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(Part One of a Two-Part Series)

I have often written about and presented stories here on organizational development, leadership and leadership transition issues. I am endlessly fascinated by how foundations, nonprofits and most any other kinds of organizations govern and manage themselves (or don’t!), particularly through periods of change.

My long-time colleague, Jill Blair, recently wrote a paper describing her deep-dive experience as an embedded Senior Fellow change-agent in a legacy nonprofit. “New Leader, Endless Possibility” (Read here) describes the year-long journey she and the Peninsula Jewish Community Center embarked on through this critical transition phase. Here is Part One of my interview with Jill; look for Part Two of our conversation in early September.

Q: Your paper provides an insightful, real-world learning guide that peers deeply into the heart of this organization – the good, the bad and the ugly. In reading this story, I kept thinking about how and why the CEO and the Board grew comfortable enough to be willing to have their story told, warts and all.

A: That is probably a question best answered by Paul Geduldig, the CEO, but here’s what I can say. Paul and his board appreciated in his assumption of leadership that he would be on a steep learning curve – that it was altogether in their shared best interest to acknowledge the need for support and to embrace it. Paul had never run anything as big as the Peninsula Jewish Community Center (PJCC) and there was no reason to believe that he would wake up one day with the skills and abilities to do it well without support.

The telling of his story is NOTHING compared with the living of the experience. By establishing the position of Senior Fellow for Strategy & Organizational Effectiveness, Paul (and his board) invited me in as an on-site coach, critic and provocateur. And they did so with the intention of supporting Paul’s successful transition into full-on leadership.

Once Paul lived the experience, I think he (and his board) knew that there was value in the process and that it ought to be shared with others. I have too often witnessed boards hiring an inexperienced leader – someone who has perhaps been in the second but never the first seat of power, and then expecting them to make that leap without support, without guidance, without resources. Why do we do that to our organizations and to our rising leaders? It is a recipe for failure. We make the path to successful leadership harder than it has to be by not acknowledging the curve to be learned and providing the support to learn it.

Q: You share a quote from the CEO who observes that “the presenting problems may not be the same as the underlying ones.” This is a dynamic in most organizations; can you talk about how it played out in the Center?

A: This was a threshold issue for us at the PJCC in that the “presenting problem” was the departure of the long-tenured Deputy Director. So, the presenting “solution” might have been “hire another Deputy Director.” Paul appreciated that while this would have been an easy out – it was probably not the spot-on solution. So, he started by asking me to conduct an assessment of the organization – to understand the organizational culture; its strengths and vulnerabilities – from staffing to structure; from governance to finances. In other words, Paul wanted a diagnostic.

This assessment gave him visibility into underlying issues within the organization – it challenged him to think more deeply about what needed to change and how change would or could happen. It informed his forward path which ended up being to always interrogate the ‘presenting problem’ to make sure that it wasn’t just a symptom of a deeper disorder. So, for example, is the problem that we have too many meetings or that we have too many people going to every meeting? It turns out we had too many people going to every meeting. Why? Because everyone wanted to be in the room where it happened. Why? Because there was a lack of trust. Why? Because people were using information as power and being in the room could give you an edge on information. You get the picture.

So, what were the implications of our deeper dive into what is the problem we are here to solve? We established way more discipline with respect to meetings: every meeting had a clear purpose and people were invited based on the necessity of their participation – their contribution to content rather than their desire to be “in the room where it happened.” We ALSO dealt head on with the issue or absence of trust. We worked hard to understand why and we made conscious efforts to address it. During the course of the year we cultivated more trust – more collegiality – more free expression – more transparency and ALSO fewer meetings.

Q: As you have shared, trust and honesty seemed to be a challenge in the organization when you began your assignment. How did you see things change in behavior over time – for both individuals and for the organizational culture?

A: We led by example – and sometimes it was downright painful. But that’s the price of power. We established and adhered to behaviors that were respectful and direct. We scheduled our leadership meetings over lunch and we SERVED lunch. We started and ended our meetings on time. We documented our meetings. We asked people to read and prepare before meetings. We provided materials well in advance. We established a rule of no electronics in meetings so that people paid attention to one another rather than their screens. We invited questions all the time AND we answered them. Paul shared what he was learning about himself in our coaching relationship and he asked others to do the same – to share their lessons and reflections. He initiated 1:1 meetings with his direct reports and these meetings allowed him to observe how Team members (some not all) were changing over time. He found more collegiality; more shared efforts; fewer sidebar conversations; more honesty. People were substituting problem-solving for problem-finding. They were asking for help and acknowledging their challenges.

The process of changing a culture takes time and courage. It inevitably involves a combination of changing practices, changing expectations, changing the reward structure; and changing people. These are the drivers of culture – moving from dysfunction to better function – from unhealthy to healthier requires addressing each and sometimes all.

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-its 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 my feelings, thoughts, reflections, hopes and fears – it was a place where I put it all on display. It made me human – and accessible, I think. That’s what my door “said” and that’s what my open door meant. 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.

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