Confessions of a Chief Operating Officer Could sharing our mistakes be the key to stronger organizations?

For the past three years, I’ve tried to convene a scrappy group of Chief Operating Officers (COOs) and other COO-like people from international NGOs to meet and discuss challenges, share lessons learned, and generate a sense of shared purpose in the way that many Washington networking groups do. I call the group scrappy, because it is. Despite good intentions, it’s usually loosely organized at the last minute, with an agenda that always begins with some head scratching as we try to remember where we left things the last time. In the past, we tried a website, offering snacks, and bringing in guest speakers – but both the website and snacks went untouched and it was difficult to attract a speaker with a compelling message for a group of busy COOs. Only a handful of participants came to each meeting, with an additional handful on the phone.

COOs as a class can’t boast about being busier than any other senior managers, but we can lay claim to enormous unpredictability in our schedules. Our roles in our organizations mean that we are the ultimate ones responsible for putting out fires, whacking moles, responding to the urgent stuff that comes up that the CEO cannot drop and do. The buck often does stop with us because the CEO often has an intense travel and meeting schedule.

We can often keep a COOs meeting slot clear in our schedules for several weeks only to see it filled the night before or even while we ride the metro on our way to the meeting. Thus, for a group to convene with any regularity and with any sort of quorum is sort of unbelievable. But convene we did! All 26 of us – 16 in the room, with an additional 10 on the phone, last month in Dupont Circle, graciously hosted and fed by FHI360. And there was zest and zing to the discussion, lots of laughter and a reluctance to end. What made this time different? The fact that we ‘fessed up to our mistakes – sometimes big ones.

What made this time different? The fact that we ‘fessed up to our mistakes – sometimes big ones.

The topic of sharing our biggest mistakes as COOs was the brainchild of Peter Clancy of Population Services International (although renamed “COO Solutions Roundtable” by our InsideNGO colleagues Tom Dente and Susan Libby). It was a success because we were honest and frank about things that had not gone well – and in the process discovered how many other initiatives have suffered almost identical fates.

Let’s be honest. Most organized panels on sharing “lessons learned” or on “meeting challenges” end up to be great forums to showcase our strengths by disguising them as weaknesses. We talk about how we cleverly overcame a problem by having our great staff follow a new process or employ a new tool. It’s the same tactic used when answering the interview question “what is your greatest weakness” by saying “I tend to be a perfectionist” or “I have trouble saying no to new work.” Regardless of whether it’s a disastrous new computer system, management paradigm or personnel policy, we are reluctant to reveal costly mistakes or errors of judgment that show us in a bad light. But at this meeting, we not only admitted to mistakes but embraced them and had a breakthrough discussion.

However, are we united as a result? Can we, as senior leaders in our NGOs, engage and share despite the fact that we are essentially competitors who may find ourselves gunning for the same grants and contracts and wooing the same foundations and agencies? As organizations working on issues that further the greater good, it is perhaps easier for us than for corporate players to work collaboratively. Our organizational objectives are focused on improving the human condition, not on gaining market share or earning profit for shareholders. In fact, PAI advocates for broad increases in resources and supportive policies “for the movement.” In that respect, when we meet our objectives to increase U.S. government funding  and improve the policy environment around family planning and reproductive health, many of the organizations in the COOs meeting room benefit.

We get more out of learning from each other’s candor than we lose from divulging our weaknesses or sharing our business models.

And yet, many of us are also increasingly dealing with finding new money in an uncertain development aid funding environment, demanding reform on indirect/overhead caps imposed by our funders, and paying closer attention to outcome research, organizational effectiveness and risk management. These are all areas where we may be both eager to hear where others have had success, but reluctant to show our own cards.

The key for our COOs group appears to be that we get more out of learning from each other’s candor than we lose from divulging our weaknesses or sharing our business models. In light of the energy released at this “mistakes” meeting, fessing up to our errors may be just the ticket. After all, no one will want to steal your new strategy if it was a flop. We’ve decided to continue the COO Solutions Roundtable as our topic for discussions for now. Time will tell if it proves to be an effective organizing principle. Who knows, we may start trying to one-up each other by presenting the biggest and best mistake. And no, we won’t publish the minutes.

For more information on the International NGO COO Network, contact the author at cvogel@popact.org or Susan Libby at slibby@InsideNGO.org.

2 Responses to “Confessions of a Chief Operating Officer”

  1. Paul Auxila

    Thanks Carolyn. This is indeed refreshing. We have so much to learn from each other (and therefore or respective organizations have so much more to benefit) when we trust each other and share mistakes, challenges and strategies designed to address them (even if they were not successful). That is the only way to learn! I am glad to be part of this group. Paul

  2. Carolyn Hart

    Good one, Carolyn. Have long enjoyed the Engineers without Borders Canada-launched effort to share (and admit) “failures”! http://www.admittingfailure.com/

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