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Learning to Listen

By the time I returned to YIN in November 1999, Jim, the president and CEO, had taken charge of transforming the agency and addressing the sinking morale among staff, the low confidence in leadership, and the general feeling that the people running the place didn’t value the staff. Jim responded to the staff discontent in several ways. First, he brought me and other staff members into the Executive Management Team (EMT), comprised of the President/CEO, CFO, program VPs, and a few administrators. This gave staff a genuine voice in management and broadened the agency’s leadership base. Responsible for providing organizational direction and oversight, the EMT began by evaluating staff morale, communication between program staff and personnel, and the agency’s management structure.

Next, Jim began to elicit feedback from everyone—administrators to frontline staff. He brought in an outside consulting firm and required all directors to be part of an interview process in which staff voiced their perception of both supervisors and peers. We were encouraged to report freely and openly without fear of consequences; the results would be confidential. The staff was specifically asked to rate their supervisors’ leadership abilities, problem-solving skills, and degree of empathy. In addition, administrators went through psychological testing and an extensive interview session with the consulting firm. We were told that after the data were compiled, each of us would be given detailed feedback about our strengths and weaknesses.

Jim then focused on the Early Childhood Programs, the division where I worked, to discover why its staff was more content and had less turnover. In the years we’d worked together, a consensus had emerged on my team that we’d engage in open, honest, mutually respectful discussion, even when we disagreed, and that we wouldn’t resort to imperious fiats. Therefore, in the feedback from my staff, there were numerous variations on the theme, “My supervisor values and supports me.”

But what seemed just as important as the sense of being seen and supported to respondents from the Early Childhood Programs was the worldview that flowed from it. We’d based the program on what we called a strengths-based philosophy, applied to both clients and staff members. This meant focusing on each person’s abilities and resources, strengthening relationships, emphasizing factors that enhance change, and working to instill a sense of hope in every client, whatever the problem or nature of the intervention. This perspective focused squarely on what could be accomplished when we worked together with clients toward mutually agreeable goals, and seemed to make a difference both in working with clients and in staff members’ personal lives. I remember a home visitor coming up to me after a training and saying, “I know we’re supposed to be the ones empowering others, but I feel empowered when I talk with my families. It’s a thrill to talk about what children can do, rather than constantly trying to undo something from the past.”

We stressed three main points: (1) everyone needs to feel heard, understood, and valued—really listen to the families you see and get to know them before deciding what’s wrong or what they need to do; (2) change requires that you focus on the future and on what people most want to have happen in their lives; and (3) the primary vehicle to future change is through clients’ strengths, resiliencies, and support systems.

Meanwhile, Jim asked me to take on the role of putting in place a strengths-based philosophy throughout the entire agency. Not only would this philosophy serve as a practical and theoretical foundation for the agency, it would become a kind of flag around which the agency and all its employees could unite. We didn’t know it at the time, but what we were really doing by clarifying the purpose of the agency, improving day-to-day communication, and creating better connections among all agency personnel was developing at YIN what social learning theorist Etienne Wenger refers to as “communities of practice.” In his lexicon, these are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.”

Communities of practice have a common interest, work together, and share information and resources. More than a group of friends or network of personal connections, a community of practice is formed, often spontaneously and informally, by practitioners of a “domain of interest”—a profession, a hobby, a field of expertise, an art or craft, even a common concern. Such communities, Wenger writes, “Engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school,” or, he might have added, the members of a community agency working with kids and families. The central insight to this intuitively simple idea is that learning is primarily a social phenomenon, rather than—as we so often think—a purely individualistic activity. In fact, as we were discovering at YIN, people learn, acquire competency and expertise, and gain genuine knowledge and understanding through practice in community.

By creating a community of practice around the common theme of a strengths-based philosophy, we were trying to capture the elusive passion and deep commitment of each individual at YIN and funnel this energy into a collective effort to achieve excellence as an agency. We believed we could do this by shifting the prevailing culture from one reflecting division, mistrust, and resentment to one reflecting a collective vision, a shared body of knowledge, a general pattern of open, undefensive communication, and a common purpose: to make this the best agency possible.

Of course, high hopes often go hand-in-hand with nitty-gritty struggle. All cultures fight to survive, and the old culture at YIN was no exception. The overall atmosphere at the agency had been toxic for some time, but as strange as it seems, some staff had grown accustomed to the prevailing climate, and remained loyal to the old ways. For many, changing was harder than just allowing things to remain as they’d been—familiar bad conditions seemed safer than untried good ones.

So, paradoxically, to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and work more effectively as a team, we had to go through a crucible of emotional and professional upheaval. There were disagreements and hurt feelings—mostly due to the perfectly natural human inclination to protect ourselves, our programs, our staffs, and our turf. Trying to set the tone for the whole agency, the Executive Management Team members still had to learn to behave better and accept each other, even if we didn’t always accept each other’s ideas. We were guided by the idea that we could see our differences as assets, not liabilities; and to move forward, we’d have to use our divergent views for something other than bickering.

Crucially, Jim, as the leader, set the right tone. He began to actively model what he expected of us. He’d sit back and listen, and only step in as mediator when a situation became heated. It worked, but slowly, because many of the most challenging issues involved ongoing conversations. We had to agree on a new agency-wide salary structure, for example. This meant market-pricing all jobs within the organization. Tricia, head of Human Resources, had to confront VPs and directors who were advocating for their individual staff, as opposed to thinking about the viability of the entire organization. In time, our collective mindset shifted, and it became common, in the midst of a disagreement, for one EMT member to say, “I’m on your side.” As our trust with each other grew, consensus followed.

Change was difficult, even for those of us leading it. Once EMT members were more or less in the same book, if not exactly always on the same page, it was time to figure out how to help the whole staff—CEO to maintenance worker and all stations in between—take their parts in making the vision of a renewed YIN a reality.

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