What do you & Leadership SLO do?
I’ve been the executive director of Leadership SLO since 2010. Leadership is a year-long program that has been developing passionate and effective community leaders for San Luis Obispo County business, agriculture, education, health, government and non-profits since 1991. We’re about building authentic relationships and identifying SLO County’s challenges and opportunities.
What was the original goal tied to your HINDsight? What did you set out to do?
Well first, I love it that Greg Hind inspired us to look at (and talk about!) the growth that comes from failure. I’ve been in environmental, arts and community nonprofit management for over 30 years and will happily talk to anyone about the many time-consuming and costly mistakes I’ve made! How about the 5,000 Pops by the Sea postcards I sent out with the wrong ticket-line phone number when I was at the Symphony? Or forgetting to include 25% of the labor costs in a large contract when I worked at ECOSLO? I refuse to call it a mistake that time we did square dancing on Arts Day at Leadership SLO.
What I really want to talk about though is being a boss and managing staff. What did I set out to do? I set out to be good; to be inclusive in decision-making, to listen, to be supportive, to encourage personal growth. And most importantly to create a team atmosphere that made our organization relevant and meaningful to our community.
What actually happened?
Hmmm. Well, hang in for the happy-ish ending, but I can think of three pivotal instances where I failed as a boss and it about crushed me at the time.
- I worked with this brilliant and creative person and in the name of maintaining standards I asked her to show me all the work that she generated before it left the office. Actually a really good idea….for awhile. I praised her often and told her (and our board members) how lucky we were to have her with the organization. One day, after months of good work on the job, she came into my office and handed me a document to “review.” As I changed a word, added a comma and underlined a phrase, she asked me “Sandi, do you really think redlining those items makes the document better…or are you trying to remind me that you’re the boss?” Ouch. I’m sure I protested but her question really touched me.
- Several years later I had the great fortune to work with a person who was innately competent in all she did; warm and kind in all her communications. I felt truly blessed to work with her and told her so often. One day she came into the office, closed the door and asked to speak with me confidentially. I was certain that she had an observation or complaint about a colleague that I would wisely solve. To my utter disbelief she told me that working in close proximity to me was becoming intolerable: I interrupted her interactions with folks as they came into the office; I basically fed her “what to say” while she was on the phone and generally I was rude and minimized her role in the organization. WHAT?
- My last example is really the hard one to admit-and that’s my failure to protect the team by refusing to do something about that one person in the office- you know the one- the time-suck, the toxic one, the one who interferes with the productivity, creativity and happiness of others. Oh yeah, I’d try to manage, try to set boundaries, appear to commiserate and even vow to “do something”. But several times in my career I had the wrong person in the wrong seat on the wrong bus…and what did I do? Once I enthusiastically encouraged the person to pursue a new job where they’d find more satisfaction and they did. Once I brought in a staff development expert who would lead us all through exercises until this person “saw the light” and their own flaws. The person didn’t see the light, didn’t see their flaws, but did eventually leave. And once, I was the one who left…. and left behind a bigger and badder problem for the whole organization.
What was the final outcome? What did you learn?
Oh man. I really did want to be a good boss. So in the first two instances I took to heart the brave observations of the folks who worked for me. When an employee (say, someone creating a donation letter or a grant proposal) handed me their work for review I learned to ask them: Did you review how we handled this same project last year? Was it successful last time? Do you clearly understand the expected outcomes this year? Have you asked a peer to review this document for clarity and grammar? Do you believe this is a finished product? THEN, I reviewed the work, carefully asking myself “Do I really need to change anything?” or can I admit that, even though it’s not exactly the words I’d use, I can confidently say to this trusted, valuable team member “Good job. Thanks.”
And in all three instances I came to realize that saying you trust someone, and giving praise and having all the good intentions of an open door, and inclusive decision making, being supportive, etc. does not alone a-good-boss-make; does not loyalty-and-productivity-engender. Action is what demonstrates to the team your commitment to them, the organization and your community. I took actions that demonstrated to staff that they could trust me and rely on me. I took action to listen more, to plan in advance (with their workloads in mind), to find agreement in clear goals and outcomes and to recognize that individual expressions of the same idea are worthy. I took action to put the right person on the right seat on the right bus.
Work life got better… for everybody.