Your Leap

quote1 Courageous leaders …want to learn, grow, and improve… they know it’s the best way they can fulfill the mission that compelled them to dedicate their lives to serving others. quote1

Courageous leaders realize that the journey to high performance begins from within. They don’t take the journey just to please funders or meet reporting requirements. They embark on the journey, risks and all, because they want to learn, grow, and improve. They know it’s the best way they can fulfill the mission that compelled them to dedicate their lives to serving others. What are the hallmarks of a high-performing organization? Here’s a working definition.

1 high-performing organization noun, often attributive
: with a commitment to excellence, achieves outstanding outcomes over a period of years

It is a high-performance organization because it:

  • Is passionately and relentlessly driven to fulfill its mission
  • Has leadership with the courage to rethink and reinvent for greater impact
  • Clearly articulates and upholds its guiding principles (core values)
  • Has clarity in mission, goals, and strategies
  • Sets clear, bold, measurable, and achievable goals
  • Has an uncompromising focus on achieving outcomes tied to meaningful, measurable change in lives, institutions, and communities
  • Is relentless in recruiting and developing talent to get “the right people on the bus in the right seats”
  • Fosters a pervasive continuous improvement culture that encourages adaptive, inquisitive learning
  • Is disciplined and data-informed in planning, decision-making, and execution
  • Is rigorous in gauging progress
  • Maintains fidelity to evidence-based, evidence-informed, validated models and/or best practices whenever possible
  • Views performance/assessment information as an asset for and integral to all levels of staff and management
  • Builds a close connection with, and listens to, those it serves
  • Ensures financial health and sustainability.

To bring these hallmarks to life, here are a few good examples of what high performance looks like in practice.

Youth Villages

Patrick Lawler is a stunning nonprofit leader in Memphis, Tennessee. He runs an organization called Youth Villages, which helps emotionally troubled young people—many of them kids who’ve been bounced from one foster home to the next—become successful adults. Youth Villages rigorously tracks all the children it serves, during their treatment and often for two years after their discharge. “The state shouldn’t be buying beds,” says CEO Pat Lawler. “They should buy outcomes, successful outcomes.”

Pat’s results are extraordinary. Eighty-two percent of the kids in Youth Villages programs across the country are rising above their heart-wrenching challenges. They are finishing school, earning a living, and contributing to their communities. That’s literally twice the rate achieved by comparable programs. If that’s not eye-opening enough, Pat’s program costs one-third as much as competitor programs. Twice the outcomes. One-third the cost!

How far do you have to go to save a child?

Harlem Children’s Zone

Before he was featured in the provocative movie Waiting for “Superman,” Geoff Canada, founder and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), raised a stir with comments in the New York publication City Limits. When Canada was asked to define success for HCZ, he said, “The only benchmark of success is college graduation. That’s the only one: How many kids you got in college, how many kids you got out.” Canada could not have been clearer on the ultimate outcome HCZ is focused on achieving. It’s not improving reading levels. It’s not getting kids to graduate from high school. It’s not helping kids get into college. To Canada, these are important interim indicators that HCZ is moving in the right direction, but, ultimately, what matters is ensuring that those young people make it through college—because ample evidence shows that making it through college is what leads to lifelong results for the young people HCZ serves.

With that great clarity as a starting point, Canada and his team, aided by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Bridgespan, and others, have gotten good at identifying the information they need to collect in order to manage to this outcome. Are all the kids in HCZ graduating from college? Of course not. But HCZ is on a very promising path.