A few months ago, I co-founded a non-profit with a group of friends called Feed the Front Line. We brought together a small group of volunteers, consisting of young professionals and college students to to support local restaurants and feed frontline workers and communities affected by COVID-19. We have raised >$1M and delivered >75k meals to date.
This has been one of, if not, the most formative experiences of my life. I am so proud of our team and my friends for the tangible impact we had on local communities across Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Nashville, Charlotte, Chicago and Kentucky. It was not always pretty, and we learned some hard lessons the hard way. I certainly could have done a better job in a number of situations. Our work is still ongoing, but as things have slowed down, I have taken the time to reflect on some of the lessons that I have learned.
1. Excellence is a standard. Give a little and you end up giving a lot.
There is an old adage that says it is easier to be disciplined 100% of the time than 99% of the time. Why is that? Making decisions at the margin is difficult. It is easier when a standard is set, and there is no decision to be made.
The same can be said for excellence. A leader is responsible for setting the standard for quality within their organization. Tolerating anything less than excellence in one instance lowers the standard for all future instances. Perhaps not explicitly, but people will begin to wonder,“is this something that really needs to be excellent?”
The lowering of the standard begins in a very benign way. Perhaps after weeks of meticulous work, a person goes to post an Instagram photo, and does not take the time to align the caption to new messaging points.“It is just a social media caption. It does not really matter what it says,” they think. And since it is just a social media post, nobody thinks to correct them. Now that person and anyone who did not correct the messaging is complicit in a lower standard of quality for the organization.
Then the next time somebody updates the website, they will know in the back of their mind that there is a margin of error that is acceptable within the organization. And they think the same when they create marketing materials, a pitch deck, talk with customers, and so on. Before you know it, the voice of your organization is muddled, inconsistent and not aligned to your goals.
Now I am not advocating for perfectionism or micro-management. Both of those I would consider anti-excellent. But there is a standard, an expectation, a culture around doing things that should be constantly cultivated by a leader. It is why when a company does one thing wrong, they often do many things wrong (think Comcast) and when a company has a standard for excellence, it permeates through all aspects of the organization (think peak Apple with Steve Jobs). So when you let one or two minor things slip, and you get apathetic towards a few details, be mindful of the cascading impact that will have on your organization.
2. Alignment is king.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. But how do you create the right culture? You have people that are aligned and moving in the same direction. Even the slightest misalignment causes an organizational breakdown over time.
The start-up commandments dictate “Thou shall found a start-up with a friend.” I think what they are really saying is you need incredibly deep alignment on mission, vision, and values for an organization to work. You will not agree on everything, but you better agree on the foundations. You must always be moving towards the same goal-posts, though how you get there is up for debate.
For better or worse, different people wanted different things from Feed the Front Line. Some people wanted to help a specific city, others wanted to help the healthcare community, others wanted to help restaurants, some wanted to help food insecurity. Although it was beautiful to see people come together for different ways to help communities, slight competing priorities lead to organizational disagreements.
These issues of alignment are only magnified in a volunteer and friend driven organization. There is little to no authoritative / positional power, and we all knew we had to respect each other’s own goals and interests. But what happens when we are designing a marketing strategy, and volunteer x favors the strategy that optimizes for impact locally and volunteer y favors the strategy that optimizes for brand power across cities? Without clear alignment and buy-in on whether we are a national or local focused organization, it becomes nearly impossible to make the decision.
Without alignment, decisions are made slower, I do not think we ever fully solved this tension and I am not sure how solvable misalignment really is.
3. Leadership is hard, and I have many lessons to learn.
It is not easy being a leader, and it is certainly not easy being a leader among a group of volunteers consisting of friends, friends of friends, and strangers. This section could honestly be an essay in and of itself.
Without going into too much detail, this is more of a recognition that I certainly was not a perfect leader, and I have many ways I can improve. A few areas that come to mind:
- Clear, open, and thoughtful communication
- Being more empathetic to others
- Being more decisive and rallying people around those decisions
4. People’s goodwill is unlimited, we just need to unlock it.
Far and away, the largest lesson comes from the amazing people I worked with along the way - my friends, strangers, restaurant owners, non-profit leaders and new friends I made along the way. There is a special way that people come together to help during a crisis that reveals the goodwill we have inside of us that is not always tapped into.
Through this experience, I worked with restaurant owners who donated meals even though their restaurants were facing difficult financial times, I met college students who dropped out of school to help run non-profits that were created in the wake of COVID-19, I was introduced to professionals across the country who were essentially working two full-time jobs to lend a hand to volunteer efforts.
Amazing actions by amazing people, which I would have never witnessed if not for this experience.
Which begs the questions, what makes this bias towards action come out during a crisis? How do we unlock these actions for good during all times? How do we find other people who are similarly aligned, beyond hoping to run into them at some point?
These are all questions I am looking to answer, and if you are interested in helping solve them or being part of the answer, please reach out to chat!