Leading with clarity

An interview with Don Miller of Meals on Wheels America

A clear sense of purpose goes a long way when it comes to bringing teams together to accomplish great things. This is especially true for nonprofit organizations, where resources are often limited.

Meals on Wheels America is one example: As the largest and oldest organization dedicated to addressing hunger and isolation among seniors, Meals on Wheels America supports senior nutrition programs in more than 5,000 communities and mobilizes millions of volunteers across the United States—with just a few dozen full-time staff members.

So how do they do it? It all goes back to having a clear mission—as well as having clarity in how day-to-day work contributes to that larger mission.

We recently interviewed Don Miller, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer at Meals on Wheels America to learn how their mission drives everything they do, what happens when there isn’t clarity, and why it’s important to have internal clarity around processes.

From mission to strategies and tactics

The mission of Meals on Wheels America is “to empower local community programs to improve the health and quality of life of the seniors they serve so that no one is left hungry or isolated.” Their work is focused on two core areas: providing education, training, and resources to local Meals on Wheels programs and serving as the voice of the movement on a national scale. “For me, our job is to fire people up,” Don says.

For one, Meals on Wheels America is currently focused on inspiring and enlisting a new wave of volunteers—the backbone of local operations—to support the increasing demand for services across the country.

Supporting this grassroots effort is a small but mighty staff of 38 people who work in the Meals on Wheels America headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. As Chief Financial and Administrative Officer, Don oversees day-to-day operations, including everything from finance, accounting, and IT to HR, program logistics, and facilities management. Part of that role also involves translating the organization’s mission into tangible strategies and plans that team members can execute on together.

“We always start with the mission,” Don says, “and everything is driven by that. We try to connect everything from the very high-level and strategic all the way down to the tactical at the individual level.”

“We always start with the mission, and everything is driven by that.”

To get to this level of clarity, the Meals on Wheels America team follows a regular cadence of planning activities to get everyone aligned. Every few years, Don and the leadership team draw up a three-year strategy. From there, they create one-year plans as an organization, followed by departmental plans and then individual plans.

Having a fixed starting point—the organization’s mission—provides clarity for everything else that they do, from advocating on Capitol Hill to improving internal processes. It also gives team members a clear understanding of how their individual work connects back to that mission.

“We try to align all those things so that when people look at what they have on their plate,” Don says, “they know how it’s contributing to both the success of their functional team as well as the success of the organization.”

When there isn’t clarity

Clarity isn’t just something that you achieve once, though. It also needs to be maintained on an ongoing basis. Every now and then, it is possible for teams to become misaligned and lose sight of their collective goals.

When teams don’t have clarity, Don sees symptoms on two different levels. “At the tactical level, I see a lot more missed deadlines. There’s so much going on that people lose track of what needs to be delivered to whom and when.”

“The reality is we, as leaders, under-communicate by a factor of ten.”

At the strategic level, Don can tell there’s a lack of clarity when he starts hearing a lot of why questions. “When people don’t understand the why behind what they’re doing” Don says, “that’s probably a more serious issue.”

One way that Don maintains clarity among his team is by having regular conversations about the bigger picture: how tactics, strategy, and mission fit together. “Leadership teams talk about this stuff all the time. We assume everybody just gets it because we talk about it exhaustively.” he says. “The reality is we, as leaders, under-communicate by a factor of ten.

“To me, it’s really important to round up the troops and connect back to the strategic plan and mission and make sure that they understand how all those pieces go together. Our team is very passionate about our mission, and if they don’t understand how what they’re doing connects to it, you [as a leader] miss the whole point.”

Clarifying internal processes

Beyond aligning teams, much of Don’s work is focused on creating internal clarity about how things operate. When Don first joined Meals on Wheels America in 2013, many internal processes had not been documented. At the time, the organization totaled 18 people. Within the next two years, it would double in size.

In the midst of this growth, Don recognized that the organization needed to clarify and standardize its internal processes so that team members could be more effective in their roles and scale their efforts. But without a dedicated HR team—and a slew of other responsibilities on his plate—Don couldn’t do it alone.

Enter the Culture Club. (No, not that Culture Club). Formed in 2014 as the Workplace Standards Group, this ad hoc team included individuals from across the Meals on Wheels organization. This group, as Don puts it, was “a result of not having an HR team that could do a lot of things on the people side of the house.” Their first order of business was to think through how people would work together and identify areas that could be standardized across the organization.

For the next several months, the group focused on developing processes, documenting them, and introducing standard operating procedures, especially in traditionally overlooked areas like communication. These processes are still in place today, setting expectations and providing clarity for how team members work together at Meals on Wheels America.

“Clarity, for us, is like the linchpin that holds these things together.”

With that work complete, the Workplace Standards Group started taking on other special internal projects, like planning the organization’s annual retreat. “I had this group of passionate people who had worked on several HR initiatives that really had nothing to do with their core role in the organization.” Don recalls. So he decided to formalize the group and rename it the Culture Club, “which really exists to make Meals on Wheels America a great place to work.”

All of this internal, people-focused work has helped Don elevate HR into a strategic function at Meals on Wheels. And while this work doesn’t directly connect to public-facing work, it’s an important part of helping the organization achieve its mission.

“Our focus on the HR side is, how do we become a world-class organization? That translates into a lot of things: tracking and retaining great people, being a high-performing team, driving results,” says Don. “Ultimately, it’s everything that supports us in successfully delivering on our mission.”

Putting it all together

For Don, making Meals on Wheels America a world-class organization means creating a workplace that embodies a core set of cultural values: collaboration, learning, accountability, and service. “We have a super passionate staff,” Don says. “The team operates, really, like a family and they’re really committed to helping each other.”

His sees his role as a leader in terms of providing a support structure, whether it’s clarifying how individual work ladders up to the organization’s mission or internal processes, for these cultural values. And by getting a clear view  into what everyone across the organization is working on, from the individual to the strategic level, he’s better able to empower team members to deliver on their commitments to each other—so they’re not only collaborative, but also accountable.

He says, “Clarity, for us, is like the linchpin that holds these things together.”

Special thanks to Don Miller, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer at Meals on Wheels America for contributing to this story. Meals on Wheels America is an Asana customer.

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