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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Leadership in Times of Transition

I recently returned from New York City, where I was able to spend two incredible days with 72 fellow global nonprofit leaders selected to attend the fourth annual American Express Leadership Academy Global Alumni Summit. The theme of the summit was Leadership in Times of Transition. This year's summit featured a special livestream conversation with Angela Fernandez, Esq., executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, and Dan Parks, managing editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. They discussed leadership in times of transition, and how our sector can be effective under current conditions. You can watch the archived version of the conversation here, and I highly encourage anybody, whether you work in the nonprofit sector or not, do so.

Rather than spend time telling you what they said and why it’s important – thanks to modern-day technology, you can learn directly from them on your train ride home (you are using mass transit, right!?) – I thought I’d talk a bit about what I have learned through transitions in my career.

Like Angela Fernandez, I have split my careers (in my case, pretty evenly) between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Through those experiences, I have been through a lot of transitions. These transitions go beyond changing careers, sectors, geographies or titles. I’ve transitioned administrations, which could mean apples became oranges seemingly overnight – typically communicated through a long all-employee email (hidden under the guise of “Memo”) with a 10MB photo attachment of the new cabinet secretary that crashed the WO (government speak: Washington Office) server for 48 hours. I have transitioned markets, from the top of the runaway bull market in 2007 to the bubble-bursting plunge to the bottom in 2009. I have transitioned CEOs, which has often meant adapting to different management styles, personalities, organizational culture and approaches to leadership.

Through all these transitions, just as Angela Fernandez says in her talk, I have learned a ton – most of all, how to adapt quickly – and carried lessons learned from career to career. If you have read this far, you probably want something out of this experience, so I’ll do what all people who write a blog do and give you three tips on how to manage and lead transitions – except, I’m going to give you four.

Listen and pay attention

Transitions are disruptive. Transitions often create stress. People start doing things they normally wouldn’t do: they miss deadlines, they show up unprepared, they snap at people. Or, in some cases, they start doing things they wish they could have been doing all along and are hoping their behavior is ignored or accepted when things are in chaos. They get drunk at lunch, they start bossing around people who don’t work for them and/or settling old scores (i.e., they take advantage of power gaps), they quit showing up at all. The best thing you can do as a leader in these situations, whether you are starting a new job or your organization hit a bump (or a car-sized pothole) in the road, is to pay attention to what is going on around you, listen more than you talk and figure out the situation before you react to it. In the case of a bump, that may mean a day or two; in the case of car-sized pothole, it may mean a week or two; in the case of a new job, it may mean several months spent learning the actors, the lay of the land and the organization. Whatever the situation, letting the situation dictate your actions rather than learning the situation and figuring out a best course of action can have negative impacts on your reputation, your ability to be effective, and your ability to help find and lead a solution.

Be yourself

This is especially true when you change careers, or you change jobs, or you change CEOs. In these situations, there is often pressure (typically self-inflicted) to make sure you fit in or be the person you think other people are expecting you to be. Six months or a year down the road, when you are exhausted being somebody you are not and you start being who you are, you are going to create a lot of confusion. So, skip the confusion (and the acting). Show up and be yourself. Be authentic. Do the things that got you to where you are. I know this is easier said than done, but if you can’t be yourself, it may not be a great fit. The sooner you learn that, the quicker you can move on to something that is.

Lead with your values

One of the most important lessons I learned through the AmEx Academy is to embrace my values. If you do so, no matter what happens, you know you are doing what is best even if it does not work out. This is especially true if you are leading in a transition. As I said above, transitions are hard and result in change. Change is difficult. Therefore, people often resist it. They resist it by saying things like, “That’s not the way we do things here” or “That may have worked in your old job, but….” I’ve heard this a lot in my career because I have often been brought in to start things from scratch or fix things that are broken. Doing it the old way does not fix things that are broken. That’s likely how it was broken and why nobody has been able to fix it. Sticking to your values will give you the confidence to focus on the fix even while you deal with resistance.

Outsiders have fresh perspectives

One of the fallacies of every industry is thinking that somebody with a similar education, background, career path and set of experiences can solve your organization’s problem or lead it through a transition. Sure, sometimes that can be the case; but it does not always work. Therefore, don’t discount the outsider. Outsiders see problems through a different lens and identify blind spots that you didn’t know you even had. Why? Because they don’t have all the same baggage (if this ruffles your feathers, please read: industry experience) and have a different set of experiences. That’s not to say they don’t have their own industry experience (read: baggage); but what they are bringing to the table is experience solving problems in a different landscape.

Since this is bonus coverage and I have provided 4 points instead of the requisite 3, I feel I should expand on this with an example.

In my experience, there are not huge differences between the core issues that challenge organizations across all the sectors I have worked in. Take, for example, morale. In every industry I have worked in, there have been periods when morale was bad. What has been different are the approaches the sectors have taken to “solve” or address the issue. In the public sector, morale was often treated like gravity: its existence was acknowledged but there was no solution. All federal employees took a survey, your department got ranked, and it was sent to you in a “Memo”: “Dear Employee, The Dept. of X currently has a morale ranking of 149 out of 153 government agencies. A lot of stuff about the importance of good morale. Thank you for participating. A certificate is attached to this email as a .jpg file that you can print out, write your full name in the space provided in black or blue ink, and display at your desk indicating that you participated in this year’s survey. Secretary of X” (server crash).

In the private sector, bad morale was often managed with carrots or sticks, depending on the year. A good year (talking bottom line) with bad morale was typically managed with bigger bonus checks and title upgrades. A bad year with bad morale was typically managed with: “Before lunch, we reduced headcount by 17.2%, resulting in a cost savings of USD 8.6MM. This savings will reduce quarterly losses, before carry-over, to -3.1%. Those of you left are lucky to have jobs. Your manager will meet with you individually next week to assign additional job duties to ensure we remain operating at 100%. Have a pleasant weekend.”

In the nonprofit sector, bad morale is often treated as if it does not exist and/or managed with mission. If you are reading this blog, you most likely work in the nonprofit sector and know exactly what I am talking about. Even when an organization is barely hanging on and employees are jumping ship, it not uncommon to hear leaders and employees tell each other, boards, donors and partners that things are great. In the rare instances bad morale is acknowledged, employees are encouraged to think about “why you wanted to work in nonprofit work in the first place” or told “things are tough right now, but we need to focus on the mission.”

Yes, my examples above are cheeky; and no, none of them solve the root issue holistically. That said, hopefully they demonstrated my original point: outsiders see problems through a different lens and identify blind spots that you didn’t know you even had. So, if your organization has always managed morale issues with mission and it’s no longer working, it could take an outside perspective to recommend a new approach (e.g., carrots and sticks or acknowledgment or something I have not experienced) to help your organization transition.

Seth Cothrun is the senior director of marketing and development for the Sonoran Institute. He graduated from the American Express Leadership Academy at the ASU Lodestar Center in 2017, part of its ninth class. Prior to joining the Sonoran Institute,  he spent almost 7 years managing business development and marketing initiatives throughout the Americas in the institutional asset management space, working with some of the largest public and private funds in the world. Prior to the financial industry, he spent several years as a project, then program, manager in the US Forest Service throughout the West, in addition to serving nationally on Type 1 Incident Management and Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation teams.


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