In my first position as an executive director, I was fortunate to have a wise and effective predecessor. In my second, I founded a brand-new organization. So, it wasn’t until I became an interim executive director – a position that I have now held three times – that I had any reason to think about how to change a culture.
What is organizational culture? In a 2016 article, Katzenbach, Oelschlegel, and Thomas describe it as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”
Culture matters. A problematic culture can hold an organization back from fully achieving its mission. Failure to address culture problems can affect staff retention and stand in the way of achieving key program or policy changes.
Over time, I’ve found that some types of culture problems are relatively easy for new leaders to address with modeling and limit-setting. Coming into organizations with a culture of disrespect, leaders can turn this around relatively rapidly by never yelling at, belittling, or berating those around them – and by refusing to tolerate this type of behavior from staff or board members. Coming into organizations with a culture of over-work, leaders can turn this around fairly quickly by taking vacations, staying home when sick, and setting reasonable limits on their own work and email hours – and by giving staff permission and encouragement to do the same.
But some culture problems are both hard to spot early on and much more resistant to change.
Recently, I’ve spent time reading about organizational culture in hopes of finding guidance about tackling particularly resistant culture problems. My number one take-away is that this is tough work! Nothing I read offered a clear and compelling answer to this conundrum. But a few intriguing themes did jump out:
1. Resistance may be more about fear and loss than about the change itself. Understand and acknowledge what people fear – and especially, what they fear losing. Clearly demonstrate respect for precious things that are healthy parts of the organization’s culture. This may reduce resistance to necessary changes in other areas.
2. Focus on changing behavior rather than changing attitudes. Keep the focus on a small number of behaviors – including those that seem innocuous but may be precursors of more problematic behavior. Attitude change will follow behavior change.
3. Even small, short-term successes matter. It makes a difference to demonstrate impact as quickly as possible. Try small pilot efforts and measure their outcomes. Then, celebrate any positive results.
When embarking on an interim E.D. assignment, I begin by individually interviewing staff and board members. I want to understand their roles, their professional goals and interests, and how they assess the state of their organization. Now, after reading more about organizational culture, I know that next time I sit down for these conversations, I’ll be posing some new questions. I’ll be asking each person how they would describe their organization’s culture – and what they hope to preserve or change about it. I’ll be asking not only about their hopes, but also about their fears.
If I run into culture problems along the way, I’ll be experimenting with the three approaches above, to see if they make a difference. Stay tuned.
As an interim executive director, I’ve enjoyed supporting several E.D. search committees.
Of course, the primary role of the search committee is to vet candidates for the long-term executive director position and make a hiring recommendation to the organization’s board.
But as important as that is, it need not be the committee’s only function. Over time, I’ve learned that the search committee has the potential to play a transformational role in additional ways that may not be as obvious.
Although hiring an E.D. is a key function of a nonprofit’s board of directors and requires a vote of the full board, there’s no requirement that the search committee be composed solely of board members. Because the new E.D. will be the staff leader, it’s actually critical that the committee contain both board and staff representatives. This is an important first step in developing the trust of the staff in its next leader.
By putting board and staff representatives together to work on a mission-critical task over an extended period, the search committee gives its members a chance to get to know each other better and see each other differently. Besides creating important bonds among board members, the committee's work may also engender greater respect between board and staff. As committee members come to see each other as unique individuals, this can have the trickle-down effect of improving trust between board and staff across the organization as a whole.
As the committee creates a job announcement, reads resumes, and interviews candidates, its members will find that they have repeated opportunities to speak about the organization’s key values, strengths, and weaknesses. Optimally, this process starts with reflection and ends with cohesion, as the group shares its perceptions with its top candidates. Furthermore, this work should pay off by establishing a foundation of support for the incoming E.D. – and preparing a core group to enthusiastically undergird strategic planning work that will need to take place once the new leader is up to speed.
In the best case, the search committee will become a tight-knit, high-functioning group. By the conclusion of the process, they will have spent many hours together on a complex and satisfying task with a meaningful result. Repeatedly, in order to move the process forward, they will have either reached consensus, or figured out how to separate key points of agreement from less essential disagreements. This is how healthy nonprofits function, and in this way, the search committee can serve as a model of how well the entire organization can potentially operate in the future. That they achieve this result while facilitating the arrival of the organization’s next leader is no small part of this magic.
Service on an E.D. search committee takes a big chunk of time. Dedicated board and staff members agree to serve because selecting the right leader is so important. But it’s worth acknowledging that this time-consuming work can be immensely satisfying and profoundly impactful in other ways, as well.
Last fall, my friend and former colleague Ed Batista, an executive coach who has written extensively about leadership, posted an article titled, “Dysfunction Isn’t Heroism.” This wise essay reviews the well-established case that forgoing sleep and exercise, scrimping on time with family and friends, and packing our work schedules so tightly that we lack time for reflection all are counterproductive. Ed writes that:
…we've recast dysfunction as heroic sacrifice. We've collectively created a narrative around the nature of work that not only justifies…dysfunctional practices, but also regards those who engage in them as selfless heroes, sacrificing sleep, relationships, and even their health in order to help the organization achieve its goals. We brag about how little sleep we're getting, how busy and over-scheduled we are, how poorly we take care of ourselves--all of which plays into and reinforces this narrative of heroic sacrifice.
Ed coaches CEOs and other business leaders, and teaches MBA students at Stanford University. So it’s understandable that his bottom line is this: “Ultimately we have to recognize that there’s a difference between actual heroic sacrifices and imaginary ones.”
Ed is right.
Still, as I read his article, I found myself wondering how his words would be received in the nonprofit sector. I could almost hear the chorus protesting: but what if the work actually is heroic?
What if the work is housing and support for homeless youth who might otherwise be sleeping on the streets of a frigid city? What if the work is a free clinic in a rural area where thousands are uninsured and medical resources are limited even for those with money? What if the work is feeding kids who get almost nothing to eat at home when school is out? Sometimes lives really are at stake.
Ed is still right.
Interestingly, long before I was familiar with the research Ed references, I learned this lesson in the same place that he likely did: from nonprofit leader Liz Resner. I’ve written previously that Liz successfully taught and modeled the message that you can’t effectively care for others unless you care for yourself as well. Trained as a clinical psychologist, she recognized the trap that leaders and staff in “do-good” organizations often fall into: seeing an overwhelming need; feeling a personal calling to fill it; and working night and day to do so. But then: making themselves sick; or making others miserable; or burning out and disappearing from the work altogether.
Of course, there are times when it’s critically important to work extra hard. Even with extreme intensity. But we can learn that it’s counterproductive to work that intensely all the time.
If we stay late because a child has been hurt, we can leave early some other day. If we staff an event all day Saturday, we can stay home on Monday. If we work furiously for weeks on a major funding proposal, we can take a vacation. If we find ourselves in a life of back-to-back meetings, we can schedule (and stick to) regular times for planning and reflection.
Beneath all this, we can accept the reality that even when the work is heroic, the workers are human. We still need to sleep. Exercise. Breathe. Spend time with people we love and enjoy.
It’s tempting to believe that this wisdom doesn’t apply to us, because the world needs us so.
It’s smarter to accept that it does. Because the world needs us so.
In 2009, and for several years after, I spent a lot of time talking about clergy sexual abuse. These were not social science conversations. This was personal.
Family and friends gave me the enormous gift of listening supportively to my tale of abuse and manipulation – starting at age 19 – by the 67-year-old man who was my childhood minister. Finally being able to speak my story out loud was a critical step in healing from the intense physical and emotional pain these events had caused. I had been silent about this for so long.
When the #MeToo Movement took off this fall, I felt at first that I had already had my “me too moment.” In the phraseology of Time Magazine, I had already been a “silence breaker.”
But this is a critical time in our country’s history, and I’ve decided I want to weigh in again now.
I’ve used this blog to reflect on three areas that are important to me: poverty and homelessness; nonprofit leadership; and gender issues. #MeToo ties to all three:
Poverty and Homelessness:
Long before I was able to acknowledge to myself that what happened in my youth was sexual abuse – back when I had a totally different and completely wrong-headed internal narrative of these events in my own life – I was simultaneously focused on the abuse of other women. That’s because histories of abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual – are such a common factor in the lives of homeless and very low-income women.
It’s good now to hear from famous women, rich women, powerful women. Their stories remind us that harassment, assault, and abuse – like the rain – fall on rich and poor, black and white. They remind us that even in a life of privilege, the impact can be devastating.
But in the human services sector, one quickly learns that the impact of harassment, abuse, and assault is greatest on those without power, money, and white privilege. It’s important to keep this knowledge front and center. And it’s essential for organizations focused on poverty and homelessness to place a high priority on providing services aimed at addressing and healing abuse.
Sometimes, it feels like nonprofits are a “woman’s world.” But that’s all about presence.
When it comes to power, men still dominate. Although the latest GuideStar report shows gains in the proportion of nonprofit CEOs who are female, the figures are still depressingly low in large organizations.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques are nonprofits too. In this part of the sector, male domination in leadership frequently extends to the unilateral exclusion of women from the clergy.
Real change in the sexual abuse of power by men will not arrive until women share equally in the power to lead our most important institutions. There’s been a lot of emphasis on politics, business, and the media – but nonprofits are important institutions too.
In her book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes that we approach caregiving like athletes approach interval training. She wants us to accept the importance of taking intervals when we step back from – or out of – the work world. Although Slaughter focuses on care for children or elderly parents, it’s essential to accept that it’s also sometimes necessary to spend time caring for ourselves.
The #MeToo Movement has highlighted how much lasting damage has been done to women. This damage can manifest itself in physical and emotional illness, and recovery can take time – especially when the impact of abuse or assault has festered for years.
It needs to be okay for women to step back from the work world for long enough to address and heal from this damage. It also should be okay to return.
I took a long interval away from the work world to attend to my own healing. I was fortunate to be part of a two-income household, to have insurance that covered a wonderful therapist, and to have phenomenal support from a loving husband. But money and marriage shouldn’t be prerequisites to taking time for healing.
As our society comes to grips with how much damage has been done by sexual predation, it’s time to accept that we all benefit when we support the wounded among us as they heal.
Nonprofit A had a long-time executive director who resigned due to a health crisis.
Nonprofit B had an executive director who moved to another organization after giving only six weeks’ notice.
Nonprofit C had an executive director who was asked to resign by its board of directors.
Nonprofit D had a beloved executive director – the founder – who retired after three decades of service.
What do these nonprofits have in common?
Each organization would benefit from the services of an interim executive director. Not a board member doing double duty. Not a staff member temporarily filling two jobs. Instead, a professional interim E.D. brought in from the outside specifically for that purpose.
As I’ve written previously, bosses matter. Bosses matter for good or for ill. A great executive director is going to be missed. There may even be a sort of mourning period. A bad executive director leaves a lasting imprint, too. There is damage, and that damage cannot be fixed in a day.
When a nonprofit proceeds immediately to hiring, there isn’t time for either mourning or healing. The new E.D. begins the job in an environment of unfinished business. Whether it is the lingering reflection of a marvelous leader or the lasting impact of a toxic one, this organizational baggage creates a distinct handicap for the new E.D. It also reduces the likelihood that she will have a successful tenure.
In contrast, the act of hiring an outside interim executive director sends a clear message that this is a time of transition for the organization. A time to acknowledge feelings of grief, anger, or confusion. A time to assess the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and reflect on its needs for future leadership. A time to make difficult changes and fix glaring problems – and to establish processes for addressing less urgent ones.
In this way, an experienced outside interim “takes the hit” for the future executive director. The skillful interim is a “baggage collector.”
Of course, a board member or senior staffer could be called upon to serve as acting executive director. But few board members bring experience in nonprofit management – critical in a position that requires getting up to speed very quickly. Furthermore, success as an interim rides on getting honest and detailed information about the organization, and staff may be less likely to speak freely with someone who retains, or will return to, a place on the board.
A senior staff member asked to serve as acting E.D. will encounter a different set of challenges, starting with the difficulty of doing two jobs at once. Even more than a board member, a staffer lacks the independence to facilitate an objective assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. And then there is the issue of candidacy for the long-term position.
An acting E.D. who is not a candidate must contend with the emotional challenge of becoming the boss, and then subsequently deferring to a new boss. An acting E.D. who is a candidate must make the difficult decision to stay or go if someone else gets the job. In both situations, but especially the latter, an acting E.D. will find it far more difficult to “speak truth to power” with the organization’s board, than would an outside interim.
Actually, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which bringing in an outside interim E.D. would not be helpful. An outside interim can offer board and staff a safe zone to process thoughts and feelings and make difficult changes before moving on to welcome a new leader. Importantly, an outside interim never should be a candidate for the long-term job. By setting this boundary in advance, the interim E.D. will have freedom to speak honestly during the transition – and will find it satisfying to turn over the reins, with pride, when the assignment is done.
Last year I had an interesting conversation with one of the finalists at the presentation of the AIM Award for excellence in nonprofit management. I asked him about his organization’s approach, and he said it was a process of “peeling the onion.”
Peeling the onion! I was glad to hear him use this metaphor, because this has long been one of the ways I have described my own approach to human services.
Why an onion? Not because onions make us cry – although I suppose that’s not irrelevant. Rather, because they have so many layers, each of which hides the layers underneath.
In human services, we generally know that we’ll trip ourselves up if we don’t listen well. When nonprofit clients tell their stories, we try to listen carefully to the circumstances they describe and the needs they express. But that isn’t always enough. Often, we don’t learn what we need to know in order to be helpful, because we don’t know what questions to ask.
Years ago, at Compass Family Services in San Francisco, we were providing a broad range of services for people who were homeless. Early on, these were primarily crisis-oriented services. Even when we saw clients repeatedly, it was in an office setting, and even when we provided temporary housing, it was in rooms leased from others. Then we opened a transitional housing facility for homeless families. The apartments were new and beautiful. Free childcare for all ages was provided onsite. Counseling and therapy was available for all. Families could stay two years, and everyone had the support they needed to participate in employment and education programs.
Suddenly, the viewpoint of our staff was expanded radically. Families shared pieces of their lives with us 24/7. We learned that we had effectively “turned off the crisis” for most residents, but without that all-consuming preoccupation, other needs came to the fore. Families shared much more about their histories of abuse and trauma, their fears and vulnerabilities – including even, their fears of success. This changed our approach not just in transitional housing, but in all of our programs at Compass, significantly increasing our emphasis on helping clients to heal from trauma and abuse.
This was the first – although far from the last – time I saw that peeling the onion was an important metaphor for the learning and growth that must take place in healthy nonprofit organizations.
Taking a “peel the onion” approach makes us humble. After providing crisis services to thousands at Compass, we thought we knew a lot. But we couldn’t know what we didn’t know. I’ve now worked on homelessness on two coasts and in two countries – providing housing, employment, research, and a myriad of services. So sometimes I still may think I know a lot. But keeping an eye on the onion helps me to remember that what I don’t know is more.
Life has lots of layers. It’s complicated. We tend to see and hear what’s right in front of us, and not what’s six layers down. And it can be frustrating, when congratulating ourselves on our response to one issue, to find that there’s more below. But each time we adapt and change – each time we peel back another layer – we get a little closer to fulfilling our mission.
Polls show a stunningly high percentage of Americans who approve of President Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month. This should not come as a surprise, given that last year’s election revealed the huge number of voters for whom repeated racist (and misogynist) remarks by the winning candidate never became a deal-breaker.
Yet, the flagrancy of what took place in Charlottesville was chilling. So the level of support for Trump’s response is deeply revelatory. This is more than structural racism or implicit bias. Trump has fanned the flames of personal racism, unleashing forces that have long existed, but are flourishing with his encouragement.
For people who work in human services, structural racism is never a surprise. We see its face in the significant racial disparities found in education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and so many other areas. We see its face in the composition of the clientele of our organizations.
Truth be told, we also see the face of structural racism in the composition of nonprofit organizations themselves. Most importantly, we see insufficient representation of people of color on the boards and among the senior leadership staff of our organizations. Damningly, this includes many organizations whose clientele is primarily composed of people of color.
In our country, even people with noxious beliefs about other human beings have free speech rights to express their odious ideas in public settings. When they do, they should expect to be called out on these ideas. Repeatedly. Widely. By our political leaders. And also by leaders in the nonprofit sector.
Besides speaking out, it is well past time for nonprofit leaders to double down on the work of addressing structural racism – both inside and outside our organizations.
While not a surprise, structural racism should never be accepted as “normal.” Yet we live in a world where, when something is good, we expect white people to have more of this. And when something is bad, we expect people of color to have more of that.
The Urban Institute recently released a report about the pernicious effects of persistent childhood poverty. It highlighted enormously disproportionate consequences for African-Americans. This report should have been front page news. It was not.
Likewise, it is long past time for us to stop accepting the disproportionately white leadership of nonprofit organizations as normal – or acceptable.
I’ve served for the past two years as a member of the selection committee for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership Award. During this time, I’ve been impressed by a tiny number of organizations who have made it a genuine priority to have their boards reflect not only the racial diversity of our region, but also the racial composition of the clientele they serve. More often, I have been discouraged when organizations nominate their boards as examples of excellence while making no more than minimal progress toward these goals. Some seem not even to have reached the point of acknowledging that these are important objectives.
As we confront the fact that personal racism is alive and well in our country, it’s important to ask whether the many ways in which we have normalized structural racism may be a contributor to the renewed visibility and tolerance of racial hatred. When “people of good will” allow festering structural disparities to remain for so long – even in our own workplaces – how does this not send the message that some are worth less than others in our nation, even today?
I just received an email from someone who is on vacation. Or, perhaps I should say – from someone who is theoretically on vacation.
That reminded me of a passage from Jessica Bennett’s The Feminist Fight Club – An Office Survival Manual (For A Sexist Workplace). This funny and feisty book has much to recommend it. But one small section, entitled “Cell-Free Zone,” made a particular impression on me because it provided such a great example of setting clear boundaries:
Consultant Joan Garry has written an insightful article aimed at helping nonprofit executive directors to take control of their time. She addresses after-hours emailing, but stops short of the clean boundary set by Rhimes.
Garry notes that “late night emails drive staff members crazy.” Indeed. But interestingly, her solution to this problem focuses on when emails are sent, rather than when they are written. She advises saving drafts of after-hours messages to send the next day, or employing an email-scheduling software for that purpose.
In fact, as a Harvard Business Review article Garry references makes clear, there is plentiful evidence that being on duty 24/7 isn’t good for any of us – leaders and staff alike. To enhance creativity and productivity in our professional lives, we need real downtime. To nourish our personal lives, we need to be able to give our families and friends our undivided attention.
I believe that it’s important for leaders to set clear boundaries for themselves, and to refrain from after-hours work – including emails – except in truly urgent or exceptional circumstances. We can use some of Garry’s excellent suggestions to help us limit how often such circumstances occur!
And when we take vacations, let’s take real vacations.
On vacation, it’s typical for our minds still to be whirring with the minutiae of our professional lives for the first day or two. That’s why three-day weekends and quick breaks – while lovely in their way – aren’t enough for true mental rejuvenation: we’ve only just started to unwind when it’s time to return to work. And on a longer vacation, if we read email or otherwise “check in with the office,” we’re cheating ourselves of the real boost that a substantial vacation can bring.
So when it comes to avoiding email on vacations, I suggest remembering the burning-building rule: if the building burns down, they will definitely call you.
Last month I wrote about the positive impact that an early boss, Liz Resner, had on me. Bosses matter. But their impact is not always positive.
Recent news coverage about toxic work environments – from the White House to tech companies like Uber and Amazon – has left me thinking about how damaging bad bosses can be.
In my first full-time job, my boss was nothing like Liz Resner. Sometimes she praised me. But sometimes she yelled and swore at me. I couldn’t distinguish what type of behavior on my part produced praise vs. yelling. Every day at work was like walking on eggshells. The job was a huge opportunity – a chance to do substantive work on a subject I cared about deeply. Even the pay was excellent. And yet, I left after just six months. It wasn’t worth the cost to my sanity.
Pop culture can reinforce the notion that a toxic workplace is a normal environment. A few years back, when I needed a good laugh, a friend suggested that I watch a popular sit-com, The Office. I love comedy, but this show did not seem funny to me. How is it funny when a manager belittles and offends his employees?
I believe that a cardinal rule of leadership, as in medicine, is first do no harm. Being a great boss, a boss who helps her employees to develop to their full potential and has a long-term positive impact on their lives – that is hard. But being a harm-less boss – that should just be basic.
In my view, a leader’s first responsibility is to create a workplace culture of civility and respect. The tone is set from the top. When we have the privilege of leadership, we also have the responsibility of treating those who work for us professionally and with dignity.
In nonprofits with multiple layers of leadership, this means more than just taking it upon oneself to treat others politely. It also means setting boundaries on acceptable behavior by middle managers. It’s not enough for a nonprofit leader to hold himself to a high standard of civility – but to turn a blind eye when the finance director berates a bookkeeper or a program director demeans a social worker.
When hiring for management positions, it’s essential to seek candidates who value a respectful workplace culture. Providing appropriate in-service training for managers also can reinforce this ethos. But when an individual manager mistreats staff, coaching is called for. And if mistreatment continues despite coaching, it is time to find a different manager.
In a healthy nonprofit workplace, all should feel at ease about how they will be spoken to by others. This means staff, board, and clients, too. Creating a culture of civility and respect means making it normal to treat people well.
Clinical psychologist Liz Resner died twenty years ago this spring. As executive director of what is now Compass Family Services in San Francisco, she hired me into my first job in the human services sector. This was a long time ago – and Liz died at too early an age. You would think that her memory would have faded into ancient history for me by now. It has not.
That is because I have returned repeatedly to the lessons I learned from Liz. Three in particular stand out:
Care for yourself as well as you care for others:
From the start, Liz emphasized the importance of clear boundaries between personal and professional life. The crisis center I worked in at the time served about 3,000 homeless persons annually, and on any given day there were always more people in need, hoping to receive assistance, than we possibly had time or resources to assist. Liz insisted that staff close the office to take a full lunch hour. She pushed us to leave on time at the end of the day in order to pursue our own lives. She closed the office without hesitation for staff meetings and retreats – and not just for training, but also for staff rejuvenation and team building. She took us to movies and ice cream and the botanical gardens!
Liz’s consistent message was this: the line of people waiting for help, alas, will be here tomorrow, and next week, and next year; but if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be! If you do not care for yourself as well as you care for others, you will soon burn out and we will lose you to some less stressful line of work. This is a lesson I have never forgotten – and today, in our 24/7 work culture, it is one that is particularly needed.
An outside perspective broadens your vision:
As much as I learned from Liz herself, I also learned from the insightful people she brought into our lives on a regular basis. Even when time and money seemed short, she made it a priority to devote resources to providing outside perspectives. In group and individual consultations, we learned from smart clinicians. In diversity sessions, we were led by thought-provoking consultants. When legal or personnel advice was needed, we benefited from fantastic pro bono advisors.
Liz was sufficiently self-confident to know that these outside experts provided a wisdom different than her own – and not to be threatened by bringing this wisdom into our lives on a consistent basis. These consultants and advisors deeply influenced my worldview. When I succeeded Liz as executive director, it was natural to continue this practice, and it further enhanced my understanding of nonprofit leadership.
Liz’s last lesson was that leaders leave – and that the best leaders cut the cord when they do so. Liz left Compass in 1994 – three years before her untimely death. She moved on to lead the city’s efforts to develop its first comprehensive plan to address homelessness. Liz made a clean break with the organization she had led so successfully. She didn’t join the board. She didn’t hang around for an extended period to give advice. She didn’t call me or my colleagues in response to programmatic changes to let us know how she would have done things differently.
Liz really left. She moved on to other important work, and she trusted in the strength of the organization she had built and the capabilities of the staff and board she had nurtured. For leaders like Liz who have grown and developed organizations to levels of excellence that would have been unrecognizable when they arrived, leaving like this is not easy. I learned from Liz’s purposeful departure that this gift of trust is a critical element of a leader’s legacy.
Liz offered no unsolicited advice after her departure. So as time went on, I grew to covet her advice more and more. When she became ill and died, I greatly missed her wisdom and encouragement. But looking back from the vantage point of twenty years, I am struck by how much she left behind.