Dani Robbins

Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice

In Advocacy, Leadership, Organizational Development on June 24, 2015 at 11:31 am

I’ve been working in nonprofits my whole career. Most of that time, I was an executive director. After working as a victim “counselor” for a couple of years, which I put in quotes because I was given zero training on how to counsel victims, I realized I wanted to be an exec. I went to grad school specifically because I didn’t think anyone would let me run an agency as young as I was, but they might if I had a Masters. Perhaps shockingly, they did.

The world looks different from the exec chair than it did from the program chair. It looks different from a board seat. It even looks different from the consultant’s perch. As such, and in honor of the two decades I’ve been out of grad school, and the almost 25 years I have spent in the pursuit of social justice, I thought this would be a good time to look back and take stock of what I’ve learned.

Perfect and great are not synonymous. We can’t settle for good when great is possible. Yet, there are many cases when good is enough and there is an opportunity cost to perfect.

Our mission can’t be at the expense of our team members’ families. There are lots of jobs that require staff to be away from their families during dinner, over the weekend, over night. That’s the job. Yet, and still, we as leaders must challenge the expectation that our teams will work long hours for low pay. We have to honor the labor laws and the values we hold. We can’t fight for a fair wage for our clients but maintain the status quo for our staff. Our teams should not be there on a regular basis longer than a typical work week. They should not be volunteering in the same jobs they do every day. They should not have to choose between the good of the community and their own or their family’s good. It’s not reasonable, nor is it sustainable and the cost of replacing good people is too high.

We cannot expect our staff to do things we would not be willing to do, with the understanding that it may not always be a good use of our time to do them. I counsel the leaders I coach to ask themselves “is this a good use of my time?” before doing tasks that may not be. Yet, we each have to model what we expect.

We cannot allow things that are unacceptable to us. When we do, unacceptable becomes the status quo. As such, you will have to address things each time they come up and every time they come up. Gruenter and Whitaker said it best “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Addressing such things is how cultures change; it’s how expectations are communicated; it’s how differences are made. Inch by inch, time by time, moment by moment, culture change is 80% emotional fortitude. It’s exhausting yet critical.

You will teach people how to treat you every day and in a variety of situations. Never forget that. Everything you accept. Everything you celebrate. Everything you do is sending a message.

Please, thank you and some grace will get you pretty far. The busier we get the more people think it’s reasonable for good manners to go out the door, but they’re wrong. We serve. Some of us serve at the pleasure of our boards. Some of us are protected by labor laws or contracts or unions, but each of us serve our community. Service requires respecting our clients, our teams, our leaders and perhaps most importantly our selves.

I have been teasing out the idea for the last few months that what people call a personality conflict is actually a conflict in values. If what is important to me is not important to you then we are going to clash at some point. You may like me fine. We can hang out but we won’t work well together, because we value different things. It doesn’t make me bad and you good or the opposite. What it does is provide insight to how we hire, where we elect to serve and what kind of culture will make us happy.

I’ve been turning over the article Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work? since I finished reading it. I routinely recommend agencies hire for cultural fit, and now I add an explanation on what that means. Fit is not who you want to hang out with. It’s not about whom you’d want to get stuck at an airport. It’s definitely not who about looks like you or has a similar background. Organizational fit is someone whose own values are aligned with the organization’s values and whose passions are aligned with its mission.

Who can be successful in your culture? Organizational fit by itself is not enough. It has to be matched with competency, experience, education and judgment. The right employee has to have it all. It is not enough to be nice; it’s not even enough to be good at your job. You have to be on the team and moving the organization forward. If you aren’t, much as I may love you, you can’t stay.

Agency systems have to reflect organizational values. Saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.

Give people the benefit of the doubt, even and especially when you don’t have it. This goes back to my earlier point on grace. We’re not always going to be right. Giving people the benefit of the doubt builds trust and acknowledges that the perch on which we sit may not offer the only view.

Wear your power lightly but don’t give it away. You will never have to remind a member of your team that you are in charge. They know. You may have to remind yourself. If you have the authority to make the decision, make it. If someone for whom you work tells you to do something, own it. Don’t then say to your team “Mary said we need to do this.” Say “We need to do this.”

Take advantage of every teachable moment. Issues, questions, mistakes, problems and even crises offer opportunities to learn. My goal for myself and with each of my team members, as well as the women and children we have been privileged to serve, has always been to teach and to learn. We’re not always going to get it right, but we can always learn from our experiences. Life is about making new mistakes.

Spinning wheels only look like forward movement. If the work of your agency is not aligned, people may be running on a lot of different habitrails but, as we all know, habitrails don’t move, they just go around. A good strategic, board development or fund raising plan can be the difference between moving forward or just moving.

Any day might be the day you quit or get fired. There’s still work to do. Knowing that’s a possibility is helpful; letting it paralyze you is not. Leadership is hard. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

Vulnerability is power. I learned that from Brene Brown’s TED Talk, and she’s totally right. It takes courage to be vulnerable. You can surrender into vulnerability or you can battle it but it may be the only way forward. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are powerful.

You are more likely to get what you want when you can communicate what you want. This is a lesson that took a few times to stick for me. When I can communicate what I want, I often get it. It’s astonishing and also not.

You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be strong all the time. You, and we, can ask for help. We can let our team see our weaknesses (and stop assuming that they don’t already.) We are all stronger when we play to our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. We are the strongest when we work together.

This work is hard. It’s hard and it’s exhausting and sometime seeing the fruit of our labors is elusive. Yet, we all have an obligation to make the world a better place. How we chose to do that may evolve over our lives. We may serve in the field. We may lead an agency. We may advocate for changes in public policy. We may sit on a board. We may write checks, or give clothes, or hand out food. We may raise or help to raise healthy, happy children. We may work to build capacity in leaders, or agencies or systems. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it only matters that we do it. The world is not what it could be. There are people who are hurting, or scared, or hungry. There are those who don’t know the way forward. There are diseases to eradicate and people to house and children to protect. We have work to do. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it only matters that we do it.

What’s your passion? What are you doing to make the world better? What have you learned in the process? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

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  1. I appreciate reading this- there is still so much work to do; and the how isn’t quite as important as the WHY. Thanks Dani

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  2. […] given her when she was younger. She adds another 23 things she learned along the way in her post Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice. Simply amazing . . . Thanks for sharing, […]

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  3. […] why your values have to match your agency’s polices and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing […]

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