Thursday, April 28, 2005

Leadership and Organizational Change

Next week I am heading out of town to attend the 4th Annual National Organizational Change Forum to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am very flattered to have been asked to share my thoughts and experiences concerning organizational leadership and managing change to improve employment outcomes for adults with significant disabilities. I will have a wonderful opportunity to share my ideas as well as learn from colleagues who are grappling with similar organizational goals and concerns from around the country.
In preparation for this presentation, I have had fun reflecting on the dramatic changes that have taken place at Rise, Incorporated since 1976. In so many ways, I have been blessed by having the opportunity to work for this organization these past 29 years. It has been an amazing and fulfilling journey to work with such an incredibly talented team of management and direct service professionals. Our organization has experienced a phenomenal level of growth and we have built a virtual "galaxy of stars" who are recognized today as leaders in their areas of specialty. At Rise, we take pride in the fact that our individual egos have not interfered with our collective capacities to focus on organizational results. Today, Rise continues to enjoy a national recognition and widespread interest in the important work we do.
When Rise’s President, John Barrett and I arrived on the scene in 1976, we knew we were taking on the challenge to lead an agency in crisis. We just didn’t realize the scope and dimensions of the crisis at the time. In fiscal 1976, Rise served 76 individuals, most of whom had developmental disabilities, on an annualized budget of $351,000. Unfortunately, Rise’s operational expenses that year were $367,000! The agency’s lack of sound fiscal and business management practices in the past had resulted in a growing deficit of $70,000. This was a lot of money to the organization in 1976.
To make matters worse, Rise’s service programs were weak and had produced zero job placements that year. All of the agency’s services were provided under one roof and sheltered employment was the only real outcome available to participants. As Rise’s "Program Manager," I had assumed responsibility for leading a team of three full-time program staff. It took a loan from Anoka County to keep our agency’s doors open and help pay off creditors. In 1976, Rise launched a brand new direction and vision for the organization with a strategic plan for change.
If I can fast forward our "time machine" 28 years ahead to 2004, we see a completely different kind of organization led by many of the same, albeit "mature" managers. In fiscal 2004, Rise served 3,523 people in 42 discrete employment, housing, and adult service programs on annual budget of 25.7 million. The organization now serves a diverse population of adults with developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, serious mental illnesses, traumatic brain injuries, deaf, hard of hearing & deafblind, youth in transition from school-to-careers, and adults in transition from welfare-to-work. Rise has become more racially diverse with almost one-in-four people we serve coming from racial and ethnic minority groups.
In 2004, Rise assisted 1,470 people with disabilities obtain competitive or supported employment. The forecasted annualized wage earnings of all people placed was approximately 15 million dollars. Rise’s staff has grown to 375 professionals and the number of our business service locations has surged from one to eighteen. And, oh yes, we did complete our 28th consecutive year with a budget surplus!
Yes, something very positive happened during those 28 years! What attributes of leadership contributed to such dramatic and confounding changes? What lessons can be learned from this experience? Here are my personal thoughts on leadership and key factors that contributed to Rise’s astonishing rebound from the brink of failure.
1. We established a new guiding vision for Rise and refreshed our organizational mission. We trained our staff about the importance of mission-driven performance and posted our written mission statement at every office location. To this day, we incorporate Rise’s vision and mission in all we do. For us, this means assisting people to use their talents in the workforce, participating fully in their communities, and achieving economic stability in their lives.

2. Rise adopted a new philosophy: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Rise chose to become a "learning organization" and we initiated a spirit of entrepreneurship and continuous self-improvement. To us, this means encouraging both vertical and horizontal growth. We wanted to do more and this meant getting bigger. However, we also wanted to improve every aspect of our business operations inside and outside the organization to achieve habits of excellence in everything we do.
3. Rise built a culture of organizational change by delegating power and authority to its staff. To this day, Rise managers and staff enjoy a high degree of autonomy in managing their programs, introducing new ideas, and deciding how budgeted resources should be allocated to achieve performance goals. Rise also uses self-directed and cross-functional work teams to encourage staff ownership of our organizational policies, staff training needs, and imbedding new service practices.
4. Rise rebuilt its organizational infrastructure to support desired changes. To us, leadership is working together to accomplish greater goals. For example, this means answering the "big questions" before staff and others ask them. We don’t believe that our staff should be expected to resolve fundamental barriers to success without active support from senior management members. To illustrate, when Rise truly wanted to increase its job placement success, it had to develop new resources and reallocate existing ones. We had to build new capacities to provide better transportation, increase our business marketing, equip our staff with new competencies via training, etc.
5. Early on, Rise understood the importance of identifying and developing its high-performers so they in turn could set the pace for our proposed organizational changes. At Rise, we don’t need leaders at the top micro-managing all decisions. We need a culture of leadership at all levels of our organization to encourage and nourish better ways of doing our work. We have been fortunate to employ many outstanding managers and direct service staff who are competent in "state of art" service practices within their respective fields. Rise staff are encouraged to become involved in professional trade associations and we often present papers on our promising service practices.
6. Rise does not let its dreams overrun its business sen$e. Our organization runs on sound business practices and all programs are expected to generate the revenues they need to support their service goals and outcomes. Rise loves new ideas! We are open to experimentation to create a better "mouse trap." However, we are active in writing service demonstration grants to help defray costs associated with trying out new ideas or pursuing new concepts in service delivery.
7. Rise challenges its managers and staff to think gray and free. We do not live in a black and white world and the job placement of people with significant disabilities often requires the ability to think gray. Rise staff are encouraged to be innovative in their problem-solving strategies to support our customers in obtaining their desired job and community integration outcomes.
8. Rise recognizes that authenticity is a critical foundation to trust. Does our organization walk the talk? Is there fidelity between our mission, values, and service practices? No organization is perfect. And no organization has the resources or expertise to meet every identified service need. However, Rise staff are encouraged to "manage upward." They let us know when policies, procedures, or services are out of alignment with Rise's stated vision and goals.
9. Rise sets high performance expectations and measures what it does. There is no effective way to improve unless we take the steps to receive timely feedback concerning our quantitative and qualitative performance. This includes honest feedback from all customers and stakeholders who are directly and indirectly associated with the work we do (i.e., program participants, employers, referring counselors, landlords, etc.)
10. Rise recognizes that success and failure are not opposites. Thomas Edison once remarked that he did not have misgivings about his failures because he had learned 1000 ways NOT to make a light bulb. Learning from our mistakes is an important part of self-improvement and organizational success. It takes courage to identify it, name it, and take responsibility for it.
11. Forget rehabilitation, customize! Rise recognizes that the people we are privileged to serve are not broken individuals who require "fixing." We approach our program and employment services from a strategy of "customization." The first step is teaching our staff how to "see" the potential and abilities in all people we serve. The second step is recognizing that most everybody who works or lives in our community needs some kind of support. People with disabilities often need more intensive, creative, or customized supports so they can use their abilities and make a contribution. It’s up to us at Rise to help job seekers and prospective employers identify and work out the details.
12. A small spark can start a fire. Rise does not use a lengthy committee process to act on it’s goals. When we launch new organizational initiatives, we act expeditiously, establish progress check points, and then make appropriate adjustments and improvements along the way. We import new ideas from other agencies and professionals to help us do our work more effectively. We also transfer our "lessons learned" to all parts of the organization so everyone benefits from a demonstrated change or idea for improvement.
13. At Rise, we recognize that little or nothing is accomplished without the guidance and support of business leaders. Rise is active with local Chambers of Commerce, Employers Association of Minnesota, Minnesota Business Leadership Network, Rotary Clubs, and other business organizations. We recognize that the active participation of local employers is fundamental to any measurable job success of most people we are hoping to place.
14. We harvest what we plant. When a farmer plants corn seeds, he or she harvests corn. Rise recognizes that how and where we choose to invest our time, energy, money, and other resources will measurably impact our organizational change outcomes. In the past 29 years, we have greatly expanded the number and quality of integrated employment outcomes for people served because Rise has aggressively invested it's fiscal, social, and political capital to achieve these results.
15. Rise understands the importance of having fun! We take our work seriously but also make the time to share and celebrate our accomplishments. And yes, a little humor and levity can help to take the edge off our most challenging and disappointing days.
In the past 29 years, I have grown to understand the need for flexibility and rapid response in our management endeavors. I often refer to this phenomenon as the Seasons of Leadership. There is a time for leaders to speak and to be quiet and listen. There is a time to think with razor clarity and to think gray. There is a time to be practical and to be a dreamer. There is a time to be a diplomat and to be an SOB. And there is a time for celebrating and leaving the past behind us. Yes, there are many seasons that come with the territory and astute leaders recognize what each presenting situation calls for.
Finally, I have learned that the greatest ally to leading an organization through significant systems change is success itself. Even the small victories can provide the buoyancy an organization needs to get over the hump and advance toward it’s ultimate goals. In my experience, success calms most fears, (re)invigorates the apathetic, quiets the critics, motivates new learning, and energizes an organization to be bolder in its pursuit of excellence. Yes, success is an effective antidote for treating the principle enemy of organizational change–inertia.


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