October 03, 2011

Knowing Where to Start...Learning Lessons Along the Way

In the BC Employment Training industry, Business Transformation is having a huge impact on organizations. For some, you are realizing that you were not successful in your bid and with this realization the reality of what comes next hits you. Hard. Right between the eyes.  I get it - I've been there. For others, you are realizing that you have been successful with your bids and with that comes that feeling of "oh boy, now what do we do?".  Change has a way of doing that to people - it's the "be careful what you wish for" syndrome.

In the meantime, the BC government is in the process of informing agencies of "legacy programs" what to expect and what to do between now and March 31st, however managing the logistics of this change is far bigger than developing a list of clients to hand over to the next agency.  Leaders of organizations are facing the daunting task of perhaps growing, shrinking, or the worst case scenario of closing.  This is where 1001 questions come into your head and you give your head a shake to try and get rid of them!  I get that too - shaking my head just wasn't successful!

In my blog post on Resilient Organizations, I spoke about when I had to close a non-profit society in 2005.  It was the end of November when we decided that we were going to close and we had to shut the doors March 31st.  Not a lot of time to get a lot of things done while at the same time fulfilling our current contract deliverables.  It was a jammed pack four months and I was on a constant learning curve. Every day was a new challenge with more decisions to make.

Looking back, I learned some very valuable lessons in those four months that I will carry with me for the rest of my career.  I wouldn't give those months back for anything; as tough as they were they have shaped who I am as a leader today.

Lesson 1 - It's a Choice.
Once we figured out we had lost 90% of our funding, we realised that while we could stay open, the look, feel and mission of the Society was no longer present.  We made the choice to close.  This was a critical milestone to the journey we were on.  We made a choice.  Between staff and Board, we chose to return small contracts we had and we chose to close.  And as a result, I spent a lot of time with staff discussing the fact that they too had a choice.  They could choose to stay in the government funded Employment Training field and work within its parameters or they could choose to take their talents elsewhere. But it was a choice. We did not spend the next four months being a victim. We focused on what we could control and we gave people the room and the freedom to explore what else was possible.

Lesson 2 - Communication is Key.
Throughout this experience, open communication was critical to the process.  I openly shared information about what was happening, what I knew and what I didn't know.  There were no secrets and there were no taboo topics.  The more people felt informed and included the more open conversations we could have about how they were feeling. For example, giving people permission to openly discuss their job search created an environment of taking control of our individual destiny. There was also no shame in discussing our feelings, our anger or our successes.

Lesson 3 - Indecision is a Decision.
Every day was a new day filled with leadership moments to make decisions and take action.  Sometimes the decisions were difficult and sometimes they were easy but one thing was for sure, there was always a decision to be made. It was challenging at times to know what to do or which direction to take on issues and there was never enough time to mull things over.  What I painfully realized was that not making a decision was akin to making a decision and that sometimes, it wasn't the decision I wanted.  So, I learned that I had to put tools and supports around me that helped me make quick decisions.  Whether it was consulting my team of trusted advisors to help me talk things through or monitoring my timeline to make sure I didn't miss milestone moments, I had to take control of the decision making process before it got away from me.

Lesson 4 - Support comes from many places.
The role of leader in a non-profit organization can be really lonely at times. You are responsible for the direction of the organization and the outcomes that it produces. You are, at times, the "monkey in the middle" between the board, the staff and the funders.  There are not a lot of people in the organization who see the big picture like you do and also not a lot of people who truly understand the challenges and the pressures that you face.  Having said that, keep an open mind as to where support may come from during these times of transition and change.  Don't shut people out as you stress about what is coming - let people in and accept their love, support and encouragement. Remind yourself that being a leader doesn't mean that you don't have feelings or vulnerabilities, so let your team of trusted advisors in on how you are doing and feel the support that they can provide. Don't have a team of trusted advisors? Then build one. Don't forget those other leaders out there in other organizations. Some of the best support I got was from the other leaders in the service provider circle. We all went through various emotions at various times and there was always someone who was able to lift me up and help me put everything into perspective. At times, that uplifting person was me and at times I needed the lift.

Speaking of support, another way to get support is to learn what you can about what is ahead.  I have partnered with the BC Career Development Association to talk about just that.  Join us for a free webinar called Knowing Where to Start - Strategic Steps to Managing Business Transformation on October 18th from 9 to 10 am.  Share your thoughts and questions and build a network of others who are interested in the same topic.

To learn more about this webinar, go to the BCCDA Blog or Register Now.

I would also love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What comes to mind for you as you think about the lessons to be learned from change, transition and making big decisions?