(Part Two of a Two-Part Series)
Last month, I shared Part One of a two-part interview with long-time colleague, Jill Blair, about her paper,“New Leader, Endless Possibility” (Read here) Jill describes the year-long journey she spent as an embedded Senior Fellow change-agent during a critical transition phase of a legacy agency.
Here is Part Two of my interview with Jill as we look at other dimensions and challenges of this deep-dive experience in organizational change. If you missed Part One of our conversation, you can find it here.
Q: I loved the simple technique you utilized at the beginning of your year at the Center to visually note change is in the air. You put up several large post-it notes with key comments on your office door for everyone to see. What kind of reactions and comments did you get right off the bat?
A: I think folks appreciated it – they stopped and read – they sometimes wrote. But maybe the biggest effect was that my open door with post-it notes was an invitation to conversation. I think it was the key to so many drop-in visits from people at all levels of the organization – for all different reasons. My door was a canvas for sharing feelings, thoughts, reflections, hopes and fears – it was a place where I expressed vulnerability by putting my own thoughts on display. The combination of my door literally being open along with the posted notes “said” I am human and accessible. So much of what I came to understand about the organization and the people within it was a result of that very, as you say, simple technique.
Q: Throughout the year, you were intentional in designing disruptive approaches to shake up the same old-same old. “Crazy Concepts,” for example, sounds like it may have begun a bit light-heartedly, but it turned out to produce substantial change efforts. What was happening at the Staff level through such disruption?
A: Funny you should say that it started “light-hearted.” The first Crazy Concepts session we held, Paul arrived wearing a really silly hat. Everyone chuckled as they settled down in their seats. He set the stage for open minds and hearts. Crazy concepts was a solution-strategy exercise that brought people together across program areas and from different levels within the organization. It was an opportunity for people to learn about the organization and about one another. It was problem-solving and it was an exercise in risk-taking. The Center needed to develop both of these muscles – the problem solving (not just problem-finding) and the risk-taking muscles. The solutions we adopted through Crazy Concepts were framed as time-limited experiments and they required people to stay in these interdisciplinary, cross-level groupings – so this really helps build relationships in service or the organization’s interest rather than just in the interest of a particular program or department. As for staff reactions to disruption – of course, there was anxiety about change – no question. But there was also a certain amount of positive energy. People were hopeful and fearful at the same time.
This is the nature of change. There will be resistance and there are resistors. There will be some early adoption and there will be some early and brave adopters. My sense is that it is important to name what you see – to acknowledge the fear and the hope – to share the enterprise as an adventure. I am comfortable with the tension and ambiguity associated with change and I can tolerate the emotional aspects of it too. My bottom line, harsh but true: I encourage leaders to “go for the light.” When seeking to make significant change, find people who bring light to the effort – they bring their hope in a basket and they share the journey with you. And avoid the people who say “yes” and do “no.” It’s easy to spot them; call them out and (sometimes) let them go.
Q: Much of your work as the Maestro of Mayhem was with the CEO and the Staff, less so with the Board. In retrospect, was this about the right mix or would you spend more time with the Board, and if so, in what ways?
A: In retrospect, I made a mistake. I should have done more work with the board. At the Center, I was able to establish new expectations and some new practices – every meeting with a purpose – every meeting with a meal – every meeting with a question worthy of discussion. I worked with the Governance Committee to design and implement a competitive selection process for board membership so that we literally went from pleading with people to serve on the board to declining applications for service. But there was deeper work to do and were I to do this assignment again, I would spend more time with the board. Too often governance is taken for granted – especially by new and inexperienced leaders. Boards are too often rendered on the margins of an organization, and by so doing, we lose the benefit of their presence, their ideas, their resources, their networks, their wisdom and their influence. By my allocation of time, I undervalued the board as a powerhouse for lasting change. A regret.
Q: You noted that the Center’s members weren’t engaged in this endeavor. If you had the chance for a do-over, in what ways would you have engaged members and to what end?
A: My wife, Fay Twersky is VP of the Hewlett Foundation and before that held the post of Director of Effective Philanthropy. One of her great callings and contributions to the field has been promoting instruments and practices for gathering beneficiary/ constituent feedback and using feedback as a tool for positive change. At one point in our work together, Paul and I visited Fay and her colleagues at Hewlett and learned about constituent feedback. We invited Fay’s team to the Center for a Lunch & Learn for all staff. It was a GREAT session – and it made the strongest possible case for engaging directly with our members, the people whose lives we aim to improve with the services we deliver. While this heightened our collective sensitivity, I failed to enlist the voices of our members in our change efforts. If I were to have a ‘do-over’ I would introduce more and better methods for asking members for feedback in real-time – and importantly – using that feedback to make changes and MOST importantly – ensuring that our members heard back from us what we were learning from them and how we were responding to their interests, desires and demands.
Q: For organizations that might think of emulating this work and experience, what kind of attributes for a senior fellow position like this would you recommend?
A: The role has two purposes: one is to support rising leaders in claiming their courage and the other is to mindfully employ disruption as a strategy to increase an organization’s comfort with change. Given that, such a position benefits from being strictly time-limited; fully embedded; reporting to the CEO; free of direct reporting responsibilities; with a clear set of priorities; a lot of latitude for risk-taking; and available across the organization as a resource to others. Finding the right person depends on the needs and nature of the rising new leader. I always ask the leaders with whom I work – what do you LOVE about what you do (this tells me what they are good at – or what they believe they are good at)? What are the items on your to-do list that always get moved around and never quite done (this tells me what they have little appetite for)? And what do you wish you could do (this tells me where their growth genes lie)? In seeking a person to fill this role – you want to find the right complement. I call it compensatory leadership: Help Me Be the Best I Can Be by Being You.
Jill Blair is an independent consultant with 25 years’ experience advising, supporting and evaluating nonprofits and philanthropy on culture, values, leadership and impact. She invites your comments or questions at email@example.com.