Helping nonprofits boards move toward greater equity with Christal Cherry and Renee Rubin Ross
In episode 55 of Mission: Impact, Carol and her guests, Dr. Renee Rubin Ross and Christal Cherry discuss:
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross is a nationally recognized strategic planning and board development consultant. Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives.
Christal M. Cherry is a nationally recognized nonprofit executive and professionally trained fundraiser. With over 20 years in the nonprofit sector, she has supported higher education institutions, human services organizations and faith-based missions. Her career portfolio, as a full time professional and consultant includes American University, the United Negro College Fund, Spelman College, Nicholas House, the Interdenominational Theological Center, Florida A & M University, Action Ministries, and the GA Center for Nonprofits.
In each role, Christal has interfaced, guided and collaborated with diverse boards made up of college presidents, ministers and bishops, politicians, corporate CEO's, civic leaders, consultants, attorneys, stay at home moms and students.
With passion and a wide breadth of experience, Christal works today with clients to help them mark a clear path to success in board development. Her style is electrifying, inspiring, and energizing.
Christal earned a MA in Counseling from Hampton University, a BA in Liberal Arts from Hofstra University and professional development certifications in nonprofit leadership, social media fundraising, and nonprofit management.
She currently serves on the board of the Greater Atlanta chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Villages of Carver YMCA. She is regular presenter with CANDID, Qgiv, Network for Good, Bloomerang, and the Mississippi Alliance of Nonprofits and Philanthropy where she facilitates webinars and teaches courses in fundraising, board development and equity and inclusion. Christal has been a guest on multiple podcasts and enjoy serving as a requested expert on board matters. She is contributing author in Collecting Courage, a documenting of racism and survival by 14 accomplished Black fundraisers working across North America. She also enjoys her membership in the African American Development Officers Network, Toastmasters, and F3, Fabulous Female Fundraisers which she founded.
Important Links and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: My guests today on Mission Impact are Renee Rubin Ross and Christal Cherry. We talk about how nonprofit boards can work towards becoming more inclusive and more diverse. We explore why it is so important to not just name the challenges boards have with diversifying, but also identify some possible solutions and positive actions to take to create movement, why it is important for groups to unpack and own history, including their group’s history, how white people need to accept being uncomfortable during conversations around race.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I am Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant.
Welcome Renee and Christal to the mission impact podcast.
Christal Cherry: Thank you.
Renee Rubin Ross: Thank you so much. Good to be here.
Carol: So I'd love to hear from each of you on this question, I'd love to start with a question around what drew you to the work that you do and what motivates you, what would you describe as your, why?
Christal: Go for it, Renee
Renee: Hi. So I'm Dr. Renee Rubin Ross. And a lot of my work is really focused on inclusion and bringing out the wisdom in the room, bringing out all voices. And I would say that some of this comes from, from my experiences as a kid who, and a geeky kid in the back of the library, not feeling included and really observing and thinking about who. Part of the group who has power and how do I change things? And then more recently, I, one of the things that I do is I run the Cal state east bay nonprofit management certificate program. Our students are a rainbow of people of all races and in teaching board development for the program, our students have asked me. Not just to share the problem of board composition, which we're gonna be talking about, but what are some paths to solutions? And that's what, that's, what started to motivate my work. And also then connected me with Christal actually.
Christal: And I'm Christal M Cherry. And I wanna say, as I started doing this work group, and then we encourage each other to, to share our race autobiographies. And that's something that we do in the work that we do with our boards. And as I started to really think about mine, I realized that there were many times when I was the only in many cases I was bused out as a small child. Out of the neighborhood that we lived in and I went to school were predominantly white children from elementary school, all the way to high school. So there were many times. When I was the only in the classroom and then graduated from high school and went to a predominantly white Jewish college Hoff street university in Long Island, New York and was part of a small program called the new college at Hoff street university. And I was the only one there. And then in many cases after graduation from college, I worked on teams. I remember I worked at the Bank of New York in New York City. And was only for a short period of time. They did eventually hire others. So I've always been the only in, in, in many instances and because of my personality, I'm a type, a personality, outgoing, not shy, not afraid. To enter groups and introduce myself, but there were still times where I felt like, ah, do I really belong here? Do they really get me? Do they really understand? What my lived experience is like I remember in college, my peers during the summertime were backpacking, of course, Europe and I was working at Macy's, so I couldn't afford the backpack. I didn't know anything about Europe. I was like, that's not part of my reality. So because I've always been the only. I think this work is about inclusion and belonging. Resonates with me. And particularly as we talk about boards, because I've been on boards, I've, I've sat in a room with boards and I know how uncomfortable it can be just for board members, periods that don't know each other. But then when you throw in race and culture and background then it gets weird. And if people don't get it, then people might not feel comfortable speaking up and you will find sometimes that people of color on boards are quiet because they're not sure whether or not their voices are gonna be heard. They feel like the only, and they're not sure whether or not it's okay to speak up. If what they're gonna say is gonna really be heard. And respected if, if, if they can weigh in it'll matter, all of those things. So that's why I got started in this work and in particular working with Renee. She's awesome. And, even though we're very different we have this thing in common and we have synergy and we respect one another and we work well together. So here we are.
Carol: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you. Yeah. And you've named a couple different things there. This extra kind of challenge that hasn't happened, there hasn't been a lot of movement in terms of diversifying boards. Having them folks will recruit people, but not necessarily create a culture that really builds that inclusion. And I love how you talked about not just stating the problem. We, we, many. Many people have done lots of research around, around the problem, but love that you guys are working towards a solution. And, and just to name what it is, is really working towards helping nonprofit boards become more equitable and, and inclusive and create a culture of belonging. So what would you say are some common challenges? That nonprofit.
Renee: Carol. I just wanted to just appreciate what you just said, which was, you said equitable because sometimes we say we hear people when we start working with people, we hear them say, oh, you're trying to make boards more diverse. And I truly wanna call that out and say from everything, we know, and we've heard and all that without the pieces around culture and around Understanding how boards are connected and how all of us are connected to the larger inequities in our society. You're not gonna make much progress. So we do talk about inclusion and equity a lot too. Yeah. So thank you for that.
Carol: Yeah. I appreciate it. I appreciate you calling that out. And I was reading recently and, and I'm sure others knew this way before me, but how the whole language around diversity came about was basically white or dominant entities wanting to avoid the whole conversation around race and wanting to call it something different. So I appreciate you calling that out. So what would you say are some common- I mean, I appreciate that you don't just name the problem, but let's just say, what are some of the common challenges the boards have in working to be more equitable and inclusive?
Renee: Well, we talk about knowledge gaps. So often things happen and then some people, and it is often the white people don't really understand what just happened. So very concretely, we had a board that brought us in and they had some contentious conversations. There were several women of color who left the board. And, and when they, when the organization reached out to us, they didn't say, this is what happened. They just said, well, we need some, we need some consulting. What do you say? You talk to us, you support us. And then as we got into our interviews and all of that, we started to learn. There had been some really hard conversations and, and interactions. And even after this happened, the people who were involved still didn't understand why this is that they never really went back to those people and said, Hey, is there something we could do to bring you back? You know? So it's just like this real lack of understanding. What had happened with these women, which, we, we didn't interview them ourselves, but we're guessing that they experienced this. We know that there was some aggressive behavior towards them. And certainly that there were most likely microaggressions that happened over time. And they truly just felt like I'm not being respected. I don't wanna do this anymore. Who would? And, and so, so, but, but from the perspective of some of the white people on the board, it was like, Oh, why can't we just talk this all out and not understand the larger dynamics Christal?
Christal: What do, what do you say? Yeah. And we received some resistance when we started talking about white supremacy culture and what that looks like. I remember the board chair pushing back and he was one of the main reasons why the women left because they went to him with their concerns and he threw them off. And it wasn't until we worked with him for a couple months that he really started to realize maybe his, how he was being complicit in this and that he was also a part of the reason why these women left. But it took a while for us and he did come around. But initially he was Kurt with them and dismissive. And so it's with this deep dive work where we really ask people to take a good long look at themselves and we have them do the race autobiographies. As I mentioned earlier, we do some race caucusing where we separate the board by race and Renee talks to the white people. And I talk to the black people, the people of color and and some really, really greeting conversations come out of that experience. And essentially what happens. What I've learned is that people of color are angry and white people are fearful. And so when we come back in the room, we've realized that, unless we start having these conversations where white people really can UN they're confused, they're fearful. They don't know what, what, what they, they don't know what to do. They don't know how to fix it. They, they, they feel shameful. They feel like we're trying to put them on blast and make them embarra. And, and they're like, I wasn't there, I'm not responsible for what happened. I wasn't there during slavery. And that's one of the things I tell people to disarm them. None of us were here were in slavery happened. Right. So, no one's pointing the finger at you and you and you, what we're just asking you to do is to own the history. And to accept the fact that because of what happened, some people live a certain way and some people don't, and that still has ramifications hundreds of years later. And while neither of us were there I still struggle with some of the disadvantages of what's happened to my people and maybe Renee. Some, some perks and bennies, some privileges that she got because of her background and because of the color of her skin. So we just wanna call people out and say, listen, we're not trying to make you feel bad individually. We just want you to see it and not ignore it anymore.
Carol: Yeah. Thank you. Appreciate that. You mentioned something that you do with boards, a race autobiography. Can you say a little bit more about what that is and what comes out of that conversation?
Renee: Yeah. So we got this, this exercise originally from this, or organization called rise, where they teach about facilitating racially dust spaces and what it is is we, first of all, we, we give people some questions ahead of time. Think about when, when did you first notice race? When did you talk about race? How, how was it discussed in your family? So that they're thinking about ahead of time, then the two of us model this together, and it is active listening. So whatever I'm sharing Christal says, Christal doesn't say, oh my gosh, I can't believe that really happened. You know it, but it's actually just wow. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you opened up and, and shared that. And then Christal shares. Same active listening. And then we send people off into breakout rooms and let them for, three or four people talk and, and listen to one another in the same way and people just really love this. I think that it's so interesting. There are certainly statistics now about our society becoming. More segregated and that it's harder to have these conversations across honest conversations across race. And yet I do think that people are really interested in understanding the perspective of somebody who's different from themselves. And it really has deepened, deepened connection, deepened empathy. And that we believe is the way to start making progress in terms of breaking down all the other hard stuff that is happening, because like I care about this person. And so I want them, I care about the more I understand their story. And so I, now I want them to feel like they're part of this group and I want them to feel like we value what they are bringing because it's, it is needed in this setting.
Carol: Christal. I wanted to follow up on one of the things that you talked about. It's the different experiences that folks have based on racial background. And the shame that you talked about, a lot of white people are sitting in and then acting out of. And I think, white fragility has been well described, but I think that, that, that oftentimes I know when I. Myself and them working with other white people is that initial reaction is they're saying I did something bad and perhaps they did do something that was harmful that they need to own up to and, and take accountability for. But that shame can be so paralyzing.
Christal: Yeah. And so, you know what we've learned is, some white people, they don't wanna feel uncom. They don't, they don't want to feel that wiggly feeling when you're in the room and you're just like, something feels itchy on my back and you're just feeling uncomfortable. And so they opt out and so , so, which is what happened to us when we were working with a client in Montgomery, Alabama. We had a client where we were doing Renee and I were doing some deep DEI training with, and it was a large group and it started out with, I don't know, 32 people or something like that. And then at, by the end we realized the group had dwindled down and who was like blaringly? Absent were white men. We had, we had white women, we had black men, we had black women. But we looked around and we were like, we're the five or six white men that we started this training with. They just opt it out. They didn't wanna deal with it. They didn't wanna talk about it. He just didn't come. And, that board talked about having some accountability for them. you can't just not come because it's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for all of us. But if we're really serious about trying to change our culture, then we all have to sit here and deal with this discomfort and they just opted out. And so I think that's why. people of color are so angry because white people wanna just opt out. They don't wanna teach their kids about it. They don't want their kids to feel uncomfortable. They don't wanna feel uncomfortable. And we are just saying, you have to look at it. You have to look at it in the face. You have to own it. And not own it. Like you, you are personally responsible, but own it, that this is just a reality of what's happened to. Yeah, I just,
Carol: I mean, definitely that, that white privilege of just being able to opt out and being able to say, oh, I'll worry about that tomorrow. And obviously it's not the experience of most people in the United States, so yeah, really appreciate that. And, and yeah, it's, I, it's just seeing that as an unfortunate dynamic. Yes.
Renee: I, I was gonna just add onto that, that, that many of us believe that our society is better when people of all races can thrive and really understand, like that's the vision. And so it's like, well, what needs to happen? In order to move towards that vision. And one of the great books on this is the sum of us by Heather McGee. And, and it's funny because we just did a webinar for the network for good. And we were talking about this and it was all about building belonging. Right. And we talked about it a lot in terms of race and how people of all races should feel like they belong. On a board and belonging is very specifically, I am part of the circle. And then someone, a colleague of mine just listened to this webinar and said, oh wow. This really applies to, to the people who feel left out to the white people who feel left out.
And I was like, yeah, that's exactly right. Because what this is saying is when we think about all the people in our society and everybody's feelings. There's a sense of belonging. You're thriving. It's actually good for everyone. Right? So that's the, I mean, that's the, I know that there's so much fear around this as if something is getting taken away and, and that's the, the white people's fear, but at the same time, it's like, well, what, what is the positive vision? And I, for myself and in this work and what we talk about, how do we keep holding that positive? And, and for, for, for ourselves, for our clients, for, for these boards, I I'm gonna, I could go on this longer ,
Christal: but our society perpetuates us and we have this capitalist society. We have this patriarchal society and this whole thing about if, if you gain, I lose. Right. It's not like we can both get there. I can't, I can't have it. Nice things. And you can have nice things, right. If I have nice things, that means that you are gonna have less nice things. And, and, and that's what that really is what the bottom line is, is that, we we're, it is this competition. I have to maintain power. I have to maintain influence. I'm the one that has the money and I'm pulling the strings. And if I give. The opportunity to pull the strings. That means I'm gonna have less power. And that's essentially what this book that some of us talk about, but that's really the root of what's going on with this whole diversity equity and inclusion thing. Boards have been historically white male, right? They have been the ones that have been making the, there's 64 million board members in this country. They have been the ones that have been calling the shots about how nonprofits have been operated, how the monies are being spent, decisions on what happens to black and brown children. What happens to women who are pregnant, what happens to, and all of the things that we know, all the missions, the causes are out there in a nonprofit space. These boards who have been historically white male have been the ones that have been making the decisions about what happens to millions of people. And now what we're saying is, Hey, wait a minute. The world doesn't look like it used to. And there are more brown people in the world than it's ever been. And how dare you make decisions? Hello? Does this sound familiar? How dare you make decisions about me without allowing me to weigh in on those decisions? And so now we're saying move over and let other people who actually come from the communities that you're working with, have a say in what happens to them and, and the white folks who have had that power saying. I don't wanna move over. I mean, I know, right? It's, it's politically correct to say you should have a, you should have a seat at the table, but I've always had the seat. I don't wanna make room for you. I don't wanna make room for you. Mm-hmm mm-hmm and so that's basically what's going on. And so people will come to us and say, yes, we wanna, we wanna change our culture, that we wanna change the composition and wrap up. But then as we start working with them, we realize when it really comes down to doing the real hard work. They may not, they may not really mean it.
Carol: Yeah. And I feel like a lot of organizations and, and boards fall in the trap of the diversity piece. So if we wanna recruit people beyond white men or white men and white women to be on this board and they actually don't think about how it's gonna, how they need to shift in terms of their culture. And be more open. I'm a hundred percent with you, Renee on the, that's the vision of where we want to go. And I'm sometimes a little fearful that that can fall. That white people just wanna say, okay, let's get there. How do we do that? We're just all the same, like I don't see color pieces. So, so as a whole fan,
Renee: Oppos and we thank you for saying that, Carol, we, we each talk about this as this is, you're, you're on, we are gonna help. What we're gonna do with your board is unfreeze. Because, and by, by starting to deepen conversations around race, I, another thing that we wanna mention is like, everything, from research is you need to talk about race because if you do not talk about race, if you're not able to talk about race, then anyone who experience race experiences, race is those experiences are made in. And so it's not enough to say, oh, we serve diverse communities. I mean, you, you really need to be specific. And, and only by doing that, can you start to really pull out in equities in the society and do something about them? But you're right. It's like, do you want to do this work of building belonging and, and, very simple. Do you feel like people who are equity is defined as people who are closest to the problems should be weighing in on the solutions? It's either a yes or no. Either you believe that, or you don't, or you believe that someone else who's really far away somehow knows. What should happen, which sounds very, patronizing to me, but ,
Christal: Carol, while we focus primarily on race, I mean, we talk about diversity. We talk about all the isms. I mean, not only just color and, and background ethnicity, but able body versus disabled, right. cis straight white heterosexual against, people of color who are LGBTQ+ I right. You know? And so when we talk about diversity, we are just talking about difference. Right. Coming to the table, being different from what has normally been at the table. So Renee and I focused a lot on color and race and background and ethnic, background, but we are really talking about it all. So I don't want us to just be pigeonholed to talk specifically about race, which is our focus. And which we think is really, really, of course, obviously important. But when we start talking about belonging, we're talking about all those isms, right. And all those individuals who are historically left out to be at the table in the boardroom.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I just think it's a hundred percent in what you're saying, the language around belonging. Probably EV I would guess I could go out on a limb and guess that almost everybody has had an experience of feeling left out or feeling not like they didn't belong. They didn't feel included. And so being able to connect into that just as a, at a basic human level is really helpful. And I think starting with race, it's kind of, it's so deep in our history in terms of the US specific context, but I, but I think, I think there are folks around the world who actually listened to this podcast. And so I always make a point of saying, we're talking about this from a us perspective, but at the same time, I don't think it's a uniquely us problem either. So, what would you say are some first steps you've taken about some work that you've done with different clients? What are some first steps that boards can take in terms of becoming more inclusive?
Renee: So we, I mean, we, so again, one of them is deepening one's ability to talk about race. And that might mean Understanding who is on the board. One of the really other things is getting a sense of whether people feel, feel belonging. And I, I told this story, not, not long ago about, we had this conversation with this man named Carl, this white man named Carl. And we said, well, do the people on your board feel belonging? And he said, oh yeah, of course they do. Of course they, everybody feels so much belonging. And then I said, well, how do you know? And, and he was like, well, I don't know. I mean, I asked my three friends, and they all said that they feel belonging. Like, well, there's another 20 people on the board. Do you know anything about oh, no, but I'm sure they feel belonging, like, so, so, so what we do when we come in, we do some assessment that is interviews and a survey. And this, we're a cross race team. Sometimes people feel more comfortable talking to one or the other of us about what's going on. And we're listening and then we share everything back and it, and one of the principles is even if there's one person who has some information that person might be, might feel like, wow, this is, this is a super welcoming board if you're white, but I am, I am black. I'm a Latino, I'm Asian American. I don't feel welcome here. You gotta listen to every single voice and really understand what's going on. So first just getting a sense of what's happening.
Carol: Yeah, I think that, that, that Taking that step to really gather some good information, qualitative quantitative, and then mirroring that back to the organization so that they have that fuller sense. So it's not just the four people that I happen to be friends with on the board. Right. And talk to them on a regular basis. And so I think I know what everybody the, the, the bad phrase of, well, I think I'm speaking for everyone here. Well, no, you're. Whatever. Right. Even paying attention to who's speaking up in the meetings and who isn't who you are hearing from? And I think some people are, are pretty attuned to that and others just don't, don't notice it at all. And so that can be so helpful.
Christal: And Carol, I'm a big proponent of doing self work. Right? And so I always tell the board that before we could start collectively working as a group, you really need to do a selfie. You really need to take a selfie and, and look at yourself in the mirror. This is all part of that whole race, autobiography stuff. It's like really starting thinking about who you are and how you feel and where you fit in. Why do you feel the way you feel about others? How do you feel about yourself? Like where do, where do you fit in, in this whole thing as, so Renee and I, during our, our training, we will, we will show videos, we will encourage art reading articles and we, we copy chapters out of books. Right. And we send them to the board members and we ask them to read, and then we come back and we talk about those things. And so I think, doing your own self work so that you can look at your mirror yourself in the mirror and say, you know what I do have Biase. I do feel this way about this group of people. I have heard certain things and I believe that, and so really breaking that down to see where you stand in this space and then come back to, is that really how I wanna be? Is that really how I wanna navigate through this world? And maybe there are some stereotypes that I've bought into that are not. And so I think when we start to really take a really hardcore look about who we are and how we are behaving and how we may be contributing to what the perceptions are about groups if we can really get people to really see that and start breaking that down, I think that that is another next step. To come back together in, in the room as a group and saying, okay, I looked at myself, I've had the conversations. I'm ready to come and talk to you all about what's happening with me and then how we can work together as a group to maybe make some change.
Renee: I just, I just wanted to add, I mean, going on to that, that, that we model that ourselves, like as a, as a white person, I feel like I need to keep learning. I need to keep listening. I need to keep stepping back. I have my own communities of, of, places where I learn as a facilitator and trainer, and that are centering. By, black indigenous people of color in this work. And, and so that's really a suggestion that we make for, for the white people in the group too, is, yeah. We're gonna give you some resources and we're gonna share some, some great information, but there is, there is such a, there is often a lack of awareness about bias, about racism and, There's some real catching up that the white people in the group need to do. And, and so, we support them as much as we can, but this is where we do say, all right, we're gonna UN we're gonna unfreeze your group. Mm-hmm and you're gonna need to keep talking about this. And it is if we took 400 years to get to this. It's gonna take a long time to untangle this. Right.
Christal: And I always say, give yourself a little grace, there's no fixed endpoint to this work. Like I, as much as Renee and I talk about it and read about it and write about it, we're still learning. She's always sending me information. I'm like, oh my God, Renee. That was so good. That was good stuff, you know? And so give yourself some grace, it's gonna take a long time. You're not gonna be able to undo everything that you've learned in your 55 years in, in, in, in three hours. Right. And so give yourself some grace, but start. Start and keep and keep it moving. Right. And then we also talk about finding some champions, finding people who may be a little further along than you are. And I did a lot of that. I interviewed people on LinkedIn, like cold calling people who either wrote an article or blog, or I saw they did something amazing. And I was like, can we do a virtual coffee? Can I get, can I get your ear for 30 minutes? I just wanna learn a little bit about you and your experience and why you wrote that blog. And so find some champions and people who are actually doing the work, who may be a little further along than you. And see if you can get some perspective, Renee, you wanna add anything?
Renee: About that? Well, I will say that I think one of the unique features of this training that we do is this race caucus work because sometimes, I mean, so I lead the white caucus and this is, we come together. We say, we are. Sent we are, our goal is to build an anti-racist organization. And we are what is doing this and an organization where all people feel a sense of belonging, but we, what is, what, what do we, as white people need to work out in order to get to the place where we can come to the table with the rest of the group and. It was really interesting. I mean, people talk about can, can go through some of that shame and powerlessness without wasting the time of the BIPOC people in, in the group. So we, we, we did this with a group and then, we had the caucus meetings, we came back together and then one of the. people, people were looking at each other. The, it had been pretty emotional, some of these conversations. And so, one of the BIPOC men looked at the group and said, what'd you guys talk about? And we had this woman, we’ll call her Emily, she raised her hand. She said, I just, what we talked about was the, the, the shame and sadness that we are feeling about racism and about the impact of racism. And then this man in the bipo caucus said, well, that's what we talked about too. And it was really this, this amazing moment of like, okay, maybe we're not as different because we're, or, how do we, we can find these, these places to bridge what we're trying to, what we're trying to do. And not all problems were solved. But, we started to, to get to some understanding. What, what do you say, Christal?
Christal: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. And, and when there's anger that comes out of it, we had a black male stand up and said, I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of trying to convince white people to wanna be on this board with me, you know? And if they don't want me here, I can go back to my community where I'm wanted and I can work on and on other things I don't have to be here. I'm tired of fighting. And, we applauded him for having the courage to stand up and, and really share how he, how he was really feeling. And we were all taken aback. But it was definitely a moment. And so we're glad that we are providing space for people to feel comfortable doing that. We round out our training after we do all of this work as we try to come together. If we can come together in person, we can cause a lot of the training is done virtually, but we try to end the training with all of us in the room. And it's really nice after having seen each other in these little boxes for all these months, Renee and I can actually shake hands with people and the first 10, 15 minutes of the training, we're just all sitting around kicking it. And it's just nice. We're just talking, getting to know each other. But we do do some more work and, and we end the training by inviting them to come up with some priorities and goals that they're gonna work on. ‘Cause our time with them is finite. Right? And so we wanna make sure that once we leave that their work continues. And so we realize sometimes it seems so overwhelming. There's so many things I didn't wanna work on, but we tell you to pick three things. Three things that you're gonna work on this year. And then each group comes up with what those things are. And then once we decide, they decide what they are, then we put some timeline and benchmarks and who's gonna do what to it, but we wanna leave them with a plan so that they continue to do the work past Renee and I.
Carol: Yeah, that's so important. And I appreciate what you said about the caucus. And I feel like white people sometimes will be like, what, why will we do that? This is supposed to be diversity trading. And, but I really appreciate how it creates a space for right. The white folks work through that shame, have all those emotions and are not burdened. The people of color, not just waste their time, but also stress them out, from an emotional labor point of view of having to listen to all that. Like, no . And so I think one thing that I would say, Christal, you said you did a lot of reaching out to people who were one step ahead of you. And I would say for the white people listening. Try to find other white people are a little further ahead versus reaching out to the people of color that who are already like, have had it with telling white people about this stuff.
Christal: yeah. And what's interesting about my caucus is that I have people of color, so it's not just black people. So I, we have black people, we have Asians, we have Hispanics we have, and even in our group, we can't call people, people of color together and think that they even all. The same experience, cuz their experiences are all very different. And even in the group, you'll find that a lot of the black folks are speaking up, they're angry and then the Asian folks are quiet. Right. They're not saying even in the group where they're supposed to feel comfortable with all of us, cuz we're people of color, they still feel like it. So we have those conversations about why is it that black people always feel like they get all of the attention? Why are we adored? Why can't we ever talk? And so, and they're like, we just have been told our culture tells us to be quiet and stay, stay in the background, stay small, and then Latinos have their issues. So we have very interesting dialogue, even in the people of color caucus. It's very different.
Carol: Yeah, absolutely. Because I mean that, that black, white dot binary is certainly something embedded in our culture, in the US. And then we've lumped this enormous group of like the, the most people in the world into one group as if they all had common experience and they all come with different cultures. Different norms. And so, yeah, that's, that's for sure. Gonna, gonna come up. I would love it. You talked about modeling a couple different times and if you indulge me, I wonder if you guys might model the racial autobiography exercise that you do when you do the training. I wonder if you just would do that for a few minutes.
Renee: All right. Woo. You're putting us on the spot here. so, what I do is so interesting in terms of reflecting on what, on the conversations in race about race in my home as a white Jewish person. And what I noticed when I thought more about this is that we didn't talk about race and we never talked about race. It is rare. It was almost impolite to notice someone's race or to refer to it. So there was something bad about, bad about mentioning race. And, but the funny thing is I personally was so curious about different people's experiences, but there wasn't even really any space because it was sort of like it was the wrong thing to do. And the only thing that I and I feel so sad about is this. Talking about it. But the only thing that I remember was hearing about a black neighborhood as an unsafe place. And so that was all that, that was most of what I had in my, my mind, in my images. It was this fear and boundaries. And I mean, I've, I've done a lot of work over the last five years to shift all of these images, but they are powerful and yeah, I, I mean, that's, I guess I'll leave that here and,
Christal: well, thank you for Renee for having the courage to share your personal history and your personal story. We really appreciate hearing it.
Renee: You're welcome. What about you Christal?
Christal: Yeah. So I had quite the opposite experience in my family. And so race was talked about all the time. And I always share the story about me being a little kid playing on the, on the floor with my dolls and, and hearing my father and my uncles stand around the bar, having drinks, talking about the white. And the white man is not gonna let us do this. And the white man is gonna do this and the white man, he has his foot on our neck and the white man. And I remember as a little kid thinking, who is this white man? And why is he so mean and is he coming to our house? And so I grew up hearing that we should be fearful of white people. And there were times and instances where we would be out in public. And I bring up the instance where we were in the mall one time and we were about to go down the escalator and we got there first, me and my family, but a white family was coming and they got there maybe just a minute or two behind us. And I was just about to step onto the escalator. And my mom pulled me back and pulled me aside. To let the white family get on the escal first. And she said something like, oh, sorry, sorry, come on. Then she said to me, get outta the way. Come on. I can get outta the way. And I remember thinking to myself, Why couldn't we get on the escalator first? And why were we being a nuisance just by being present? The white folks didn't ask to get on first, but my mom felt like it was the right thing to do to push us outta their way to let them go on first. And so I was constantly being fed that white people were superior. And that we were inferior and that we should be fearful. And so I didn't even realize that. And then I was bused out of my neighborhood, which was the message that my neighborhood was not good enough. Right. And so I was constantly fed that black people were not the same as white people. And so I didn't even realize all of that Carol, until we started having these conversations that Renee and I are having about how much that was ingrained in me as a child. And so it has taken me a long time. For me to come around to my own feeling of self love and self acceptance and self-worth and particularly in doing this work.
Carol: Yeah, no, I appreciate you sharing.
Renee: Thank you so much. You appreciate so much your story
Carol: Then since I put you guys on the spot, I guess I'll have to reflect on my own. I mean, I think yes, mine has in common with Renee's that race was invisible to me. I grew up in very segregated areas here in the greater Washington DC area. And then my dad was in the foreign service, so we were overseas in Europe. So it was primarily European, although the country's demographics were changing as I was growing up in two different places. And so when I've had these conversations before, and it's been reflected back to me that the, the time that I noticed race was when there was a black kid in my class, in, in first grade. Right. And so that's when it was an awareness for me or when I was on the London tube and I first saw somebody with dreadlocks and he was like, what is that? And I was a kid, you know? And so I, I think, I think I had that experience of a lot of white people. Since I was part of the dominant culture and had so many boxes that checked off the privilege boxes that that race to me was pretty invisible and, and not, and not spoken about. And so yes, to have to unpack and UN I think we all are untangling all these messages, all these things that we've internalized and, and just need to keep doing that to, to, free ourselves from all of this as much as we can.
Christal: Wow. Well, thank you, Carol, for sharing that it's very brave. We appreciate you for sharing.
Carol: So you talked about some steps that, and obviously every organization's gonna have different steps that they're gonna be taking as they move along in this journey. What are some examples of success? I know Renee wants us to, to look on the brighter side and not just focus on the problem and think that there can be solutions and we can move in, in a direction of helping more people have a sense of belonging. What are some successes that you've seen?
Renee: We, we have gone through the process with a couple of organizations and got, again, we haven't solved all problems. Sure. No, but we have, we have worked with them too, to foster conversation and build a plan. And can, and and that they would continue the work going forward. And also we have gotten them to make connections between their work on the board and why this, why it matters to build belonging and talk about race. So, for example, we worked with an arts institution and we started talking about. Well, who needs to be served, who is served now? what, what, where is the organization located? Where are you creating events? And, and why does this matter in terms of even the future of your organization? Right? So it's like this isn't just about us in the room. It starts with us in the room, but it really radiates out. In terms of the future of your organization, if you're ever gonna survive, because it's like, are you only gonna be an organization that's gonna serve white people in this white neighborhood? Or are you gonna be something that belongs to the people of all races and get them to think about that. And so really deepening what is at stake here?
Christal: And Renee suggested that, because I think one of the issues that we found with that group was that the black people in the community felt like the museum was not located in their community. It wasn't, they didn't have access to it. And so we talked about maybe having a pop-up exhibit and taking the exhibit to them, to their community, maybe in their community center, maybe at their library, maybe in a place where they can walk to it, as opposed to having to take three buses and two. To get to it. And I know that that is something that has been considered. So we're praying and hopeful that they will take some of the things that we said into consideration and maybe try to reach across the lines and, and give access to the artwork. And, and, and also, there weren't many pieces of artwork in that museum that represented those communities. Right. And so Renee and I actually pulled out one of them and had them talk about it. And, while it was that one, I actually went and visited that museum and that piece of artwork, which was absolutely beautiful. It's on the back wall behind like four or five different walls. You gotta walk in and out. You have to walk in and out of the, and then on the very back wall, that one piece of artwork representing a, a, a church scene of people of color. But if you don't make it to that back wall, if you cut your visit short and you decide you're gonna go get some ice cream or something and, and not make it to that back wall, you're gonna miss that piece. Mm-hmm . And so why is that piece on the back wall? Right. And so all of these things, , all of these things are things that we, we, we, we brought to their attention and so practically they've moved that piece and we'll, we'll see what. And
Carol: Those looking for those glimmers of hope. And I think it's, it's taking away those blinders. So, I talked about how, for me, it was so invisible and now, I can't look anywhere without seeing the implications. And. and I think also just like everyone has biases, it's built into the way our brains work. So the shame that people have about those, yes, those are the stories you were told. Those are the stereotypes that are in the culture, but how can you start, questioning those, thinking about it differently. And it's still in the stem, right? The way back to a part of our brain that's always just looking for. Foe or friend the foe or friend. And we have to have all those shortcuts or we wouldn't be able to manage in the day, but then it's like slowing down, taking the time, questioning, like taking a pause saying, Ooh, no, that's not how I wanna show up. How can I do it differently? Moving forward? Mm-hmm .
Renee: Absolutely. Oops. I wanted to mention Reesma Menakem and who we just really love his work and a black man who talks about black bodies and white bodies and what we're carrying around in our bodies in terms of love and fear and hate and all of this, because this is very much, sadly, and, and men, other people have done work in. Also, it can be very much on an emotional level. And that's where, again, we're, we're trying to foster these conversations across race to try to get people to rewire a little bit, because this is not just intellectual work.
Carol: Absolutely. Absolutely. Christal, any, any final thoughts? And then I'm gonna shift gears a little bit.
Christal: No, I just wanna encourage those, those organizations whose boards have not really thought about this, or have not delved into this work to really just begin, it, you have to. Start, what do we say? A journey of a thousand steps begins with just one small step. So you have to just start, and if you're not sure where to start, you could certainly reach out to Renee and I, but find someone who could help facilitate the conversations because it needs to happen and it's no longer an option. The world looks different than it did a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, 10 years ago. Right. And so it's time. It's time for you to, to, to do the work. And Renee and I are certainly here to help. If, if you need us.
Carol: Yeah. There is definitely magic in getting started. Well, like I said, I will shift gears a little bit. At the end of every episode, I play a game with folks where I ask them a random icebreaker question that I pull out of a box of icebreakers. So I'm gonna ask you both the same question: who had the most influence on you growing up since we talked about growing up.
Renee: Well, I can, I probably can start. I was part of a Jewish youth group. It was actually called Hannah Szenes. And so Hannah Szenes was a paratrooper who was also a writer who died in the second world war. And I just really appreciated her writing her thoughts. Community and connection and the challenge of, of all of that and, and her desire for a better world, a better and more just world. So if someone just, comes to mind at the, at this moment,
Christal: Yeah. And what immediately came to mind to me was my dad. He just while he's deceased now, but, and and certainly while he was not perfect, he had a high moral compass and he just really just taught us the difference between right and wrong. We used to say there's a right way to do things and there's a wrong way to do things. We laughed at my sisters and I laughed about that today. Cuz we, we always say, people don't care, we're always the ones trying to do the right thing and other people don't care, but he was just a, a man who believed in hard work. He believed that, if you, if you worked hard, you, you, you got, you got success. And if you're treating people right, then even if they don't treat you right. If you treat people right, then you're doing the right thing. And so I think that's probably stuck with me the most. I can always hear his voice in my head. And so that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to do the right thing,
Carol: Carol. Excellent. Excellent. I'm trying to do the right thing each day, too. So what are you guys excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging in the work you're doing?
Christal: we gotta talk. We were in the middle of trying to write this book. All right. Well, not even in the middle. We're at the beginning.
Renee: We have been interviewing people about this and we have our own work and we have some, a framework that we have created about this work. So we're really trying to write it down. So, yeah. So we're writing a book. We still are offering the training for boards. We'd love to hear from people who are interested and, and yeah.
Carol: Yeah. That's exciting. Well, let us know when the book comes out and we can add something to the show notes and we'll, we'll put links to your bios and the links that you've talked about and how to get in touch with you. All of that'll be in the show notes. So, but appreciate both of you. Thank you so much for coming on. Thank you so much for the work that you're doing.
Christal: Thank you. Yeah. Thanks for that invite. Yes, we appreciate you as well.
Carol: I appreciated Christal’s point that we need to give ourselves and each other grace when engaging in these difficult conversations. It took us 4-500 years to get where we are and we are not going to dismantle these systems and ways of thinking overnight. Yet this also doesn’t let folks off the hook- especially white people – from continuing to examine themselves, their thinking and how they show. And to keep stepping into growth and learning. And for white people to reach out to other white people who are a little further ahead of them on their equity journey rather than defaulting to reaching out to people of color in their network. That is part of doing your own homework as a white person. I was also struck by the differences in each of our racial autobiographies. Of how within white families – Renee and mine – there was little or no conversation about race and how in many, but not all ways, it was invisible. And for Christal the experience was the opposite. It was a topic of conversation frequently. And in both Renee and Christal’s story there was an element of being taught to fear the other. So it is an uncomfortable conversation – especially if you are white and you are not used to talking about race. Or even if you were taught it is impolite to talk about or a taboo subject. Christal’s observation that white people come into the conversation with fear and people of color with anger – strong emotions to handle and uncomfortable emotions to have in the workplace. As a fellow white person, I invite white people to step in and manage their fear and be in the conversation, knowing that you will make mistakes and screw things up. For people of color I appreciate the grace, generosity and patience I have observed over the years – all in many ways probably undeserved.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Renee and Christal, the full transcript of our conversation, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. We want to hear from you! Take a minute to give us feedback or ask a question at missionimpactpodcast.com/feedback. And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
Best of Leadership Transitions
In episode 54 of Mission: Impact, Carol celebrates the podcast’s two year anniversary by doing a best of episode about executive leadership transitions. We talk about:
Guests and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Today’s episode of Mission Impact is a little different. To celebrate my two year Pod-iversary, I am doing another “best of episode.” Today’s podiversary episode focuses on leadership transitions - a topic that has been the focus of several interviews. We will be hearing from Elizabeth Woolfe, Carlyn Madden, Don Tebbe and Andy Robinson. We talk about the types of transitions that organizations experience and how different leaders approach those transitions, why it is so important for leaders to make space and groom the next generation of leaders, whether or not having an interim executive director is a good idea, and how those exiting the leadership role and those entering as new leaders can prepare themselves for their new chapter.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Leadership transitions come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of factors will go into what type of transition the organization is facing. One of those is the attitude of the leader, others include the lifestage of the nonprofit – is it a start up? In a growth spurt? Is this the first transition from the organization’s founder? Has there been ongoing transition on the board side, not just the staff side of the organization?
Don Tebbe is a leading expert in nonprofit leadership transitions and with Tom Adams in many ways founded the field of executive transition management. He has written several books on the subject and we will link to those in the show notes. He talks about what inspired him to focus on this aspect of nonprofit management.
Don Tebbe: In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I was trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place. To really, to do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life.
Tom and I put together this program two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors, cuz those, those are some of the. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there and, I think it's just, it's a space where governance, executive leadership, and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity really, to address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. When we realized that we needed to be working with organizations earlier, before they. That moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. What are the characteristics of these high ity organizations? those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment and the impact. And what's going on in those organizations came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that was vitality. And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and board leadership that the board hires the executive, the board, is responsible for, shepherding the mission and shepherding impact.
Carol: Leadership transitions really do impact all aspects of the organization and are an opportunity to take stock of how leadership is being shared – or not- across the organization – between the board and executive director – between the executive director and staff.
I appreciated Andy Robinson’s challenge to organizations and their leaders. His question goes to the heart of thinking about, planning for and preparing for transitions. And normalizing this process, instead of thinking of it as an anomaly.
Andy Robinson: One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the work of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge that many organizations are perpetual organizations. Hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? Then I say, are you gonna be here for the victory party? And of course everybody laughs and says, no, I'm not gonna be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not Actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition.
Carol: If you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. This is a real call to action for leaders – because very few are really putting this front and center as they lead their organization – or their movement. To dig deeper into how different people approach their leaving, Don Tebbe has reflections on the different common styles people take.
Don: The hero's farewell, and he outlined four different characters, four different profiles.
ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything was gonna be just fine. Governors who went on to other big jobs and left the organization behind so forth. Monarchs, they are gonna be carried out feet first. Stewards, what I see most of in the nonprofit world. People that can leave gracefully, but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization. So I encouraged department executives to think of themselves as stewards, and they're gonna hand off the organization to the next steward.
Carol: For those starting to think about their exit from leadership, which of these avatars will you embody? Will you be a monarch, an ambassador, a governor or a steward? And how ready is the organization as a whole for change? How are you cultivating shared and new leadership on your staff and board? Without this, the board – who is charged with finding the new leader can be ill equipped for the responsibility as Elizabeth Woolfe explains.
Elizabeth Woolfe: If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. And it really, that can be a real recipe for disaster because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board coaching and board development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, like sheep following the leader, to something that becomes what's more appropriate for a later or iteration of the organization where they're, they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills.
Carol: Andy Robinson echoes Elizabeth’s points.
Andy: You and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years. Term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that even if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this.
Carol: Don advocates for the staff leader to take the reigns in planning their exit.
Don: You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I go to try to clarify that doesn't mean you suring the board's authority and trying to force in your handpick success or on the one hand, nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship they want with this new executive, paying attention to how that handoff and making sure that the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive.
Carol: Carlyn Madden explains some of the work her search firm does to prepare the groundwork for the needed changes.
Carlyn Madden: On the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents. To get a sense of the lay of the land or does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, see staff members for membership association, the actual members of the association, key volunteers, possibly even program participants. We're talking to funders, we're doing a survey, we're doing one on one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It's just, it's gonna depend on what the organizations are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what. What was really stellar about the LA person in this position?
What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that often needs too often, staff culture is a big east. I think we're really going through a virtuous time. Rightly so. In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader.
Carol: She also comments on what has often been missing from how boards approach executive searches.
Carlyn: What hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect individual organization. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the The thesis banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon.
Carol: Andy Robinson pointed out the mission critical aspect of grooming the next generation and preparing a leadership pipeline. We talked about some specific actions that leaders can do to start that process.
Andy: one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand it off. I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the medical stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center
when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's gonna lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda. Cuz the ability to, to run a meeting, facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. Don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way. And often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space?
Carol: One thing that I would say to every leader – you can start creating more space for others to lead by one really simple yet challenging act. Do NOT be the first to speak in a discussion. Wait a beat. Wait two beats. Even when it feels awkward to be in silence. Let others step in and share their perspective before you. If you always go first – most likely everyone around you will be sharing in reaction to and in light of your contribution. I observe so many leaders dominating conversations and not realizing the impact they are having. By doing this, they are leaving a lot of good thinking on the table from those around them. If it feels super awkward – tell people you are going to do this – and have them hold you accountable.
If you do try this, I would love to hear some results of your experiments.
As Elizabeth points out, your leadership pipeline doesn’t have to only be inside your organization. You can be looking to cultivate leadership with those in your wider ecosystem.
Elizabeth: If it's that organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that but most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not.
Enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession, but it is always nice. And, I encourage organizations to do this, to have sort of a. A running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in, in a search or someone who would, they, they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough.
Carol:. Carlyn also talks about how those wider networks and ecosystems are so important for effective searches. As well as tapping into a variety of networks.
Carlyn: Hire by hire and talk about some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographic has not actually changed. And so what is required are that the conditions of executive search have to change.
we're very firm in that color transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not actually building out networks, multiracial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying, who do you know in this space. That would be a good executive director because there's so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles. Our networks are very homogenous. If a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for it. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors.
And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Carol: Carlyn also talks about the differentiation process of what is essential for the executive director role and what is there because of the current person in the role.
Carlyn: What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible heights in a very small period of time, short period of time. But there are also things, their pet project. And the board recognizes it to some extent but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay.
Carol: Interim executive directors is something that organizations going through a transition should consider as an option. There are consultants who do nothing but interim work and can bring their experience to your organization. But our experts were not totally in agreement about interims and their value.
Elizabeth: The transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to, to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next. I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason. And, and especially with a founder, and a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies and or, and when you make pancakes and, and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, It's like that. If you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. The statistics about, especially following a founder for new leaders coming in and not being successful is really shocking.
So the interim can really be that bridge very successfully. For all of the reasons that you just outlined, it's like a palate cleanser. It's a good thing to try. The most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. And oftentimes that's the best reason to have an interim. Because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship building and relationship cultivating as the leader was. And it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Don: I've been listening to your interview with Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of interim executive. Being the standard approach for an organization now, that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations. For a lot of organizations that just doesn't work, you've got fundraising relationships that you need to hand off, or you've got key government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, you know, having an interim in there and doing that hand off twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work.
Carol: Carlyn and I talked about the danger of a new executive director becoming an accidental interim – especially if they are following a founder or a long term ED.
Carlyn: Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys? Or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because this person can help steward and.
Steer the organization's operation and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their position they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's sort of. Accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there for a much longer term. Maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of opportunity.
Carol: The glass cliff, not the, just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, you women, women of color, especially being offered the, the impossible job. Yeah, exactly. And then people wondered why they couldn't.
Carlyn: Where women are called in to clean out a. And then have an impossible job out of them. And then our, their performance is managed in a way that is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, or the challenge ahead.
Carol: As Don points out it is never too early to start thinking about transition and succession. It is not just a process to follow or a set of steps. In William Bridges work on transition, he describes three phases that people go through - the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning. In our action oriented culture, we often think we can jump directly from the ending to the new beginning. The liminal - in between spaces of the neutral zone can catch us off guard. It is messy and confusing. And all through the transition, you can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Don describes how this impacts leaders.
Don: the executive really should initiate the succession. Process and rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. You probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people four, three to four to five years ahead of their departure. A lot of times, executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process to me, there's no ambiguity. You got three jobs. Job number one: lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're gonna retire, have something magnetic that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: Don talks about how many leaders are caught by surprise by the emotional element of the transition – and I would add - everyone in the organization is going through their own emotional roller coaster too. Don tells a story that illustrates just this point.
Don: He was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and.
Said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never gonna leave this organization. I'm gonna go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but you know what I mean? It really upset the apple cart. And I think it also makes people feel whipsawed. It can be a real stew for the staff and ripe for people, some of your best people, to look elsewhere because they're questioning their career. The future with the organization and, and there's always questions anyway will we like the new executive? Can we trust the board to pick the right person for a job?
Carol: I appreciate Don’s comment about the leader preparing themselves for the next step. In our conversation, Andy described his own process of succession and transition into retirement.
Andy: I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring to other people or jobs. I don't get anymore, cuz it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who wanna enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and I've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants. Black indigenous people of color as a way of supporting social justice and equity.
Carol: Carlyn and I explored what emerging leaders can do to get ready for an executive director role and what the board needs to do to set the new leader up for success.
Carlyn: if you're an aspiring ED, this is your time to shine. But if you're a board know that, that it's gonna be very additive to get the right person. So you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in this situation where they're negotiating a parallel job offer. You have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table, all sorts of things. If somebody is looking to ascend into an executive director role, the board is paying very close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing. What are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first week? How are they let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members so that that's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I will meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to be a happy hour,
We also do 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director, and the board chair.
Carol: The topic of transitions seemed super relevant as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. As the going impacts of the Great resignation, great reshuffle keep reverberating through the economy. And the nonprofit sector as a subset of that – feeling all those transitions too. We are also I think – finally in the much anticipated generational transition as boomers retire and new leaders step into the limelight.
If these clips intrigued you and you want to go back and listen to the full episodes from each of the people featured in today’s best of – Elizabeth Woolfe’s is episode 12, Carlyn Madden is 27, Andy Robinson is 21 and Don Tebbe is 32.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything that you do to contribute and make an impact.
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