In episode 24 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Bobbi Russell discussed include:
- Transitioning back to in person
- How nonprofits can make accommodations while working from home
- How investing in systems and organization can help in the long term
Bobbi is an operations executive with 20+ years of experience working with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for 10+ years. While similar systems and processes can work for many organizations, she sees success when organizations apply solutions that are customized to their culture. She’s really good at understanding the human aspect of how any new system, tool, or process will integrate with an organization’s culture. Earlier in her career, she worked in marketing, membership, strategic communications, and journalism. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Clarion University of PA and an MBA from George Washington University. Her non-work passions include her dog, craft beer, and writing parody songs to entertain friends and family.
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Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Bobbi Russel. Bobbi is an operations executive who works with nonprofit organizations. She launched her own consulting practice in 2017 after working in a COO role for more than 10 years. 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 for this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact. Bobbi and I talk about how investing in operations boosts morale and saves your organization time in the long run. What helps staff thrive in a remote work environment, what organizations need to think about as they are thinking about whether they will be heading back into the office and how your organization’s insurance and benefits providers can be partners in supporting your organization’s HR function especially if you are a small organization without a dedicated HR person.
Welcome Bobbi. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Bobbi Russell: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm glad to be here today.
Carol: So I like to start with the question about your motivation for the work that you do. So, what drew you to your work? What motivates you? What would you describe as your, why?
Bobbi: I've worked in the nonprofit community for more than 20 years. And for a large chunk of that was running an organization. And about four years ago, I had the chance to do some consulting. And my, when I think about the why for that, it's a mix of collaboration and independent work. That's a great fit for me. That's on the very tactical level. But also, I get to be a part of many different teams in working with different clients. And it's such a learning exchange of getting to experience different cultures, different ways of operating the different kinds of work. And so in addition to the work that I do, the fulfillment I get from coaching and collaborating with somebody doing direct HR support or helping with operations, I get that fulfillment from other interactions and learning about different cultures and styles.
Carol: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of a learning exchange. Cause I, I definitely feel like that when I'm working with clients that it's a partnership and I may be walking them through a similar process that I've walked another group through, but their issues, their team, the personalities, the issue that they're working on, what's going on inside the organization, all of that is new. So I'm always learning and, and I just appreciate that. It just keeps everything really interesting. It does. So, as you mentioned, a lot of your work with organizations revolves around operations, which isn't always the most sexy or exciting thing, or the thing that people actually associate with nonprofit work, but it really is so critical for organizations. In order to achieve their mission. What would you say are some of the benefits of actually investing some time on your, on the organization's operations?
Bobbi: I think one of the biggest benefits is running your nonprofit. Like a business and nonprofits are unique. We have we're mission focused and, and are working for the greater good and investing in that infrastructure. Always save time. We'll save time later. So I like to share with clients, they don't like to have too much process, too much structure. Have a little bit it's, it's good for employee morale because people like to be able to refer to things, to have a good sense of how things are done. It doesn't have to be a 95 page handbook, but some guidelines for how things work. So there's that investment for the organization and saving time and the investment in your team for retention purposes of giving them some structure. So they know what to expect and what they can look for in the future. For me, that's one of the biggest ones, the financial and.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting that you mentioned employee morale because I was working with an organization recently on strategic planning and, and it was an organization that had started with one person and the founder. Who's just very visionary and doesn't need a lot of structure or she has all the processes cause she built them all. And as she's built her team, there was this need to actually get clear about what each person was doing. Get clear about, what is the step-by-step for this process or that process. And, and I think because it wasn't a need for her. She didn't necessarily see it. But once folks said, this is what we need, they were able to identify who in the team is actually good at this stuff and can get us where we need to go in terms of building those structures so that people know where their lane is and how they can contribute.
Bobbi: Even for those folks who liked them who liked the freer form structure, you can have that in other ways in your work, but don't when it comes to how you structure positions and responsibilities and how people are responsible and accountable for their time, all of these different aspects, it, it gives people a sense of, of some structure and it, it is really helpful for morale.
Carol: And a lot of your work really involves how organizations work with, as you're with teams, with your people, recruiting, managing their HR processes, and certainly with the pandemic. And we're recording this right in May of 2021, so things are starting to shift perhaps, or people are starting to think about a shift away from remote work, but a lot of organizations had to make that shift really quickly. They may not have had practices or policies around telecommuting or remote work. What would you say has where, where have you seen organizations do a good job of, of that and helped their team really thrive in that remote work environment?
Bobbi: There were a couple of things. One of the biggest ones was understanding that each person was having. A different experience in this pandemic from an emote, a personal, emotional perspective, and then their own home family situation, whatever that might be. And you started to see folks who were in a shared apartment and there was only one room with good internet and they were taking turns using that room to be on meetings. And, and then also of course, families with kids and balancing all of that. So really understanding what people's limitations were, and how can the organization still get done? What they needed to get done while supporting whatever those limitations were. And then similar to what we were talking about with operational processes is coming up with some level of guidelines for staff, because it didn't work from what I saw, when organizations said do the best that you can. People were looking for a little bit more than that. So it was even if it was around. Hours or how they communicated about their schedule, but providing some guidelines of what the organization is expecting during this time, what flexibility there is when people should plan on using pay time off versus this is flexible and you can just balance out your schedule. So really providing those kinds of guidelines and then. A third thing is keeping up with the personal aspects that you don't get when you're over video or over phone and being intentional about making human connections and with the pandemic. We also had a lot of unrest happening in the country, along with that. And that also was impacting people. So making space to talk about those things or not talk about them if people didn't want to, but at least acknowledging it was happening and people could be having experiences around those things and wanting to create open lines of communication.
Carol: Yeah, I think that's, I mean, all those differences always have been there in terms of how different people were experiencing the workplace and their work and the team. But certainly, this past year has just amplified that in the same way that it's amplified so many other things as you're talking about. And Yeah, I think, I've heard a lot of people talk about while you, it's so hard to have the human connection or those, those accidental, you bump into someone things that happened naturally in offices when you're all there together. And it's, and that's certainly true. And at the same time, I think there's something. That this experience of having to work remotely gives a gift to organizations when they can start to think about how to build that in more intentionally and for everyone, because I feel like maybe it happened for some people accidentally just serendipitously, but it may not have, it may not have actually been the experience for everybody in the office, but people assumed that it was because everybody was together.
Bobbi: That's a great point. Yes. And even just thinking about how some people really love face to face interaction and like being on zoom or some other type of video chat where other folks need a break from that. And seeing organizations give people the space for that. If you're not required to be on video, let people know I'm going to take a break. I've had back to back video calls all day and just giving people space to do. The advocate for what worked for them, so they can be bringing their best. And that works for the individuals and for the organization.
Carol: And as organizations think about shifting back Or shifting towards some new, new version of working whether it's a hundred percent remote or everybody back in the office or somewhere in between, what are you, how are you seeing organizations start to think about that transition?
Bobbi: People are starting to talk about it. Now there's a lot of information gathering and I'm hearing a lot of eyeing. September is the return to physical offices. If they exist, even if it's in some sort of hybrid way, but gathering information from staff, what is your life going to look like? What is your comfort level? Without disclosing specifics. Do you have health concerns about potentially returning to the office, all of these different factors of gathering the information and then coming up with really clear guidelines. This is what we're expecting. This is when we'll be phasing things in when we might resume travel, and just giving staff really clear guidelines about what could be coming and making sure there's good communication. There's also an aspect of. Not just to be preparing physically to come back to the office, but mental preparation from all of this time that we've been at home and in a different space where some people have been sick and lost family members and friends and people have been through all types of experiences during this time and thinking of ways to make space. Or coming back together, coming up with maybe some mental health support system within the organization, making sure people are aware of what their benefits are related to that through insurance and other services. A lot of times insurance packages like life insurance and short-term disability have those employee assistance programs as well. And making sure employees know what's available to them, how they can get help, who they can talk to and making it a safe place. If people are having a challenge coming back and really struggling.
Carol: And, and I mean, most nonprofits are relatively small and oftentimes don't necessarily have a dedicated HR person. How can, how can those small organizations work towards building some of those systems?
Bobbi: I say, just relying on insurance providers and brokers, depending on how their policies are set up. Those individuals very often have all the information about what those programs are. Probably have flyers template, emails, things like that that can easily be sent out. That wouldn't create a lot of labor burden on the smaller organizations. There is also a significant amount of information and data out there and blogs and websites. Providing samples of how template, emails, or examples of how people can create programs for coming back online and providing information for staff. So there's some light touch options that can really be helpful for small teams.
Carol: Yeah, and I, I really appreciate your point about prepping, not just the logistics of, where are we going to put desks and what's the cleaning procedure going to be, and, all of those kinds of things, but also that mental preparation or. Even just starting to, maybe it's not even preparation. Maybe it's just acknowledging that it's going to be weird and awkward for a little while. People aren't used to being together and, are you going to, is it okay to, are you, how are you going to greet? Are you going to shake someone's hand? Are you going to bump their elbow? Are you gonna, how do we do these meetings? Are we all gonna sit in the conference room? Like we used to, or be a part and then to try to think about how to manage a hybrid situation, I think is just much more challenging. I mean, I managed that before the pandemic. I worked in an organization where I had remote staff, but it was so out of the ordinary that it was very hard to get folks who are. At the central location to remember that, a remote staff person was involved in the meeting. So when I, when I could have influence on the meeting set up, I would make sure that we use the video and had them up on screen so that people actually remembered they were there. Instead of just being on a conference call, they might, they might as well not have been at the meeting.
Bobbi: Right. Yes. And there's also that technology aspect. Can you bring that up when going back into the office? There's still going to be a distributed team structure and thinking through how systems will continue to support the work and the humans doing the work.
Carol: So many organizations, some hiring or onboarding on pause thinking, well, well, let's just wait this out. And, but, as it's gone on longer, organizations have had to bring people on while they're working remotely. What have you seen work well in terms of hiring folks during this period, and then, then that onboarding process.
Bobbi: Interesting because the way that I approach hiring hasn't changed significantly from before, except that certain phases of interview processes are over video right now, rather than in person. I think the best thing any organization can do is really think through clearly, what are the competencies that we're looking for in somebody, those skills and, and that level of experience, what are the things we must have? What are the things that are nice to have and coming up with a clear, readable, digestible job description. That's fair. And, and isn't a wishlist, but it's more the actual job. And I really like a process that supports each candidate who is invited for various stages of interviews to get to know the culture of the organization and, and investing time upfront. I like to do phone interviews as a first round, not over video, but just over the phone, have a conversation without worrying about cameras and invest about an hour in those, and really get to know candidates’ resumes. You understand that they've got the qualifications that we're looking for based on work experience, but let's get to know them as individuals and understand the stories that have helped them get to where they are. So I like that upfront investment. I think it always returns better. Pool of candidates and then investing in an equitable process where you have the same hiring panel. If there's a panel style interview and the second phase of interview and making it really clear to candidates, what they can expect and what the timeline is. So the biggest challenge of. Hiring right now is if you can not meet somebody in person, a lot of people rely on that to make a final decision about a candidate. Are they going to work with our culture? They've got the right skill set, and we think they're going to succeed in this role, but will they fit in with our team? And so I'm seeing some meet and greet style interviews getting added in. Maybe it's a handful of staff members they're not interviewing, but it's, let's get together and get to know each other, almost like a virtual coffee as a way of getting to know candidates and have a more that more social feel. So that's one thing that I'm seeing that's different. Otherwise I'm just not seeing, I haven't seen a new trend to something that's brand new and hiring that really wasn't there before.
Carol: Well, that's, I really appreciate that. You say that actually it hasn't changed a huge amount and what's important. Hasn't necessarily changed. going to what you've said at the very beginning, just taking the time to identify what the competencies are. In the role what's actually needed. What's a must have, and what's nice to have right. Cause I've certainly seen so many job descriptions where there's such a wishlist that I'm like, even the superheroes and the Avengers couldn't do this job and we, what are they thinking? So what are some of the steps that organizations can take and teams can take to, to really identify what those competencies are.
Bobbi: A lot of conversation and there are two, I guess there are two paths. If it's an existing role and someone is moving on and they're replacing a team member taking a good look at the original job description, did that work well? Was it realistic? Does it really cover what this person did and how can we adjust it to fit what we're really needing thinking through what are the outcomes? What does success look like in three months, six months, a year into that position. And I think that's what can really help identify those competencies. And I also think keeping that to six to eight competencies is. Efficient. If you try to go above and beyond that, we get back more to that Avengers style person who maybe doesn't exist, of having everything on that list. So keeping it realistic and coming up with definitions for those competencies, there are existing. Definitions out there, but coming up with ones that are meaningful to the organization, what does being a clear communicator look like to us at this particular organization? What does being a superior relationship builder look like to us? And being able to convey that into questions that you ask the candidates is an important part too.
Carol: Can you say more about how you link up those two things?
Bobbi: Let's say that relationship building is one of the competencies and you define what that means coming up with some questions that 's an X asking for a specific story about how somebody built a relationship, maybe with someone that the organization was struggling with, maybe it's a funder. Maybe it's a relationship that needs to change because the person who was managing that relationship before was struggling with it, or wasn't being very successful. So asking for examples of that and the outcomes, and, and also trying to understand what somebody might do differently in a situation. So I like scenario based questions for understanding, really trying to get at. Where are they within this, within that competency in terms of their expertise
Carol: And how have you seen organizations be able to convey what their, what their culture is because, too often, I've, I've. Ask that question when I've been in the interview process and people are like, well, you'll know it. When you see it, I'm like, well, that's not helpful. Can you say a little bit more?
Bobbi: Yes. If the organization doesn't have an existing statement about their culture, that might be in the handbook. I like to start with talking about them. What's your compensation philosophy, because I think a lot of things trickle out from that. What's important to you as an organization. How do you define salaries? How do you determine what additional benefits you'll add into the package and what amount are you contributing to that? I think that can set a tone also talking through what our expectations are around let's say things like dress code. If those things still exist, some organizations still do have them or still have expectations for external facing events. Making that super clear that really can help you understand how as well, my disorganization B or how maybe stiff might this organization be and where might a person fit in along there? I think asking when, when I want to understand the culture, what type of social events do you have? How do you get to know your new staff members? When they come on board, do you have celebrations for birthdays or work anniversaries? So trying to understand how they invest also in staff, after they've come on board, do they do 90 day? Check-ins: what are their performance evaluations? Like? All of that feeds into what the culture is. So I ask a ton of questions.
Carol: That's great and about really specific things. Right. So it's not just generally describing your culture to me, but describing this piece and this piece of this piece and from all of it, I can really get a picture of what that adds up to. So, yeah. What would you recommend to clients in terms of successfully onboarding, onboarding new hires, especially now, again, with us being in this remote work environment,
Bobbi: Depending on the size of the organization, figuring out what's the checklist: who will do what, what do we want our first interaction with our newest team member to look like after they've accepted the offer. And I would say communicating more than you might, if the person we're going to be showing up in in-person and making sure they understand this is what your orientation looks like. By the end of week two, we expect you'll have. Had exposure to all of our systems. You may not know them exactly in and out yet, but you'll have gone through this checklist of learning, to use these tools and making it super clear how, what systems they need to have set up at home, how equipment will get to them.
If they have any home office expenses, which I'm seeing, many organizations get an extra reimbursement for that for internet and home costs. And having a plan, making sure that person's supervisor, if that's, if that's relevant is having personal check-ins with them. And that there's a process for that person getting to know the organization and their job, and what's expected of them and really trying to incorporate them as much as possible. So it could be different depending on each organization. What, how many systems and tools they have or how many staff they have on board. And it's a really important thing I think, to have. Touch points with each staff member as well for any new person, not just to a staff meeting, but maybe just 15 minute quick coffees with people or a quick slack video to say hi so that people get connected personally to the rest of the team.
Carol: And I could imagine going through a process of trying to figure out what all those things are and creating that checklist could actually be useful for people who've been on staff for a while. Like what are all the systems that we're using and how do they interact with each other? How does each person see their role and how it connects? I could see that being a really fruitful conversation, regardless of an onboarding process
Bobbi: That’s a great point. And a lot of times organizations will have resources that they launch. And maybe because there isn't a point person reminding staff that they have access to it, it's really when new staff come on board, that they're reminded, oh yes, we have this great shared Kindle library with 50 books in it that would help anybody who's interested in learning about various professional skills development. And I do think that's a great idea. If the organizations for arts, a great benefit, rather than staff existing staff, to see those resources if the organization is big enough, there might be an opportunity for individual staff members to be the champion of certain pieces. There's a, maybe a tools person and maybe this is how we do our staff meetings. Let me introduce you to that. And, having people be the. The go-to person and having that list be shared with the original, with a staff member, excuse me, joining the team. Here's who to go to for what? And To get a really good orientation to the organization.
Carol: Well, the idea of splitting it up and having it not be just a siloed experience, so that only, not, not only distributes the, the, the process of either putting that together or implementing it, but it also, with each person that's that champion, the new person gets, starts to build a relationship with them as well.
Bobbi: Yes. I think for individual staff members throughout the opportunity to take the lead on things like that, too, it's an investment opportunity for them as well. They get to show off their knowledge of the organization and take the lead on something. So it's a great, I think retention opportunity as well.
Carol: So on each episode, I like to play a game by asking one random icebreaker question. And since we mentioned the Avengers if you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why
Bobbi: I think I would choose the power of invisibility. I really liked to observe, and I liked the idea of being able to observe without being noticed and being able to use that for good, maybe. Interject if I need to, or take information back to somebody else reported. I don't know, but I like that idea. And also being able to disappear quickly if needed
Carol: I love it. I love it. Yeah. I've often thought, well, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall and that means they didn't see what really happened versus the report out afterwards. So that's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Bobbi: Got a couple of really fun projects coming up.
One is. It's fun because it's collaborating with a friend who, with her firm I'm going to support a project on hiring a new team member for one of their non-profit clients. And so just getting to know their process and bringing, merging our processes and plus getting together. I'm excited about that for one of my longer term clients we're working on job trajectories. They've been growing as an organization and. Haven't had an exact map. How do you grow at this organization? What does it take to get a promotion? What does that look like? So we're working on those trajectories and salary bands and making that all transparent within the organization, a growth path. And then the other is expanding voluntary benefits for one of my clients. And thinking about what are the host of things that staff might like to have access to. It's not something the organization’s necessarily paying for, but they'll pay for the administration of those benefits. And we often have. Life insurance that you can add onto accidents, things related to health. They're also financial planning, types of services, health, and wellness, and even things like pet insurance to make available with your people. If you're maybe getting a better deal because you're working with one provider. So I'm excited about expanding those offerings.
Carol: That's awesome. I love the idea of the growth trajectory, because I think so often in the sector, certainly if I look back at my career, most of the ways in which I grew, I ended up always having to hop to a new organization. And, there wasn't a clear path. Within the organization to, to, build on what I already had, had done and, and build on the work. So that's, that's really cool to start being a little more intentional about that.
Bobbi: I think so too. And not everybody wants to move up and be a supervisor for other people. They maybe are expanding their skills and can take on. More advanced work as they grow, but maybe that's not for them. And if it's possible to create those types of positions, make that clear, this can exist. And that's what it looks like. And that might impact pay scale, I'm not sure, but it could, but just making that super clear to staff, I think a lot of times people might not ask those questions. Do I have to be promoted and become a supervisor? And these organizations end up losing great folks because they haven't had that conversation.
Carol: Right. I mean, some people that they don't necessarily want to move up in, in that moving to a supervisory role, they really just want to go deeper and deeper into what they're, what they're doing as an individual contributor. So that's a great point. Well, thank you so much. It's been great having this conversation.
Bobbi: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been fun.
Carol: All right.
I appreciated how Bobbi described her process for hiring and how in many ways it has not changed a lot even in the past year beyond final interviews being via video instead of in person. Her process starts with defining the competencies needed for the role. And she nudges organizations to not create the wish list job description that essentially describes a super human. That first step of getting clear about what is actually really essential with a job. This could include questioning whether the qualifications you have required in the past are really needed – i.e. does the person really need a college degree to do this job? Or a Masters? What is essential and what is nice to have. And being consistent across interviews to aim for a more equitable process.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora 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. Until next time!
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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