Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘Human Resource Systems’

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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Are your Actions Conflicting with your Goals?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 10, 2014 at 9:07 am

I’m always fascinated by the number of things people do that are in direct conflict with their goals. My dog does a perfect illustration of this: He gets so excited when we have visitors that he acts inappropriately and gets put outside or crated, which prevents him from meeting his goal of being loved by our visitors. He is not alone. Leaders and organizations do the same thing!

This week, since it’s a new year and many people in my personal and professional lives have begun working on new goals, I’ve been thinking about the intent of those goals.  I love goals that are intended to get everyone on the same page and align the work of an organization.

I do not love goals that are intended to motivate people, and I’m not even clear why we would need to do that. Employee goals intended to motivate don’t make any sense to me and, honestly, I don’t find them motivating. In fact, I find them de-motivating, and also slightly insulting.

High performers – a group I like to count myself among – will do their very best every day, aligned with the work they’ve been assigned and the expectations of their position, and not in any way because of the goals they’ve been assigned. They will do their best because it’s who they are and the work ethic they possess. It is our job as leaders to demonstrate our vision and hire, support, groom and develop high performers who can help us reach that vision.

Let me be very clear, I absolutely and unequivocally believe that leaders must set expectations for staff and also evaluate those staff based on the expectations set. I also believe that the job of the executive is to implement the strategic plan which doubles as their goals. In the absence of a plan, it is the board’s job to work with the exec to set the expectations by which they will evaluate that exec’s performance at the year’s end. Those expectations (call them goals if you must) should not be set to motivate your exec. They should be set to align the work of the organization, ensure everyone is on the same page and provide a process for evaluation. If you have to set goals to motivate your exec, you have the wrong exec.

We, as leaders, should all strive to have as many high performers as we can possibly attract and afford.  It begs the question: are the goals we are setting for high performers alienating those performers? I think they might be. I’m beginning to believe that employee goals that are intended to motivate people are lowering our standards, teaching to the middle, and working in direct conflict of our actual goals of meeting our missions and achieving our organizations’ visions.  You know, I believe that any action, process, policy or procedure that is in conflict with our goal is a bad action, process, policy or procedure. I am starting to believe that goals that are intended to motivate are just that.

Once, many years ago and before I really understood resource development and major donor cultivation, I was running an agency that attracted about $50,000 of contributions from individuals each year. My Board Chair wanted to set a goal for me of $1,000,000. One million dollars! Yes, your math is right and that would have been 20 times the annual giving received by that agency. He called it a stretch goal. Rather than inspire me to reach that goal, it created enormous anxiety for me. How in the world – with no change in staffing, no change in process or a new program or project to announce – was I going to raise 20 times our current contributed income?  I wasn’t. Thankfully, I was able to explain my position and get him to revise my goals. To his credit- and this may have been his intent all along – I ramped up my own knowledge and capacity for raising money and cultivating and retaining major donors giving major gifts.

I did raise that amount and more a few years later, but not because of a goal and not, by any stretch of the imagination, alone. I did it with a change in staffing, a more developed board, several changes in process and a huge project that addressed a significant gap in service that I was committed to rectify.

Wanting something doesn’t make it a good goal. If you set goals, set them to recognize, hire and retain high performers.  Set them to align the work of your agency. Set them to have some way to evaluate your executive. Make your goals doable, with systems to support them and a path to achieve them.

Don’t set goals to motivate people! We should not be using goals to motivate. We shouldn’t have to. The work we do and the communities we serve should motivate our team toward greatness.  If they don’t, we have built the wrong team and no amount of goal setting is going to rectify that.

What do you think about goals being used to motivate staff?  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.

Names Withheld to Protect the Guilty

In Leadership, Organizational Development on November 1, 2012 at 8:27 am

The first Executive Director I ever worked for got mad at her boyfriend for getting a haircut when her mom was coming to town. She also had us fill out two time sheets each week; one that said 9-5 every day and one that listed the hours we actually worked. She offered some vague explanation on why that was reasonable. She wouldn’t let me read the grant that I was hired to implement.

I was 22, fresh out of college and didn’t know how completely and utterly wrong each of those was. (It was a victim services agency; I knew the haircut thing was a problem.) I received very little training, absolutely no feedback, and no explanation of what my job was or how my performance would be evaluated.

As you might imagine, this was not the most helpful way to learn how to lead. Most of what I have learned, I’ve learned the hard way, by trial and error and baptism by fire. I fear it is how most nonprofit professionals learn.

Worse than that even is that most of us have at one time or another worked for someone who follows the model illustrated above: the command and control model. I know that because it is how most leaders lead – regardless of field or tax status. It’s not the best way, but it’s the way most us have seen modeled and it’s the easiest. It’s also the least effective as it reduces employee engagement, which consequently reduces productivity.

The problem with command and control is this: one person gives the command and holds the control. That means everyone else does what they’re told. They don’t question; they just do. And what do they do when they’re done? They come back!

Command and control leadership looks like this: (Let me know if any of this starts to sound familiar.)
• There’s a line out your door, and not just of the people that report to you, but of all the staff. Because the culture says that even though people may report to someone else, you have the answers, and the decision making power and you use it.
• People don’t question your instructions, even when they know the instructions are wrong, even when they conflict with something you said yesterday, even when the instructions are stupid, or worse, dangerous. Because the culture says they can’t.
• People don’t actually know what their jobs are, what your expectations are, how you are going to evaluate them and what that evaluation might be based on; they are trying to do what you want, but they don’t really know what that is and they can’t read your mind.

To be fair, there are times when command and control is the right style, but more often a more innovative approach will be more successful. “Do what I say” and “think for your selves” are mutually exclusive goals. If you want people to think for themselves, consider moving towards a more innovative leadership style.

As most of us have not had the opportunity to see a variety of styles modeled, each of us has seen multiple lessons of what not to do and plenty of opportunities to learn things the hard way. The lessons we learn the hard way tend to be the lessons we never forgot. Here are two lessons that took me too long to learn but once I understood and could articulate them, the world – and my capacity for leadership – changed:

• HR systems must match organizational values.
• Being good at your job isn’t enough. You have to be on the team and moving the organization forward.

Just because it’s what we’ve seen doesn’t mean it’s who we have to be. Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives offers another choice and path to develop your leadership style. There are many leadership books out there. Pick ours up. Pick another one up. Choose the type of leader you wish to be: Find a model that works for you; find a coach, friend or colleague who can assist, champion and challenge you; and start! You and your team will be glad you did!

Lead on!

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