Leadership Lessons from the Titanic for Charities

It’s today- April 14th. The date the Titanic sank.  In case you’ve been living on another planet for the last 100 years you should know that today, on her maiden voyage, the pride of the White Star Line hit an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Within two hours and 40 minutes the 46,382-ton liner, with lifeboats for only 50% of her passengers, sank. Only 750 people were saved.

Since the media is full of ‘Titanicana’ I wondered if there were any leadership lessons from the anniversary. Here are my top 5:

1. Avoid hubris: you may think you’re very clever. And you may indeed be very clever. But don’t get carried away with your own hype. No organisation is unsinkable.  UNICEF basically invented, and used to make $40M annually, in the charity cards and gifts business. Today it makes scarcely $10M. It thought it was invincible. Every agency, no matter how powerful, can trip. Hubris- an overweening sense of your own importance and invulnerability- is the catalyst for a chain of mistakes that can bring down the mightiest agency. For more on this try Jim Collins’ latest book ‘How the Mighty Fall’ where he explores the role of hubris as a key driver in organisational failure. And stop believing your own hype!

2 Pay attention: you need to watch out for early signs of challenge or difficulty. On Titanic almost everyone, including the captain, was way too busy partying when young Fredrick Fleet, the junior watchman, spotted the iceberg on Sunday night at 11:35 pm.  The night was clear and free of fog, so really there was no reason to hit the iceberg at all. (Fleet later testified he could have averted the disaster if he had a pair of binoculars to see further.) If you don’t pay attention to what the competition is doing or what’s happening externally you can hit disaster. Poor old Blackberry really didn’t pay proper attention to what was happening at all…and many charities don’t either.

3. Look deeper: A superficial problem may obscure deeper challenges. It wasn’t the top part of the iceberg that doomed the Titanic. The upper structure damage was very limited- so initially no one worried too much. But of course 2/3 of an iceberg is below the surface. And it was that 2/3 that ripped the deadly holes in the hull below the waterline and ultimately sank the ship.  You need to look for early signs that a surface problem may need radical attention. So the Komen Fund may be permanently damaged by its recent failure to deal with the Planned Parenthood fiasco. The initial mishandling simply revealed a whole series of deeper challenges in the governance and leadership.

4. Value values: much of the criticism of the management of the Titanic is that the major death toll took place among the third class passengers. It was reported, perhaps unfairly, that the shipping line saw them as ‘the little people,’ and so not valued as much as first class travellers when it came to rescue. Even then this was an uncomfortable value. If you do have to make tough decisions ensure you treat everyone fairly. Your performance as a manager or leader will be judged on how well you deal with the humblest of your volunteers or staff. And while ‘women and children’ first may seem slightly archaic, the notion of sticking to values or principles no matter what is important.  In the UK many charities pulled out of the Govt’s workfare programme because it was seen as fundamentally unfair- and there was an upsurge in support because they stuck to their principles rather than simply taking the money.

5. Don’t Panic: Having a system to deal with an emergency is important- but you also need to not panic long-term. After the disaster Ismay, the White Star Line chairman, offered to resign and there was great press pressure for him to do so. But the Board backed him, arguing they had to change and learn. So the company didn’t fold after the disaster but continued on to become one of the top freight and passenger lines in the world for the next 25 years. (White Star, interestingly, became a driving force for the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea- SOLAS.)  You can recover from a crisis provided you learn. Five years ago the Kenyan Red Cross was in trouble- performing poorly in fundraising and with a big hole in the accounts. Today it is one of the most successful NGOs in Africa- running everything from hotels to ambulance services- thanks to a steady and sensible response by staff and the Board.

So I know it’s late… and you’re busy… and very clever…and someone else is supposed to be looking after stuff…but isn’t it time you went and had a look out the porthole? I mean… just to check!


April 14, 2012 at 4:38 pm Leave a comment

Wild West and Change

The Wild West provides us with a model to explore role we can play in change: Sherrif, Pioneer, Medicine Man…

Continue Reading October 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm Leave a comment

So you’re good but could you be great…?

How can fundraisers apply Good to Great to their work?

Continue Reading August 6, 2010 at 12:16 pm Leave a comment

Sisyphus: Greek character doomed to roll a stone up a hill and then for it to roll down again

Sisyphus Syndrome

As a consultant I sometimes feel like a morbid ambulance chaser. I make a career from working with organizations with serious problems. Now some problems I don’t mind- we all make mistakes. But some organisations seem trapped in a Sysiphian cycle of not just making mistakes, but repeating the same mistakes again and again.


  • they make and have to undo poor senior appointments
  • they embark on Quixotic ill-thought out campaigns
  • they set themselves unachievable and un-credible service goals

I’m less keen on working with these organisations. They seem dispirited and are frankly dispiriting to work with. Yet other organizations can make mistakes, even lots of mistakes, and still produce outstanding results. I call these organizations ‘learning organisations’ and it’s a pleasure to work with them- there’s a sense of progress every time.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘learning organisation’ before. But what does it actually mean? For Peter Senge, who coined the phrase ‘learning organisation’ it means something very specific. He talks abut “the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience into knowledge – accessible to the whole organisation, and relevant to its core purpose” from ‘The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organisation’ (Doubleday)

There are some key and challenging ideas present in that definition- it’s about constantly trying new approaches even when things seem to work, and turning that experience into something that everyone can use, with a very specific purpose- to deliver on the mission.”

(If you’re interested in Senge’s broader theories he expanded his ideas in a second book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook – strategies and tools for building a learning organisation (Doubleday).)

So being a ‘learning organisation’ absolutely isn’t about having cool fun offices, or lots of training for staff, or formal policies for everything… and it’s never about having an online knowledge management system. (The last item can bring an organisation to its knees financially and intellectually. Somehow IT and learning hardly ever seem to match up in real life.)

Learning organisations are about cultures and a way of doing things that is empowering. And leaders can help create such cultures. It’s simple. But as John Kotter says in his quote- it’s not even about that most beloved of CEO projects… strategy.

“The central issue [for organisational success] is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behaviour of people and organisations.”

John Kotter, Professor, Harvard Business School

So how do you work at becoming a learning organisation? Here’s my checklist of five characteristics drawing on Senge’s work and my own thinking and experience. I’ve also added some examples of real charities working at becoming learning organisations.

  • Do you continuously test your beliefs and experience? Specifically are you willing to examine and challenge your sacred cows – not just during challenging times, but also when things seem to be going well? What kinds of structures have you designed for this testing? When people raise challenges or even question received wisdom is there a tendency to “shoot the messenger”? To succeed in learning you have to be prepared to systematically and regularily test out every aspect of your operation- and that can feel very uncomfortable.

With Amnesty International’s Board and Senior Leadership Team I famously ran the world’s first Sacred Cow Bar B Que. This was literally a meal in the middle of  planning workshop. The deal was the participants only got something to eat if they listed on a post-it some fundamental aspect of Amnesty’s strategy they were prepared to review after lunch. They had to hand it over to the chef-me- to get any food. At first some people thought it was a joke. But driven by the smell of cooking- and an organized absence of any other nutrition- participants gradually came forward with ‘fundamental principles‘ they were prepared to at least challenge. As part of the process Amnesty re-examined its strategy of not taking money from governments, of not allowing sections to work on domestic human rights issues etc. And changes were made as well as principles re-confirmed. I’d recommend a Sacred Cow meeting once a year at least

  • Do you review results? Learning organisations make sure they review outcomes and the processes that led to the outcome. Of course it’s often easier to review BIG issues. But a key factor in organisational learning is the ability to review all action in a systematic way that produces positive change for the next time- so creating a virtuous cycle. This involves the ability to analyse events and activities without seeking to attribute blame or praise. An additional payoff, if you run a ‘blame-free’ analysis, is that individuals are more inclined to ‘confess’ to mistakes and mis-judgements rather than defend themselves and their action.

When working with the British Red Cross on fundraising during the London Bombings in 2005 I came to understand the value of their wonderful ‘after action review’ process. It involves three simple questions being asked after any activity.

The Red Cross questions are in the box below. Notice the focus on facts rather than opinion. And notice especially the absence of a ‘blame’ question! ‘Why’ is a much more powerful interrogative than ‘who’ when you’re trying to create learning.

UNICEF use a similar technique of asking ‘why’ five times to get to a root cause of something. Try it with something as simple as: ‘Why was our meeting so disorganised?’ So ‘why’ might produce ‘because we didn’t have time to prepare.’ Another ‘ why?’ drives down to the next level of cause. ‘Because we’re understaffed.” etc.  Whatever your answer ask ‘why’ was that until you come up with a profound cause not a symptom.

  • Are you producing knowledge? Knowledge, in this case, means the capacity for turning data into effective action. This can involve turning implicit knowledge- stuff in people’s heads- to explicit knowledge- ideas expressed publically as a system. You’re a knowledge-creator if you feel as if what you know is qualitatively different – “value-added” – from the data you took in.

Knowledge -creation also involves consciously creating new capabilities. A good question to ask yourself is does your organisation show capabilities and competencies it didn’t have three years ago? Let’s be honest if you’re not producing knowledge then you’re probably relying on that hoary old stand-by of the lazy- ‘best practice.’ Usually ‘best practice’ means ‘what’s safe and used to work.’ It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rear view mirror- noticing where you’ve been and what the traffic was like. You also need to look ‘outside.’ Some of the best knowledge creation involves taking ideas and experience from one setting and applying it elsewhere for a completely different use

Sight Savers, one of my favourite innovative INGOs worked with McDonalds in India to help make their eye operations faster, more efficient and more quality standarised. They took knowledge from a completely unrelated field and turned it to their advantage.

Lepra used just used to deal with the challenge of leprosy. The bad news from an organizational sustainability point of view was that leprosy was being more or less conquered. However, instead of closing down, Lepra decided to identify its core competence as dealing with certain kinds of disease and now tackles TB and other infections relevant to its that fundamental transferable ability.

  • Is the knowledge shared? Producing knowledge is great but it’s not enough. So a further key challenge is whether the learning is accessible to all staff and stakeholders. Here’s a test. Do you hear people walking around saying, “You know, I could have sworn we put out a report on this subject three years ago”? Are there manuals for elegant but unimplemented project management processes lying untouched? Does the central drive for your IT network have hundreds or maybe thousands of files- some important, some not- with impenetrable names like ‘finalreport.doc’? If you do maybe you could try some different ways to share knowledge.

Could you use storytelling as a way to share knowledge? One of my colleagues, Angela Cluff, is working with UNICEF internationally, helping them produce their global case for philanthropic support. UNICEF is, not unreasonably, an organisation committed to accuracy and transparency. However instead of the usual dry and schematic document explaining how worthy UNICEF and its work is they’re using stories and storytelling as a core technique to share ideas and principles across the organization and then with donors. (Note also how well this approach fits with UNICEF’s child-centric culture.)

  • Is the learning relevant? Charities aren’t universities. They’re not there to create learning simply for learning’s sake. (Though that’s not a bad thing!) To be accountable charities have to demonstrate the relevance of the time and resources they invest. In some organisations training and development is seen essentially as a perk- a way to reward and motivate staff. In my view that’s not enough.

Equally don’t simply screen out training in new ideas or techniques simply on a short-term utilitarian basis. Ask yourself is this learning aimed at developing or defining how people can contribute to organisation’s core purpose? Can people make use of it if not now then in the long term? Will it help us deliver on our mission?

RNLI spends huge sums of money on training and development. Its learning centre in Poole is one of the best purpose-built educational settings I know. They have an enormous pool and wave machine in which they can literally create hurricanes to practice rescues in the most extreme conditions imaginable. That’s good. But what’s even better is that much of this training is directed not at full-time staff but at volunteers who’s contribution sits at the centre of RNLI’s ethos. It’s the commitment to volunteers at the highest level that distinguishes them as an outstanding learning organisation.

So how good are you?

All this is very interesting. But here’s the killer question. How do you score on these five dimensions? Give yourself a score from 1-5 on each dimension in the table below

Learning Characteristics Score 1-5

OK now add up your score and follow my interpretation below

Score yourself

Score Meaning
1-5 Bottom of the class. Why not just give up now? Or go into ‘special measures?’
5-10 Stay behind for extra coaching. You’re probably good at something but not enough.
10-15 You’re trying but need to do better in some key areas or you’ll be left behind by the competition.
15-20 Really not a bad score. Where do you need to push or improve for real excellence
20-25 You’ve got the X factor. The poor, the socially excluded, and the disempowered have some hope!

And if you have any examples of learning in your organisation or in others then let me know… I’d love to share them.

July 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm Leave a comment

The Learning Leader

Learning Leaders- how to maintain leadership in a crisis

Continue Reading June 5, 2010 at 2:50 pm Leave a comment

Is your strategy ‘hot’ or not? And does it matter?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt”

Sun Tzu c. 490 BC, Chinese military strategist, and author of The Art of War

I’ve been putting together a day on strategy as part of a series of seminars we’re running encouraging thought leadership in the not for profit sector. Each seminar has some outstanding speakers and concentrates on one of three key areas for charities and non-profits: change, strategy and innovation. (See below for seminar details.) Anyway my seminar efforts led to wider thoughts … so maybe it’s a good time to re-start the blog and share some ideas.

I’ve written lots about change in earlier blogs, so thought it might be interesting to think a bit about strategy in this one.

Let’s first deal with what strategy isn’t about in my view. The early concerns in a strategic process are often about what model or approach to use – so as a consultant I’m often asked is Scenario Planning ‘hotter,’ or funkier, or more up to date as a way to plan than the Balanced Scorecard? (Strategic planners are as trendy as any 15-year-old adolescent.) “Hot or Not?” isn’t necessarily a bad question. But that ‘which model?’ question is not where I encourage people to start – it’s the wrong question.

(BTW I’m so bored hearing people say they’re bored using PEST or SWOT. On day one at Harvard Business School you learn that PEST and SWOT are essential for your planning process – and you learn to do them properly. Strategy isn’t necessarily meant to be fun! And sometimes you have to do boring stuff to be successful. It’s like going to the gym twice a week – regular is better for fitness. For most organisations the strategic plan is like a crash diet – done in a rush to get ready for a big event!)

Anyway, my contention is your strategy will only work if you ensure that all parts of your organisation are fit and work together effectively towards delivering it – otherwise it’s just a paper ambition, a proto-plan. But how do you assess how well overall your organisation is positioned to deliver any plan? And how do you make sure you remain flexible and open to possibilities while ensuring you build on current success?

The first strategic challenge is not to choose a format or model to begin writing a plan but to really know – analyse – yourself and your organisation. This analysis helps you decide two things: where to focus your attention and how to remain flexible in what Sun Tzu elsewhere in The Art of War calls “the infinite variety of circumstances.” (These circumstances might range from the credit crunch to a new government or even changing beneficiary needs. Stuff happens.)

One useful way to consider the effectiveness and flexiblity of your current approach is the McKinsey 7S framework. Peters and Waterman, two legendary management consultants and authors, developed this model in the early 1980s. But despite being 30 years old it continues, in my view, to be a useful way to assess your strategic health. (So some things from the 1980s – though maybe not flares and Betamax – are still worth using!)

The basic premise of the Peters and Watermans model is that there are seven internal dimensions of an organisation that need to be aligned for success. These are based around 7Ss: strategy, structure, systems, style, staff, skills, and shared values.

Below I explore each of these factors  to help you understand your situation and gain that vital organisational self-knowledge.

By strategy Peters and Waterman mean the kind of plans you have and how clearly they are shared and understood across the organisation. In the seminar we’re running we’ll talk about the difference between Blue Ocean and Red Ocean strategy. Blue Ocean strategies are those where you either want to gain a significant competitive advantage – Red Ocean strategies are those where you have to work in a very competitive situation with other agencies – for example many organisations seeking shrinking government support. But the key metric here is to have a plan that can be understood and explicitly interrogated by key stakeholders.

Sightsavers International, led by the inspirational Caroline Harper, decided to make a plan that could be reproduced on one sheet of paper and shared around the organisation. They call it the SIM card. (We’re proud at =mc to have helped them with this.) To find out more about their ‘one page plan’ and how they shared it across the organisation and externally click here.

Structure has a huge impact on strategy – especially through governance and management. Do you operate in a centralized way like Greenpeace International
, enabling you to move quickly and in one key direction? Or do you prefer devolved accountability like ActionAid where decision-making is slower but inclusive? There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. And choosing the right structure is essential. Is your structure helping to drive success and balance, or holding you back, leading to infighting and stasis?

Systems are about your business model. What’s your model and how is it managed and controlled? The CEO of Wal-Mart
, running one of the largest and most diverse companies in the world, has just three key performance numbers delivered to him every day at 17.30 to tell him how the company is doing. Those numbers reflect the key systems he is responsible for. As managers we often have access to lots of data, but how relevant is it to our direct responsibilities? Too much data from too many systems – and too much monitoring – means you can end up  ‘drowning in data’.  Do you know what the data you get means? Are you clear on what your key systems are and who needs to monitor them?

What’s the style of your organisation? And how do other people see you and your brand or style expressed – cool and relaxed like Google, or more formal and geeky like Microsoft? Style does set an important marker for substance. How approachable do you want to be to stakeholders? Some charities are keen to be, and to be seen to be, inclusive such as Macmillan Cancer Support. Others like the Royal Society accept that they are not inclusive but are about excellence and by definition, exclusion.

Macmillan Cancer Support undertook a major rebrand to re-imagine themselves as a more inclusive organisation. So their tagline became “we are Macmillan Cancer Support” emphasising the link between themselves, the beneficiaries and the donors.


Jim Collins in his book Good to Great talks about the importance of “getting the right people on the bus.” By this he means that the key role of a leader is to select the best people to take the organisation forward and to keep them close and ‘onboard’. Are you clear who your dream team is? How do you make sure you attract and maintain the right people? And once you have them how do you continue to retain and develop them?

The RNLI hires outstanding people and then offers them the chance to take part in a demanding 3-year management development programme – based on the Kouzes and Pozner leadership framework – that builds their skills to a whole new level of performance.


Linked to the issue of the right staff and managers is the skills (or competencies) of the organisation. What current competencies – skills, knowledge, and abilities – does your organisation have already? And what emerging competencies does it need to acquire to deliver on the strategy? Your competencies may not be as obvious as they might seem. Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney famously proclaimed that the company’s core competence was not making movies, or marketing but… ‘licensing’. So the production of films, cartoons etc. was simply seen as way to create intellectual property which others would invest in with low risk to Disney. (That’s why  to you need 7 dwarfs… for 7 licensing opportunities!) What are your key current competencies and which do you need to acquire to meet your strategy?

Comic Relief is a major UK charity with a range of competencies – from intellectual property such as the famous Red Nose and cuddly toy characters, to an ability to organise broadcast telethons exceptionally well. A key goal is to learn how to maximise the value of these different properties.

Shared values:
The final – central – S is concerned values or principles. How clear are you – and others – on your values? Values can dictate the kind of work you do, who you work with, and even where you will take money from – for example Amnesty International won’t take money from governments in case it compromises its independence and integrity. Some cultural organisations see public subsidy as fundamental to their business model. The challenge is you need to be careful these principles don’t become outdated or simply closed mindsets shutting off opportunity.

When the National Trust for Scotland recently went through a difficult restructuring they held a key conference for all staff called the Heart of the Nation, which sought to build on values as a basis for alignment.

The 7S model was, and remains, a useful tool to assess your readiness for strategy. Work your way through the ideas above. If you’re interested I’ve created an assessment tool online to help you establish your profile against the 7Ss. Fill it in and you’ll get an independent view on your readiness for strategy.

We’re also, as I said above, organising a series of Thought Leadership events over the next few months at =mc in London. To find out more click here.

January 30, 2010 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

Scroogenomics: why reindeer jumpers, singing fish and novelty clocks shouldn’t be under our Christmas trees

Had a wonderful day yesterday at London’s Royal Society of Arts (RSA). And met the engaging and urbane Joel Waldfogel, Ehrenkranz Family Professor of Business and Public Policy at the Wharton School in Pennysylvania.

Joel is a serious scholar and mostly works on ‘proper’ academic issues – dammit he’s at Wharton. These issues range all the way from intellectual property piracy to the effects of information on markets. And oddly, almost inadvertently, he’s a great advocate for Christmas cheer, virtual charity gifts and philanthropy in a roundabout ‘economic’ way… Let me get to that bit.

Anyway he has in the last ten years become concerned, not to say excited, by gifts at Christmas and their negative economic impact. And he’s written a book about it called Scroogenomics .

It’s based on some serious academic study. But the genesis of the book was his disappointment some years ago at receiving yet another poorly chosen and ill-fitting sweater from a loving but inept relative. He was worried that his relative had wasted money on something he would never use. Does this sound familiar? …to read the rest of this blog, click ‘Continue reading’ below

Continue Reading December 4, 2009 at 5:27 pm 3 comments

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