In episode 63 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton focuses on healthy organizational cultures with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to episode 63 and the first episode of 2023 of Mission: Impact. This is the second part of a two part highlights episode. Our topic today is healthy organizational cultures and what gets in the way of them. I am pulling clips from conversations with Anne Hilb from episode 36, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows, Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall, and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson. We talk about why it is important for leaders to invest in themselves and consider getting a coach, why paying attention to power dynamics and naming them is key, and why it's important to realize that it takes time and investment to shift a culture away from less healthy practices.
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.
Reva Patwardhan explains why many nonprofit leaders struggle with the idea of investing in themselves for executive coaching even though as the leader they have a broader impact on the organization and thus shifting their own behavior to healthier habits can have a big impact. As Reva points out it is in service of the mission.
Reva Patwardhan: The nonprofit sector, for whatever reason, has been behind. And really recognizing how important it is to invest in leaders, as individuals, as human beings. And that is what leadership coaching is. It's really investing in you. I think that's why it's hard for people. It's hard for an executive director to say, Hey, I'm going to spend some money on an executive coach because it's really for her. It is for her in service of her mission. And when I coach with people, we do have the mission centered in our work, but it is for her and her ability and her passion and her values. That is part of the process of what we're doing to serve the mission. In order to center your own wellbeing and your own development, I think it's a hard thing for a lot of people to do. We're very much conditioned out of that. And I do work with a lot of women but very much conditioned to always be giving to others, not to ourselves. And that is what coaching does.
Carol: Deneisha also prioritizes coaching in her practice in working with organizations trying to shift their cultures. Leaders have few spaces where they can be safely vulnerable and coaching is one space where they can own up to their own struggles.
Deneisha Thompson: Executive coaching and making sure you have strong leaders who are positioning themselves to learn and grow and be responsive to the needs of their team. Leadership is so, so, so important in building a culture. And when I do coaching with executives, I really try to work, to create environments where people can be honest and vulnerable. What I've heard from so many leaders is “I know that I have room to grow, but it can be really isolating as a leader to get the type of support that you need.” So who are you surrounded by? You have your staff who work for you you're supposed to know what you're doing. And so you don't really wanna be vulnerable with them and say, you know folks, I don't have this, so I'm not sure about this. I don't really have experience in this area. I'm not really sure what to do. No leader wants to tell their staff that they don't know what to do. Then you have your board who is supervising you, that's not necessarily the space where you also can be vulnerable and honest about your opportunities for growth. And then you have your colleagues who are other leaders of other organizations, and you definitely don't wanna tell them most of the time that you don't have it all together. And so. It becomes really hard for leaders to get the type of support that they need in order to be good leaders. And a part of that is also not creating systems to get feedback from your team around your leadership. And it is one of the most common things that I see that leaders are not getting evaluations.
Carol: I have also seen this. Even when an organization has a positive culture and the executive director has cultivated a really healthy relationship with the board. The board may not see the need to provide the leader with feedback if things are going really well. But that is not the time to sleep at the wheel – Recalling the conversation about feedback from episode 62 – feedback is both positive and constructive. Both are needed for the leader to learn and grow. And coaching can provide a safe space to confront one’s shadow side as Deneisha describes. Coaching provides a space to practice slowing down and being more mindful of the intentional response you would want to have in a tough situation instead of just reacting out of fear or anger or frustration.
Deneisha: Let's get in touch with your shadow side, because we all have one. It's never really the thing. We're proud of stuff, but what happens is it shows up at work and your teammates see it, and they don't know that. We do a lot of work around, who am I as an individual? How do I show up? When things come up change my reflex. So I am not automatically thinking about the external factor or the person who caused this thing or caused me to be frustrated. My first instinct is to be reflective and think about , how am I showing up right now? How did I contribute to this thing? How do I calm myself down so that when I do go to have this conversation, it can be productive and get us to a better place and not just be like a way for me to vent and, and, or feel vindicated. So I think it really just takes a lot of intention.
Carol: In the safe space of coaching you can shift from just venting to thinking more productively about the situation and how you want to show up in the future. Reva also notes that Younger leaders coming into positions have higher expectations for their role and what it will contribute to their career. They are not as willing to put up with poor working conditions that previous generations have become used to.
Reva: There is a wake up call going on for the sector. If it's not happening already, it's going to very soon because there is this emerging sense that people don't wanna put up with any of this crap anymore in their jobs. It's getting harder and harder to fill the position of executive director. In the for-profit sector being a CEO is seen as this glamorous thing. I think part of that is because of the ridiculous salaries and we don't necessarily wanna model ourselves off of that. Part of it is that they have resources, they have support to do what they need to do. In the nonprofit sector, [when] becoming an ED, you should feel proud. If the mission matters then so do the people who are working for the mission.
Carol: It is too easy for folks in the sector to prioritize mission over people. In the for profit sector, the call is for people over profit. In the nonprofit sector – there needs not to be a binary of choosing one or the other. They go hand in hand. If people are treated well and have good working conditions, they will be able to do that much more for the mission. And if you have been in a position of power in an organization you may forget your impact as Anne Hilbe points out. You may be aware of all the things you cannot do, and forget the agency you have. Yet staff will be waiting to watch and see what you do. Remembering what your position brings with it and being cognizant of that and willing to admit the privilege you have to just proceed with a decision at times is important.
Anne Hilb: Those who would be doing the asking have much less power in the organization. The folks with formal power and titles need to really understand the power over that they have , and take ownership over that. The understanding of that power, because I think oftentimes we are a manager or in the C-suite, or even just have informal, formal power or hurt in that we. Are positioned to take power in a manager position purely because of the type of role that we have, because it's a more formal desk job and it can roll into a manager position or because we have Privilege. We tend not to recognize that. And so working on that, understanding in an organization or just as an individual is really important in order for these shifts to happen.
Carol: Those power differentials are just one of the aspects behind how we see the world and the lens that may become invisible to us. Your social identities such as your race, gender, sexual orientation, class and education status all impact how you see the world. And you cannot assume that we all see things similarly or are having the same experiences as Danielle explains.
Danielle: We need to be able to. Understand that we are not all seeing the world. Similarly, we are not all having the same experiences. There is this really interesting thing in the US where [because of] the melting pot everybody's supposed to blend together. Therefore we all have to be the same. I don't agree with the fact that we should all be the same but beyond that, it was never true to begin [with]. There are different cultures. There are values, there are different beliefs that people bring to the table. There's just simply different understandings of the world. To not look at that is a detriment to us because yes, we may have gone through the same situation, but how we experienced it is vastly different, so we've all gone through this period of COVID right now. And depending on who you were. So did you live in an urban environment? Did you live in a more rural environment? Did you have a stable job or were you one of the first people to go on furlough or lose your job?
Carol: Reva speaks to an additional element of the differentiation that Danielle names – being the only. This puts additional pressure on the individual as they are often then seen as a representative of a larger group. Or having to engage in a circumstance where others have set the unspoken rules and standards.
Reva: The problem is the fact that you are the sole member. You're the sole representative of your community. No one else in the room looks like you, you're the only person of color in the room, and that's the problem because you feel ashamed of the anxiety. You're trying to solve the problem yourself. Trying to hide the fact that you feel the anxiety. It's actually very normal to feel anxious in that situation. That's not the problem. I think people in this situation – this is just a very ripe moment for imposter syndrome. They might be thinking , someone else could be doing this job better. The person who was in this role before me did it better. Or they might be thinking , I'm the least competent person in this room, which makes it feel like this is a problem with me. That's just paralyzing. What I do is, I help people take their power back and find their voice. Part one by realizing you're not crazy. This is a genuinely hard situation. You are not broken. So taking your power back [and] finding the things that you can do in your immediate sphere to take action.
Carol: Shifting from the individual level – and thinking more broadly at the group and organizational level – starting a process to examine the culture and start to dig into the challenges – and then shutting it down. Or just letting it fizzle due to neglect or the initiative getting over run by other priorities – can have a really detrimental effect as Terril and Monique describe. It can actually be even more damaging than doing nothing – because staff get their hopes up about positive change. So if you start a process – be in it for the long term.
Terrill Thompson: But it's really, really damaging. To open it all up, bring people's hope up and then nothing changes.
Monique Meadows: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals, here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they don't first feel like they're crazy? Like this is actually happening. What agency do you have? What power do you have within the system to make the changes? That's also a part of our work is to see at all levels within the hierarchy that there's some power there. And so how. With the role that you have, how can you move this along so that you can move closer to fulfilling your mission?
Carol: Starting with an organizational assessment can help get things out in the open through the conversations that are sparked by the findings as Deneisha explains.
Deneisha: I do an org assessment to get us started. And I always pride myself. It's similar to supervision and with the evaluation that at the end, when someone gets their org assessment and you share it with the leadership and share it with the team that it should feel familiar, it shouldn't feel like, like a bomb just dropped and there's all this new information. But oftentimes the response that I get, people get their org assessment and they'll read through it. And they're like, yeah, we knew all of this. And it's almost as if they're expecting it to be a document full of secrets and things they didn't know. And that says to me, these are issues that everyone knows about. We know the landscape of where we are, but we don't have a system for us to have that conversation, which is why we had to hire a consultant to come in and tell us where we already know. And we could have elevated in a landscaping conversation if we just had a team that was able to communicate and talk to each other. And so it'll be like their assessment. It'll have recommendations. It'll have questions for further consideration. And I find, oftentimes the staff are like, this is amazing. I've been saying this for years. And then the leadership is. Oh, we, we knew some of this or, , it's good to see it, or you really captured , our organization
Carol: All these processes have the impact of slowing things down. Stepping away from the day to day work and the to do list and examining HOW you are doing the work and the why – not just the what is something I talk about often on this podcast. Reva also describes the benefits of taking a beat.
Reva: The ability to pause and to actually say, , I'm a leader in this organization and I'm gonna decide to actually program into my day to day and set boundaries, time to reflect and pause. And that is a priority because when I do that, I'm better at my job. A lot of times people are truly experiencing urgency in their work. There's urgency coming from somewhere. Often people are working with, or serving communities that are experiencing urgency. It can sound bizarre. Who am I to slow down? Why do I get to do this but one of the things that can happen with coaching is you start to see, oh, this actually is gonna help me be more in service than I currently am, because it'll help me. See the forest rather than just the trees. If I'm constantly moving from one task to the other, I'm never able to ask the big questions, or if I'm asking the big questions, I'm not able to do anything about it. There's the undercurrent of frustration there of, there are things I'd like to do and there's no space to do.
Carol: Whether it is pausing as an individual or taking the time as a group to really dig in and get vulnerable with each other – it takes an intentionality and investment as Monique shares.
Monique: Groups say they want to do the organizational culture work. They bring in folks and. When they realize that the depths of time, like the amount of time, like the kind of commitment and the vulnerability that is really present, they shut down. Groups also don't always have the resources to really invest the time. Right. Folks are pulled in a thousand different directions. We found that to be one of the challenges. Are you really able to commit the time and the resources, the people power to be able to dig in and do this.
Carol: But as Danielle notes – it is feasible – it is possible – and there are folks already doing it.
Danielle: Some people are doing it every day. They don't necessarily stop to think about it. If I'm working with a group that is dealing with food insecurities, and they're also trying to tackle, let's say racial equity systems, they're not stopping the feeding of people. That work continues, but they are allocating time to sit down as a team to review the policies, to begin to look at data, who works in this organization. What's our retention rate based on the disaggregated data, are there certain demographics that are promoted at higher rates to are maybe leaving the organization? Or even hired into the organization at that point. So they're doing both sets of things and I, by no means, would say it is easy because it is an intentional carving out of time. But the people that are able to hold those two things as truthful and important in the moment, those are the groups that I see having the most success.
Carol: It is possible – and it is also important to recognize that we are all caught in systems that are not working. The wider system is broken yet we need to keep working to create a better world – internally for our staff and externally in the mission we are pursuing. Deneisha describes some of the challenges that come with working within that broken system.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally they don't treat each other well, internally they have a toxic culture, internally they have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued. What's the real issue around why you are not reaching the impact that you hope to have both in communities and kind of internally as a team. Again, the through line of that is culture. You need to have a culture that is going to allow you to get to the impact that you want to be able to grow organizationally, to be able to support your staff so that they are able to do good work. These communities cannot wait for you to figure it out for you to have these tough conversations and learn how to work better together so that you actually can achieve the type of impact that everyone is working so hard to achieve on a daily basis.
We blame the government. We blame communities. We blame each other. How do we reduce the culture of blame? Everyone has to have skin in the game. Everyone needs to work on personal accountability and everyone contributes to whether or not we have a healthy culture.
Carol: It can be hard to face those realities and it is easier to look outside of ourselves to blame others, blame the system. Yet as Terril points out, we need to give ourselves grace. We are human, we will make mistakes. And we are able to acknowledge those and keep moving forward.
Terrill: when we show up as full human beings who make mistakes, who are learning along with the client, people trust us more because we're not robots and neither are they. We need to be all in it together.
Monique: We look at the multiple aspects of identities. As we do that, we invite people to look at the places where they have identities that are privileged identities and the places where they have identities. [They’re] oppressed. In terms of the modeling and the transparency that Terrell, and I do, we share our full selves with folks. Acknowledging that I have certain identities that are very privileged. I'm a US born English speaker. I live a middle-class life. And I have identities that are oppressed. I'm black, I'm a woman. I have a disability. What we do is, we invite people to look at their whole selves, not just through a single lens. And so. That really shifts how the conversation happens for groups. ? So you've got, white folks who are used to being in the conversation where they are the oppressor. I mean, that's, that's what we're working with here. We're saying, well, actually, you're more than that. You have many identities that you're holding where you're impacted by systems that. Take power away from you too. We bring that kind of conversation into a group when we're talking about equity and we find that for the folks of color, for the trans folks, for the LGBT folks, It's a, it's a new way of looking at ourselves. It's really powerful to be part of those moments where the group's like, oh right. Because there's so much fear going into conversations around equity. We've found that that type of approach kind of that's what the fear go away, but it definitely just creates compassion for each other.
Carol: That grace, that compassion we need for ourselves and each other will fuel the way forward. Then we are more ready to step in and have the brave conversations we need to create healthier cultures. As Deneisha points out – it is everyone’s job. Whether you are the staff leader, on the board or part of staff – you can do your part to contribute to your organization having a healthier culture. Remembering that it takes time. Allowing ourselves to get the help that we need. Finding safer spaces to have tough conversations. Bringing in someone from the outside who can hold up a mirror and help you look at yourselves – for the good, bad and the ugly. All of these actions are small yet important steps toward building braver organizations.
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 the guests highlighted in the episode, 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 you do to contribute and make an impact.
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.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.