his desk and table were littered with dozens of slowly disintegrating paper cups in various stages of growing mold. With no cleaning staff and no one else willing to touch his office, he would finally go through it once a month and dump them all in the garbage. He called it his “great experiment.” We joked about the strains of mold that he may have accidentally created in his “experiement.”

Mike was passionate about business — hungry to grow, focused on the bottom line, always the first one in the office. But he also understood that people were people. There was no one more compassionate and caring than Mike. In typical Mike manner, he found ways to ensure that his people grew as professionals and human beings.

I recall struggling one time with a project he had assigned to give me. I wrestled with it for a while in silence at my desk, not understanding exactly what it was I was supposed to be producing or where to start. He could sense my frustration and stopped by to see how it was coming. I told him it wasn’t, I was terribly confused and struggling. He then told me something that followed me for the rest of my career.

“Jenny, you are the smartest person I know. If you can’t figure it out, then you don’t have all the information and need to ask more questions.”

As I retold this story, my co-worker and I both laughed about the fact that he told everyone they were the “smartest person he knew.” He was diligent about surrounding himself with people who had different skills than he, different strengths than his to build a comprehensive team that — together — could do more than any one individual could accomplish. Perhaps to him they were all the “smartest people he knew,” just in areas different from where he was steeped in knowledge.

From that day on, I never doubted myself when a situation was unclear.

I would go farther in life by asking to learn, than pretending to know everything.

This was an incredibly helpful thing to learn as a young adult, and I applied it professionally and personally. I am so grateful to have had Mike in my career, guiding the way.

We worked together happily this crazy group of four, tethered by a long, 254MB modem cable to the main New York office which we interfaced with daily, but seemed unrelated to our culture. About a year later we merged with another company and grew from an office of four to 30. The days of hitting a beach ball around the office were gone, but the teamwork and compassion were not.

LeAnn and I both agreed it was mean to talk about Mike so much without him there to defend himself, so we invited him to the next get-together. It was hilarious as expected and filled with small gems of wisdom packaged as stories. Sometimes business goes beyond business and becomes friendships. What a gift.

Winnable Deal

woman on smartphone

I like to amuse myself with word games or card games on my phone. Whether I’m waiting for an appointment or sitting at the car dealership, I will spend a few moments trying to win a hand of solitaire.

I recently downloaded an app that has many kinds of solitaire, including one called “Spider.” I’d never played this kind of solitaire before — after reading the rules of play and failing miserably at a few hands, the chase was on. I just HAD to figure out how to win at this thing.

I played hand after hand with no success, losing time and again, but each time getting a little closer to victory. Each time I learned a little about strategies I had tried that worked and those that didn’t. Now I win about a quarter of the games I play, often enough to keep me playing.

One day, while waiting for the game to load, I noticed a checkbox on the game set-up:

IMG_0454 edit

Winnable deal.

It was turned on, meaning that every hand that I had been dealt was a winnable hand. Every. Single. One. But I was only winning about 25% of the time.

If every hand was a winnable deal, what was preventing me from winning? I could restart every game and keep trying until I won each deal before moving on to a new deal. Why wasn’t I winning 100% of the time?

  1. Tedium. Playing the same set of cards over and over again is not the most interesting thing to do. Many of the moves are always the same with no options for alternatives, so for much of the game I’m doing exactly what I’ve done before.
  2. Not remembering what I’d done before. When given options, I couldn’t remember if I had tried the move in the previous hand or not. Was I repeating exactly the same game as before, and would I have the same outcome? I had no idea.
  3. Not willing to put in the time. I’ve ended more than one game when my meeting began, I was interrupted, or otherwise had to stop playing. I did not have time to keep trying new strategies to win a hand. (This IS a game for leisure, after all.)

I realized that these same issues that kept me from having a 100% winning streak are the same issues that plague many in our professional lives.


During his career, my father spent many years at J.I. Case, which manufactured tractors and other machinery for the agricultural industry. While a general manager there, the company was going through a difficult time of slipping margins, poor quality control and labor issues. My dad worked hard through all of those challenges and was a key factor in the company’s turnaround.

He told stories of those days with fondness. Every day was a different battle, utterly unique from the day before. It was challenging and exciting, even the day that he tried to leave work and found that all four of his tires had been slashed, presumably by a disgruntled employee. Finally, the ship had been righted, labor demands appeased, and quality and margins began to increase. Now it was back to the tedium of managing day-to-day operations. He left the company shortly after, because, he said, “It was boring.” Some years later Case merged with International Harvester; I suspect he would have found that transition time to be fascinating to work through had he chosen to stay.

Not Remembering What Was Done Before

When I left my agency job to work for a nonprofit, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with the person who had held the job before me, even though he had already moved on from the organization. During my first week at the new job, he and I had coffee and I learned so much about what he had done to make the annual giving program a success. He had left careful documentation (in random folders, perhaps, but the documentation existed), of previous testing that had been done and its results.

Thanks to him and to this documentation, I did not need to make the same mistakes again. Despite the change in personnel, I was able to keep moving the program forward, increasing the number of donors and revenues, and also build a strategy for a grateful patient program.

Five years later when I left, I wrote a 7-page document for my future replacement, outlining previously tested strategies, where to find documentation, the direction of the program and challenges to be addressed moving forward. Unfortunately the organization decided not to replace my position until months after my departure, and much of the documentation did not survive the other changes in leadership that were happening at the same time. Now that they’ve got new personnel in place, they are re-tracing steps previously taken to prove to new leadership that the program that had been put in place was indeed effective before they can further advance.

Not Willing to Put In the Time

In my agency days we hired a lot of people right out of college or who only had one or two year’s experience. We were a growing company with a lot of entry-level positions.

For a time, we went through countless recent graduates; our turnover rate for entry-level positions was awful. We would post the position, carefully described the job through the interview process, hire someone in, and this person would begin work. Being an entry-level position, the work was…well, tedious. Detailed. Repetitive and sometimes frustrating. Invariably, within 3 to 6 months, our new hire would ask when he or she would get promoted out of the position.

We were a growing company, but not growing so quickly as to need to promote within the year every single person who started with us. We would re-direct to the job at hand: there were nuances to be learned, improvements to be made, more to do in the current position than simply moving past it.

For a time, the majority of our entry-level people walked back out the door about a year after they’d walked in. The few who stuck it out did indeed get recognition and promotions to move on to the next level. Those who were willing to put in the time were rewarded.

I think of conversations I’ve had with people over the course of collective careers, and the decisions I and others have made throughout our lives. A job that was tedious, a boss who was weak, a co-worker who made work miserable, who forced our hand to make a decision to either stay or ride it out. Was that a “winning” decision? What would have happened had different decisions been made?

What is keeping you from winning your winnable deal?


Top Talents of Nonprofit Staff and Teams

TeamIn my career, I have worked with dozens of nonprofits. From those raising millions of dollars annually to those working to raise their first $1,000, I’ve seen many different business models of how organizations are working to change the world. Some rely heavily on events and peer-to-peer fundraising, others were built on direct-response fundraising, while others rely primarily on major gifts from the founding of the organization.

I’ve learned that there are some traits of nonprofit staff members that are the same, no matter the mission or the size of the organization.

  1. Nonprofits are run by passionate, compassionate, engaging people. Back in my agency life when I had a mix of for-profit and nonprofit clients, my nonprofit clients were my favorite people. There is something about what drives people to work for a place that is trying to change the world, not just please shareholders, that makes them especially engaging. (No offense to those who have to please shareholders.)
  2. People who work at nonprofits are innovative and creative problem-solvers. They have to be. They are often tasked with meeting impossible budgets with few resources, turning a dollar into ten, working with less-than-ideal tools. Necessity is the mother of all invention, and scarcity is her little sister.
  3. There is no shortage of business savvy at nonprofits. I have heard that nonprofits are the “B” team, those who couldn’t cut it in the business world. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What motivates a person to work for a nonprofit has little to do with a purported lack of abilities but with making a difference and, for some, leaving a legacy.
  4. Nonprofit teams need to be lean, their staff multi-talented. “Other duties as assigned” takes on a new meaning when working at a nonprofit. From the administrative assistant who doubles as a volunteer coordinator to the prospect researcher who runs an employee giving campaign, staff members are often asked to stretch out of their comfort zone to meet a short-term need.
  5. The seasonal nature of fundraising makes staffing challenging. Considering that most money is raised in the last quarter of the year, nonprofits cannot afford to hire a full-time person to meet a 3-month need. Donation processing, stewardship calling, event planning and follow-up are all at their busiest at the same time of year for most nonprofits. Unless every nonprofit has a team of trained volunteers waiting in the wings, organizations struggle to meet these needs each year.

By using consultants, nonprofits can expand their teams seasonally, build strategies without paying for a strategist year round, and rely on people with different skills for short periods of time. Yet at the same time, consulting fees are line-itemed on 990s, as if relying on consultants is a strike against a nonprofit.

For those who are committed to nonprofit work as a volunteer, a donor, board member or others, learn about the needs of your favorite nonprofit. Are those needs being met internally, and at what cost? Does it make more sense to outsource some elements to experts who can flex their time seasonally? Consultants should be seen as an extension of the internal team, just as committed to the mission and results.