Friday, February 20, 2009

My Life As a Duck

I think passion is one of the most important characteristics anyone can have. It's contagious. When you surround yourself with passionate people, your own passion is fueled. But being passionate about something and doing it are two different things. There's plenty of people who will tell you what can't be done and there's plenty of people who are all thrust and no vector. Mike Lenhart had a vision and actually did something with it. His story and his nonprofit, Getting 2 Tri, are truly inspirational. Bunnie

Mike Lenhart with Jenny Hunt

Formed in 2006, The Getting2Tri Foundation (G2T) provides coaching, mentoring and training in the sports of swimming, cycling and running to physically-challenged individuals. Specifically, G2T addresses the needs of individuals with limb loss, paralysis and muscular or neurological disorders. G2T athletes range from single sport members entering their first race as part of a relay team, to seasoned triathletes competing in Kona at the Ironman World Championships. The backgrounds of physically-challenged athletes are just as varied as their goals, from wounded veterans to people with limb loss due to disease. For each athlete, G2T’s focus is the same: to get him or her onto the playing field, at whatever level is their personal best. In 2008, G2T provided more than 12,000 hours of coaching and training to its field of athletes who competed in more than 100 races during the season.

My Life As a Duck

by Mike Lenhart
Founder and President
The Getting2Tri Foundation, Inc.

I came across Bunnie’s blog site through the result of some social networking efforts. I subscribed to her blog which I found to be a great resource for non profit leaders. She contacted me soon after via email and asked if I’d be willing to share my “story” about creating my non profit organization, The Getting2Tri Foundation. It’s my pleasure to share some thoughts with others today. Let me warn you, if you’re looking for a text book answer on the key points of starting a non profit, then this will not be the read for you. There are tons of great answers on topics like setting up your board, choosing an executive director, how to handle the finances, et al, readily available elsewhere. Rather, my comments today are more off-the-cuff and are the results from many of the decisions I faced in the short three year’s of Getting2Tri’s existence. I’ve listed below the top 5 lessons I learned while starting up my non-profit organization.

Lesson 1: “Just do it”. I’ve never read any polls taken that compared the number of non profit leaders who were school trained in starting anything prior to dipping their toes into the water. My guess is that many are not trained but yet most have the entrepreneurial spirit. Like many, I sat around for a long time anxious about starting my organization. I am somewhat risk adverse and not a gambler. I live my life mostly conservatively. However, eventually I realized that if I felt so strongly about something, then why sit around waiting for the big nudge? It isn’t easy starting a non profit. It’s a huge leap of faith. I believe that regardless of your trust in a higher power, that we are all called to some degree of service. Many ,if not most of us, choose to ignore that calling and that’s okay. It’s not a choice for everyone. But I found that once I made the decision to start, I had more than enough momentum to get me going.

Lesson 2: “Stick it out”. Eventually, the momentum I suggest above will begin to slow down. Many of my friends began to question me. Some even abandoned me. And there are still many periods of loneliness where I question “why”. However, the rewards are worth the efforts. There’s a great quote by Theodore Roosevelt that says:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

To me, this reaffirms that it’s better to have tried and failed than to always wonder “what if”. One of the biggest lessons I learned early on was how to develop my foundation’s vision statement. Notice, I said “vision” and not “mission” statement. A vision statement says, when you slice it all away, what’s most important to your organization? Vision spells out passion, desire and core values. And it’s in those periods of doubt that I reach back to my organization’s vision statement to keep me focused on “sticking it out”.

Lesson 3: “Be a quitter”. Surround yourself with quality people who understand your passion and can execute on your mission. Slowly “quit” the things that are piled high on your plate. I recently picked up the book “Ten Roads to Riches” by Ken Fisher. In one of the chapters, the author talks about knowing when to delegate. In other words, knowing when to quit. We are so engrained to be successful and never stop anything that we forget about the strength of delegated leadership. It is a difficult process to develop especially if you’re a person used to having his hands into all the decisions. Most non-profit organizations are heavily staffed with volunteers. Getting2Tri would not be nearly as successful without the initiative and leadership of many, many of our volunteers who understand the mission and use their unique skills to execute. I can’t do all aspects of the mission so I’ve had to learn the hard lesson of slowly “quitting” many of the tasks I had piled high on my own plate.

Lesson 4: The Three I’s: Be innovative, imaginative and intriguing. Has the economy dried up? You betcha. This is where leadership is forged. Like many of you, my foundation’s biggest challenge is raising money in a downward economy. My executive director and I share most of the fund-raising responsibilities. She concentrates on many of the traditional corporate “asks”; I focus on some of the more recent trends to make ourselves innovative, imaginative and intriguing. Serving both communities is important. Some recent trends that are working for us include: Creating a Ning community for knowledge sharing by our athletes, use of video as a means to dramatically demonstrate our mission execution, and the creation of viral campaigns and messaging on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter . We try to have a continual steady flow of information to keep our mission in the forefront.

Lesson 5: “Adding that fifth ball to juggle”. There’s a great analogy given by a motivational speaker named Dan Thurmond. Dan tells a story about practicing juggling with four balls. He noticed that his 3-ball juggling got really good when he added a fourth ball even though he never mastered it with four balls. And it wasn’t until he added a fifth ball that his 4-ball juggling got better. Don’t lose my point I’m trying to make here. I’m not suggesting you add more to your plate. Remember, I commented earlier that we must become “quitters”. Rather, I am suggesting that when you think you can’t do something, just challenge yourself a little harder. You’ll be amazed at the progress. Trust me!

Finally, I’d like to close by saying that all these points, and the many I didn’t cover because I haven’t learned them yet, are nothing without a large dose of patience. If you’re considering entering the non profit space, perhaps starting up your own organization, then chances are you’re a dynamic visionary who has lots of great ideas. I think at one point, my vision list had about 30 projects on it. So there I was facing a huge ocean to boil and only a small BIC lighter and a couple pieces of dry kindling wood to make any sort of fire. It is always best to whittle down your projects to what matters most. (Go back to your vision statement.) Wanna know why most non profits take at least five years to get into a nice stride? Because it takes time!

I was extremely privileged to attend West Point for my undergraduate studies. While at West Point, my company of 120 cadets was Delta Company, First Regiment or more commonly called “D-1”. Our mascot was a duck. That’s right…a duck! Long before Aflac championed their branding, we were the D-1 Ducks. Many of us were embarrassed by the non-military appeal of a duck. We’d never seen a duck “charge that hill”. However, that embarrassment changed when our Tactical Officer told a gathering of D-1 leaders what it meant to be a duck. When you think about a duck on the water, he appears very calm and placid on the surface. But beneath it all, he is paddling like hell! I’ve carried that message throughout my professional career now nearly 20 years since graduating from West Point.

Always display the patience that shows you are calm above the surface. Beneath it all, paddle like hell and never loose site of your passion.

My sincere best of luck to you all!
Most respectfully,

Mike Lenhart

Contact Mike at

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