Nonprofit Network Blog

Sharpen Your Ax

Thursday, October 01, 2020 2:00 PM | Deleted user



Tom Williams
Consultant



It seems I'm always having a lot of conversations with leaders about self-care. Today, I'm specifically thinking about professional development.

When I contemplate professional development, I immediately think of the saying largely attributed to our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” 

You will note his advice is deliberatebefore the work starts, he spends a significant amount of time preparing himself completely.  Two-thirds of the allotted time is spent developing a tool that will be ready for the task. 

Prioritizing preparation does not have to cause you to miss your deadline. In fact, investing more than half of your allotted time to equip yourself can be a recipe for success.  

From my perspective, this proverb is a resounding endorsement of professional development.  

Which leads me to two questions: 

1) Why are we jumping straight into the work? 

I suspect our rush to start the work directly in front of us may be due to our addiction to urgency. Being compelled to put out all the “urgencies” (checklists, emails, social media, and unscheduled visitors) provides many of us with a sense of accomplishment. This is actually a physical reaction from your brain firing adrenaline and other feel-good chemicals. However, this comes at the cost of not addressing items that are most important. Self-care is made possible when we spend time working the “important” items instead of the most “urgent” ones that are right in front of us.

2) Why are we swinging a tool that's not up to the task? 

Regrettably, we often defer professional development to "when we get the time" or "when we get the money." Sound time management practices tell us that these things don't happen on their own. We have to deliberately make the time and budget the funding. Sharpening the ax is all about working smarter, not harder. If you're a board member, make sure you're protecting a line-item for professional development for everyone—that's staff, your executive director, and yourselves.  Seek out grants and funding that will cover the costs of professional development. This is soundly in your control. Own it. Take control and be intentional. Which, by the way, is the best approach for self-care. 


What’s your ax? Is it a new hard skill? How about all the soft skills that are so important in our nonprofit sector? Becoming better at our profession accomplishes many things. It obviously impacts the quality of our outcomes, but also has a significant impact on our self-care.

Work that falls within your skill set also is done more quickly (sooner diagnosis of issue, less trial-and-error) and is done under less stress (because of your increased confidence). Working within your skill set is also a major contributor to job satisfaction. So identify an area of your work that needs to be refined or built. If you add sound time management and increased proficiency at your work, you are well on your way to the work/life balance we crave.

Be intentional.

In response to the need for intentional and deliberate professional development, Nonprofit Network offers intentional focus to all Executive Directors, CEO's, Managing Directors and/or Direct Reports.

Peer Coaching and Executive Director Academy

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NN's Peer Coaching

Peer Coaching Groups meet online once a month for 7 sessions and are designed to facilitate goal-setting, coaching and action learning within a small group of peers. Each group member decides what real-world goals or issues they wish to address and guided by a cognitive coach, your peers will coach you primarily through asking open-ended questions to expand the member’s thinking and options.

Groups are no larger then 8, but require a minimum of 6 participants



NN's Executive Director Academy 

The Academy is a 9-month cohort of 15 (or fewer) ED's who have been in their job for under 5-7 years or ED's in training.  The cohort meets monthly online covering different topics important to your role and you will apply the information in real-time between these sessions.


If you're interested in a cohort for EDs who have been in the field for more than 5 years (or if you're a new ED but are not free for this season's cohort dates), let us know! We'll add you to the wait-list for the next relevant cohort!

*Updated from original post of Sept. 2019

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