Have You Ever Tried Changing the Tires While Driving the Car?

For this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

I was driving home from a movie with my mother-in-law over the Thanksgiving weekend when we heard a funny, rhythmic, thumping sound.  We had just pulled away from the curb, and I thought maybe my son’s jacket sleeve was caught in the door and dragging on the ground. Nope, that wasn’t it.  We had a flat tire.

It was 20 degrees outside, ice and snow on the ground, and it was late and dark. Let’s just say that I was all-too-pleased to call AAA, and within 30 minutes we were fixed up and back on the road.

When your organization is wading into new waters, or trying to implement a new and improved system, don’t you wish it was as easy as calling AAA? 

Today we are all navigating our way through massive change. Not only are the tools and technologies evolving everyday, but the impact on society (and thus the implications for nonprofit leadership) are going through their own upheaval. If only we had the luxury to pull over by the side of the road and pause for a moment while we got everything in order!

If you’re part of the NTEN Community, then chances are you’re leading in a time of change. Whether you are leading a team, a department, a whole organization, or even an entire sector today, you likely feel at times (or all the time!) like you’re trying to change the tires while you’re driving the car. Some of us have studied up on adaptive leadership theories, and some of us have good instincts. Even so, most of us were educated in a previous model and have the vast majority of our professional experience in times of greater stability.

To successfully lead during times of change, there are a few important pieces of leadership wisdom you need to have.

1) Transparency is fundamental to any healthy relationship, including your staff, your board, your donors, and your constituents

You don’t have to have all of the answers, but helping people feel like they are part of the journey is important. Charlene Li, author of Open Leadership, says that “transparency is not defined by you as a leader, but by the people you want to trust you and your organization. How much information do they need in order to follow you, trust you with their money or business?” (pg. 193).

Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, FL knew that their community needed to feel a greater sense of organizational investment before the synagogue launched a major capital campaign. It was just the push they needed to be more transparent. Instead of opening up the floodgates of information, which felt radical and risky, they asked the community, “What do you want to know?” The resulting report, “You Asked, We Answered,” provided the backstory and information that the community needed to hear, which felt honest, transparent and empowering.

2)    Know your demographics, and design with them in mind

If your organization grew up during the Baby Boomer era, and Boomers make up your board of directors and major donors, you may be inclined to justify why you should continue to design programs, messaging, campaigns, and relationships with Boomers.  But a smart leader would recognize that, for the sustainability of the organization over the long term, it’s time to start connecting with younger generations. Knowing what to change, what to give up, and how to do it is hard but necessary. An important lesson when leading in a time of change is to be very honest about your audiences (not only current, but also prospective) and what your mission means to and for them.

The Girl Scouts, for example, have been hearing requests for online cookie sales for years. (As a mother of a Girl Scout and a troop leader myself, I’ve been aching for a more sophisticated tool, and the ability to take credit cards).  They rationalized that online sales would lack the social and money-handling skills that are critical entrepreneurial skills the cookie sale is designed to teach. But they also knew that the issue wouldn’t go away, and thus they had to face the challenge of how to step into the digital cookie sale space while being true to their mission. After three years of research and development, the Girl Scouts are now rolling out digital ordering and tracking in a way that is designed to help girls learn valuable entrepreneurial lessons in online marketing and e-commerce.

3)    People are your greatest asset, and they matter.

In changing ecosystems, skills and responsibilities of your staff must change too.  Just think about how positions in marketing, communications and IT have changed over the past decade or two. In some cases this means ongoing professional development to learn new skills, but in other cases it means totally rewriting job descriptions and shuffling how the organization pursues its work entirely.

As I learned from William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions, there is one critical factor to understand as you lead in a time of change: Change is situational, but transition is psychological. What’s the difference?

Change is like flipping a switch: today we’re using a new database. But transition is psychological: how do I integrate using the new database into my daily work patterns, and why does it matter?

In times of change, everyone needs to be adapting their work constantly. One organization I worked with (which I’ll purposefully leave unnamed) did a major reorganization to help them be more effective in a changing sector. They revised job titles and descriptions and patted themselves on the back for having minimized layoffs. But the new marching orders didn’t stick so well. First, the shift sent the message that the previous work the staff had been doing was useless and not valued. The staff felt that their skills and experience didn’t matter. Second, they didn’t scaffold the new ways of working, so the status quo persevered even if the job descriptions changed.

Staff are not robots that can be reprogrammed, and staff in the nonprofit field (who are working with their hearts as well as their minds) need to understand the “why” and “how” of the change, not only the “what.” Communicate early, scaffold during, and acknowledge and celebrate at every step of the way until the new patterns and culture have taken firm root. And also recognize that not everyone may be up for the change, and may move on.

Join us at #15NTC when we’ll be talking about Changing the Tires While Driving the Car: Leading in Times of Change. Wrap up you NTC on Friday by hearing from organizational leadership who have achieved this amazing feat, including Cindy Johanson, the Executive Director of Edutopia, a program of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, and Allison Fine, past-president of Temple Beth Abraham, co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, and author of the recently released book Matterness: What Fearless Leaders Know About the Power and Promise of Social Media. After hearing practical lessons from a diverse collection of organizations, we’ll take time to workshop your ideas, too.

No auto-mechanics experience or AAA membership required. See you there!

Lisa Colton
Chief Learning Officer
See3 Communications
Lisa Colton is the founder and president of Darim Online, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Jewish organizations succeed in the digital age. She provides training, consulting and coaching to staff and volunteer leadership of synagogues, schools, camps, foundations, social service organizations and others. A graduate of Stanford University, Lisa has 2 young kids, a dog named Stella, and 8 chickens. And she really enjoyed the beer and ice cream sandwiches at 09NTC.