Joining Vanessa, Online Editor, for the first edition of #conversationswith is Rahel from Now! Together they discuss the pressures of leading a venture and how what we can do to lighten the workload.
During our convo, we discussed the challenge of leading, managing, directing, hustling, juggling, carrying, supporting, strategizing, branding, representing… basically being the entire organization!!! In the era of founding, under-staffing and under-resourcing is commonplace. This means that many of us continue to hide behind the name of an organization when, in actual fact, WE ARE THE ORGANISATION. How many of us refer to the team or ‘About Us’ when it’s actually About Me, Myself, and I. Sometimes we might have some kind of team surrounding us such as volunteers, unpaid staff, interns etc., but we still continue to carry the weight of the workload. I wanted to share a few insights on this as I’m sure that many of us can relate to this experience, especially in the world of social startups and NGOs. So… Dear founders, directors, chief officer whatevers, and coordinators who are currently living, breathing and giving life support to your organizations… Welcome to the conversation.
So last week, Rahel and I caught up to blow off some steam about our very similar part-time (lol.. as if!) positions as programme coordinators. Coincidentally we were both the only permanent paid staff of our respective organizations. Meaning heavy workloads, a subtle expectation to know almost everything about everything and lots of work outside of our skill-sets. Rahel shared how she had realized that this was an unsustainable way of working for her organization and for herself resulting in her raising a red flag. This started a collective conversation with her team about restructuring their business model so that if Rahel got hit by a bus tomorrow (God forbid!), then the whole organization would not cease to exist (or be absolutely screwed). We were inspired to think about what this process might look like to begin building or rebuilding an organizational team, culture, and system from the bottom-up:
The first thing we can do is open up lines of communication. If you’re feeling overworked or always one step behind, it’s important to find healthy and humanizing ways to talk about this. We tend not to do this because systems of oppression socialize us to suppress vulnerability in the workplace in order to keep us worker bees buzzing without question. In these moments, we need to go back to the social enterprise textbook and remind ourselves of ‘managing expectations’. Even in the most structured and established organizations, defined roles and responsibilities will continue to evolve which isn’t a bad thing if there is transparency and accountability which can only be facilitated by carving out time and space for safe and brave communication. Before bringing up the subject, it’s important to know your why and your what – be intentional, specific, and clear about what you’re going to say and why it’s important you say it. Have a call-to-action otherwise, your team won’t know how they can help you. Then perhaps think about the how; so talking about how you’re going to talk. It’s a good idea to create a shared code of conduct about how everyone agrees to treat each other during difficult discussions. And then the who. For example, talking about it 1-1 with a mentor or a colleague you feel comfortable with, or doing a team-wide temperature check of how others are feeling before opening it up for group discussion. The when might be after lunch when people are more full, less ‘hangry’, and generally feeling more optimistic about life. Also maybe not on Friday afternoon when everyone is distracted by the weekend. The where might be a change of scenery or a team meeting in an open and inspiring environment. Either way, if you want to rebuild any kind of system, including your organizational ecosystem, pay attention to how information and communication flow because it is this communication that will be the first step to helping your team help you.
Exploring the concept of leadership is a very interesting conversation, one that has been had many times so I’m going to try to break it down swiftly. It’s become quite clear that humans have a wolf pack, tribal mentality that needs direction. If you are the director of that direction, whether formally or informally, it’s important to think about the division of labour, the mechanism of consent/buy-in, and decision-making processes. In terms of division of labour; as leaders we are often filling in, picking up, and quietly re-doing a lot of other people’s work. Sometimes this comes out of necessity (as a leader it’s important to be able to do the jobs that no-one else wants to do) but sometimes we start doing everything because we’re scared to let go or we think we can do a better job. Here, we have to go back to the social enterprise textbook and remember to ‘delegate’. Define the roles and responsibilities (clarity is key here) and then let your team do their job. You are no good to anyone burnt out which is exactly what you’ll be if you continue doing bits and pieces of everyone’s job for them. So make sure you have a very clear division of tasks and labour, even if it makes sense to make this flexible, responsive, and emergent.
When dividing the work, it’s also beneficial to seek consent from people. When people give their permission to do things or have things done to/for them – they feel seen, heard, and valued, and this creates accountability which creates a better quality of work. It also creates buy-in where people feel a real sense of ownership over what they are doing simply because you asked – rather than the fast and furious ‘get-it-done’ culture that can leak into our work ethics. Try to bake consent-seeking into your organizational structure with periodic check-ins to see that everyone is still happy, supported, and on the same page.
Finally deciding how to make decisions is absolutely key to any group’s success. For example, introducing the idea of role authority over positional authority (thanks Marc for your wisdom). Positional authority is the way organizations have traditionally operated where those backed with institutional power at the top of the hierarchy, for example, the CEO or Executive Director, have the final say over pretty almost everything. Role authority is a different leadership paradigm which at its core is more egalitarian and involves whoever is directly responsible and specialized for the issue at hand, for example, director of community engagement or a human resources coordinator etc, getting the final say over everything within their domain. This is helpful for lightening your leadership load as you don’t have to know everything about everything (or pretend to). It also allows decisions to be made according to expertise, experience, and interest rather than just institutional status. The lesson here is that while you may conduct the orchestra, you don’t (and can’t) play every instrument.
Recruit or bandwagon
This final thought is short and simple. If you’re just starting out and up by yourself, my personal advice to you is to divert a large part of your efforts to finding a team because the sheer quantity of work, all the moving parts, the technical skills needed etc, is no joke. Are there people out there that see your vision and feel your mission? If you think there could be, then find them sooner rather than later. Put the word out there and get networking by attending relevant events and/or signing up to social enterprise incubators – these are some of the ways you can meet likeminded folk who are also ambitious about the adventure of a venture. And if you are on your own and you’re doing the same or similar work to other work out there, it might make more strategic sense to join forces with others already established. Swallow whatever ego you may have about going it alone and choose to surround yourself with people who are going to give you a shortcut to your social impact. If you are the only one in the organization then it’s not an organization – it’s something else which is ok too but go back to that social enterprise textbook and work out what business model works best for you and what you do. Either way, find your squad, find your crew – and work together to create change.
Back to #conversations with Rahel and NOW
The way I understood Rahel’s red flag was as a catalyst of a slow and progressive transition (credit to the entire team!). The organization is currently shifting from programme-based work (more long-term and dependent on funding) to project-based work (more short-term and paid by b2b clients) along with a decentralizing of roles and responsibilities. So in the future, if someone wants to run a project, it will be voted on. If approved, it will be that team member’s responsibility to recruit collaborators to help run the project, find the funding/revenue stream, and then lead on project management. Rahel noted that this business remodelling was risky for a few reasons. But, she said, it was worth it “for the good and growth of the organization”. (Also for Rahel’s sanity, I noted). Rahel and NOW is right in the middle of their transition so there are no sure answers about whether this will be a happy ending but surely that’s not the point. The point is, an entire organization being too dependent on one person only creates the conditions for structural weakness. So let’s think about building our organizations to be inclusive, equitable, and supportive of one another – this is where the power of collaboration will shine through.
NOW helps organizations create educational programs with impact and purpose, to foster (and measure) 21st-century skills and to have fun along the way. If you would like to learn more about them and/or employ their consulting services, click here!
This article was written by contributing editor, Vanessa Faloye. Vanessa is an online editor at the Social Innovation Blogazine (WhatAMission) where she frequently writes about topics within social innovation and social change scopes. As Online Editor at WhatAMission, she provides critical thought pieces on paradigms and pedagogies in social impact education. Vanessa holds a post-graduate in Social Enterprise and Innovation from The Do School, Germany.