Hippos are Africa’s deadliest animal
I had the opportunity to visit a river-based hippo sanctuary about five years ago. Before visiting the sanctuary, I thought the vegetarian descendant of dinosaurs was harmless. My childhood impressions of the hippo were dead wrong – – – they are the most dangerous animal in Africa. Using hinged jaws that open 180 degrees and snap shut with startling force, hippos kill more humans than lions, tigers or any other animal !
Seeing a herd of hippos in the wild demonstrates their aggressive and territorial nature. In fact, in their natural habitat, “might makes right.” And an angry hippo is always right.
HiPPOs can be the deadliest decision makers in your nonprofit
Most nonprofit organizations also have a hippo on their staff and one on their board. In this case, however, the HiPPO is the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. We’ve all seen it: following a vigorous conversation in the management team meeting, the chief executive sweeps away the conversation to make the decision. In the process, the CEO HiPPO eviscerates contradictory opinions, prioritizes the feelings of their gut over data, and ridicules those who suggest more research or deliberation.
Need more support that HiPPO-based decision making is bad? The Evening Standard noted that the classic HiPPO decision maker is Donald Trump. His belief that the coronavirus would “disappear” meant that our nation was unprepared for the pandemic. Epidemiologists and scientist urged nationwide measures to stop the spread of COVID, and he refused to implement them. This has resulted in the United States accounting for 25% of COVID-19 cases. Clearly, HiPPOs can have deadly consequences inside and outside your organization.
While nonprofit board members are volunteers, most boards also have a HiPPO. Though a board HiPPO is often the person with the most assets or most professional success. The board’s HiPPO might be the philanthropist who gives away millions every year. It could be an entrepreneur who has grown a business into a multi-million-dollar conglomerate. Or the HiPPO could just be a local pediatrician who happens to be the wealthiest person on the board. It’s human nature to falsely believe that successful people are smarter, savvier and more strategic in all matters.
3 Strategies to Minimize HiPPO Influence
In the case of staff, there’s a power imbalance that enables the highest paid staff member to make the final decision. And, while I do not suggest staff management teams vote to make decisions, I do advocate three ways for minimizing the HiPPO effect.
#1: Have a strategy screen for making big decisions
Spend some time as a board or a team to create a strategy screen that guides big decisions. While each organization will create a unique strategy screen, a sample strategy screen
A board or team that agrees to use this strategy screen could debate and deliberate on each point of the screen. While the HiPPO may still be the final arbiter, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes if a decision does not agree with the strategy screen.
#2: Be clear about what doesn’t need a HiPPO’s consultation or consent
That’s right – let’s be clear about the types of decisions that directors, managers and direct service staff can make without consulting a supervisor or chief executive. Then empower staff to make those decisions and support them even when we disagree with the decision itself.
#3: Conduct experiments
Many HiPPOs weigh in on decisions that are tactical but not strategic. In these situations, the outcome of an experiment should be the final arbiter of the decision. As an example, should we invest marketing dollars to recruit new clients on Facebook or Instagram? Instead of making a decision without real data, the HiPPO should ask for an experiment. This can be a simple experiment: those advocating for Facebook marketing have 5 hours of time and $100 to implement a FB campaign. Those advocating for Instagram have the same resources to implement a campaign on the Gram.
Before the experiment begins, the team agrees on how it will measure success. In the example from above, these measures might include:
- Total number of new clients recruited
- Average cost per new client recruited
- Demographic or other client recruitment goals
- Percent of new clients recruited who complete the program
Each team tracks this data from their recruitment campaign, and that data becomes the basis for the decision.
Success depends on the HiPPO
In order for these to work in your organization, the HiPPO needs to demonstrate a commitment to a more deliberate decision-making process.
While giving up control may feel challenging, the vast majority of HiPPOs don’t want the very real pressure of having to make every decision. It’s emotionally and mentally taxing, and they would love to have a system for stepping away from the tactical. For this reason, don’t be afraid to suggest a strategy screen, a decision-making authority matrix or tactical experiments – – – even if you’re not the HiPPO in your organization.
Finally, If you manage even one person in your organization, you are the HiPPO for those who report to you. So adopt these three recommendations yourself. Other organizational leaders will take notice that you’re making better, more effective decisions. And they’ll undoubtedly want to know your secret to success.
Why am I writing about this?
One of my core services at Successful Nonprofits® is coaching, and this blog post describes a concept many nonprofit executives struggle with. If you believe executive coaching would help you and your organization succeed, check out my coaching services and reach out to me.
Related Successful Nonprofits® resources
Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful: