Monday, February 15, 2010

Take me to your Leader

Last summer I was in a conference room with two colleagues and our COO, a very smart and wise woman who had seen things, done things, been in campaigns, had managed people, teams and orgs – and had a mixture of savvy and thoughtfulness I wanted to emulate. It was at the height of the state budget crisis and we were all afraid of losing our jobs, feeling pressured to make sure our programs survived and the women we helped would continue to be helped. It was a summer of fear and frustration but also a time when we all stretched ourselves beyond what we thought were capable.
It was also when I learned what it took to lead an organization and how different it felt from the inside of the bubble than the outside.

I was sitting with the PR officer and the Associate Director of Communications and we were crafting both the internal and external communication strategies; on the table was the dicey problem of managing internal fear of mass layoffs and shut downs. Do we tell staff about possible furloughs, layoffs or wait until everything was settled and it was too late for staff to make plans for their families? I was pushing for more transparency, having learned through a corporate lens that if you trust your frontline with difficult news they can come through for you and the fear and panic will likely subside once they know what’s happening.

The PR officer was feeling frustrated at the perception people seemed to be stalling making decisions and our AD was arguing for adopting a really conservative, cautious line. So the COO walked in on our intense debate and after she listened for a bit she closed the door.

‘I’m not supposed to share these things but I think I should in order to share with you what’s happening at the senior management level. So you know what we’re struggling with. In a RIF over a certain size, there are state and federal rules that mandate how much notice you need to give your employees. If it’s up to and over 50%, it’s 60 days. If it’s about 25%, then 30. But we don’t know what contingency plans we’ll have to put in place, yet. We just don’t know.

But RIFs alone won’t save the agency, and we need to save the agency. It’s in our charter and bylaws, we’re mandated by our Board and there you are. So there are furloughs or pay cuts for those who survive the RIF. But how to structure furloughs? If we structure it badly, it impacts health benefits and at a time like this we all need our benefits; if we structure it badly, we could also expose the agency to risk, in terms of legal action. And we’re also trying to do the right thing and abide by the laws and statutes of the state. So we’re trying to find little bits of a puzzle at a time when we’re flying completely in the dark.

We also don’t want to create a panic. We can’t have half our staff quitting in fear when we still have work to do. So you see that we are dealing with all these details that could have some serious, lasting ramifications for our employees.’ She paused. ‘So, in our position, what would you do?’

We were silent. All the debating flew out the window. The differences of opinion flew out the window when faced with the heavy details and choices our bosses would have to make – choices that would materially impact a working family.

‘We are so fucked,’ I said. There was laughter. ‘You’re right. We can’t go public with all this. They’d freak. I’m freaking just listening to you.’

The COO smiled. ‘And this has been what’s happening at every senior manager meeting, every day. We’re all freaking. Just control the panic until we can figure out the least harmful way of dealing with this mess. And get us that budget back, Delia.’

(When she left the room, I’m sure that’s the moment our PR officer decided to revise her resume and go on the market.)

From the outside, it looked like our leaders were fumbling in the dark, deliberately not sharing information for bad purposes, or withholding the truth for some weird lack of trust (which was sometimes deserved); on the inside, the choices to be made were so weighty, the details and consequences so damaging, a workable solution couldn’t be arrived at, yet.

From the outside, they lacked leadership and direction; they weren’t fighting hard enough; they weren’t doing what they promised; they weren’t doing what we wanted them to do. From the inside, they knew damage would occur, but were still struggling with how to triage the damage.

What would you do? How would you lead?

Talking about leadership (which I do a lot) and actually leading – while taking in the entire contextual universe of that act – is hard. And it’s not about winning. ‘Winning’ and leading are sometimes in conflict. Did my agency win? Hard to say. We’re still around. But that RIF took place; we laid off about 30% of our headcount; we lost 10% of our multi-million dollar funding. There were pay reductions; there were service reductions. There was anger and resentment; we said goodbye to some good people. We lost a lot.

But we came through it because our leadership made really hard decisions that were not going to feel good for the rest of us – and their decisions were made with the intent of trying to mitigate the damage to the rest of us.

For the past several months, I’ve been reading all sorts of right and left analysis of what’s happening with the Obama administration. I keep reading posts and articles admonishing more ‘fight,’ more ‘kick ass,’ more ‘do something’ – which all imply winning, not necessarily leading.

And what they’ve been saying has reminded me of that conference room debate I had with my coworkers. Why isn’t more being done? Why aren’t they telling us? Why aren’t they fighting harder? Why are they not telling us the truth?

I don’t have answers to any of that. But I know questions like those come from a position of fear and desperation, emotional states that don’t lead to good decision making. And I also know this: until some of these sideline analysts and writers are ready to put on their big girl panties and sit in that big chair and make the decisions that will bring down damage in order to save the larger whole, then those folks need to shut the fuck up reevaluate what they really want in a leader.


Songbird said...

That is a *very* helpful perspective. Thank you. Thank you so much.

No Nonsense said...

I am sure the President is making all sorts of hard decisions on a daily basis and we don't know and shouldn't know most of it. Loud mouth pundits are exactly that 'Loud mouth pundits" and they appeal to the ignorant among us. I think the one that pisses me off the most was an article written by Margo Howard about "The Emperor's 2 kids" inferring that President Obama is forsaking his presidential duties to attend his kids concert instead of paying attention to jobs and the weak economy.