Starting Well; Ending Well: the importance of good beginnings [Part 1 of 2]

The US presidential election has dominated the news cycle of late, not only for Americans but for many around the world for whom what happens in the US has ripple effects far beyond the US border.   Many non-Americans are deeply interested if not invested in the outcome; but also, there is always, it seems, much to learn by using US politics as a kind of case study in institutional governance and flourishing.  And in particular, it is helpful to ask what we learn about good beginnings and good conclusions to tenure – when we have a new job or assignment, what it means to begin well; and, if we are concluding a role or assignment, what it means to end well.   And we can ask some questions through the current ‘inter-regnum’ between the election of Joe Biden and his formal inauguration in January 2021. 

Quite apart from whether you support or do not support the Democratic president elect, we can still watch and learn and see what he is doing well – what lessons about good beginnings he might be demonstrating.   All of this is a reminder that as a rule you only get to do this once;  that is, when you have a new job or a new assignment or new responsibility, this is your chance:  to appreciate that we need to be oh-so-intentional – that a good beginning can make all the difference in the world in our long-term effectiveness.  Rather than “backing-in” to a responsibility to be intentional and tend to that which establishes a good foundation, a good starting point so that going forward you can build on that good beginning.   We can speak about the first 90 or 100 days, for example.  I do this with all those who I appoint who are direct reports for me – VPs and division heads, anyone who is newly assigned meets with me within the first week or 10 days and we agree on a list – two or three things, perhaps as many as five, but definitely no more than five things – that will be the focus of their attention in those first 100 days.  When you start out in a new role, identify those things – measurable, identifiable – that you will tend to, each of which is part of beginning well.   And discuss them with the person to whom you report [i.e. a senior pastor with the chair of the church council or board], an associate pastor with a senior pastor, a non-for profit VP with the president, etc. 

First, think in terms of key working relationships – both those that will be reporting to you or that you report to – but also lateral relationships and connections that need to be established with a view towards long term associations and affiliations.   When I became a president of a university this meant meeting with the city mayor, the presidents of other universities in Calgary where I serve, the pastors of larger and influential congregations in the city of Calgary and the executive directors of key non-profit agencies.   And then also, who are those internally that you need to meet with – in my case, senior members of the faculty and junior members, to get a feel or read on what they see and feel and how they are making sense of their role and the future of the organization?   I must stress, though:  this is not merely about a friendly chat; go into each of these meetings with a clear agenda – questions you will be asking – and take notes, not during the meeting, but afterwards:  what did you ask, what did you learn, what new questions emerged and what furrowed your brow? 

Second, think in terms of a small win – something that signals two things:  that you know how to get things done and that you accomplished something that everyone knew needed to happen; and, this small win represents hope and capacity and key values.   Sometimes small wins are rather easy.   I decreed that 35-40 plastic, dusty, fake plants would be removed and discarded from our buidlings and we started a process of bringing living plants into the building, including two large trees – well, small at first, but now quite large – that fill the entry way and atrium.    It was an immediate statement that plants mattered – not pseudo plants but real plants that needed to be tend.   Small, but it made a point.  I also secured a major grant for a substantive renovation, but I think the drama of the plants was as impactful as anything. 

And third, do some substantive work on the mission of the organization:   make no assumptions as you begin but rather use the opening season to think about brand, institutional purpose and what distinguishes this organization, this school, this church, this non-profit from peer institutions.   In my case, what I learned was that the organization lacked clarity about its purpose and that greater definition was essential before we could go very far.  So I did the initial ground work but then initiated an extensive consultative process towards a greater clarity about the mission of this organization. 

The first 100 days is not about a revolution; it is not about turning everything up-side-down; it is not about being a hero.   But, it is about taking advantage of a new beginning and doing those things that in a very real sense can only be done at the beginning.   You can only say “I’m new here . . . “ with the openings that this brings . . . well, you can only say it when you are, indeed, “new here.”

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.