Growing Gains—Not Pains

Lessons Learned When Turning an Organization Around

I pause on our Listening Tour to share a critical juncture in PANO’s journey.  At PANO, we are mapping our new road as we go—anticipating that some of our lessons become yours, hoping that you will join us on our journey.  We invite you to be fellow travelers—fellow students in life’s lessons.

Within one month of my arrival, PANO lost significant long-term support.  Though I understood this loss from the funder’s business perspective, it pained us deeply as it led, among other things, to staff reduction. PANO is now  experiencing what Michael Watkins (in the The First 90 Days) refers to as a “turnaround” transition.  As an organization, we need to move to a flowing, flourishing and clear-cut model.

In the midst of these grim circumstances, I decided to cart the remaining staff to a three-day weekend training in Westmoreland County—a three-hour trip from our office.    We left after work on Friday, March 7, and got home at 9:00 pm the following Monday.

Most staff would have gone—but kicking and screaming.  Not this resilient group of dedicated, compassionate leaders-in-training.  The “PANO van” carried six exhausted people —including an intern.  Oddly enough, we were all psyched. Why?  Because we all knew that we needed to bond as a newly-defined team.  What I did not fully understand was the secondary but critical benefit: we learned a similar thought framework from which we all work.  This singular perspective is already rocking our world.

But first, let me introduce you to the group who attended the training—a group brought together because we are planning a joint conference—a conference that has traditionally been owned by PANO.   Our hosts, Jim Bendel and Susan Acito of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, are best described as warm, dedicated and hilarious people!  Every morning, they welcomed us with delicious breakfasts and ensured that we had equally delightful, protein-filled lunches.  They also introduced us to one of the “50 restaurants in the area that serve homemade pizza.” More gracious hospitality cannot be found anywhere.

We also met, in person (FINALLY), our training facilitators, Hildy Gottlieb and Dimitri Petropolis.  These two amazing individuals lead a nonprofit organization called Creating the Future, a group with a 10-year-mission to change the world by helping all of us to work from our highest potential.  Sound like Pollyanna? Well, it might.  After all, Hildy wrote a book, published in 2009, titled The Pollyanna Principles: Reinventing Nonprofit Organizations to Create the Future of Our World.

When I first met Hildy via Google Hangout, I felt that I had found a long-lost sister.  Our dreams for world changes are so similar that, as Hildy says, she finishes the sentences that I start; she says the words that I am thinking.  Hildy is a kindred spirit that so understands my heart that words cannot describe our connection.  And Dimitri, the extraverted, observant, “silent” partner, makes their work possible.  His palpable kindness underscores the compassion that Hildy demonstrates on a daily basis.

Finally, I showcase for you one of the most lovely gems in this jeweled cache of training participants, Esther Hughes.  Representing conference partner, Milestone Bank, Esther brought her enthusiasm for all things good and her exuberance for life into our session.

So what did we learn that so altered our lives—our way of being with each other?

We learned and practiced a thought process that honors each other and the people we come in contact with. This framework’s focus on strengths vs. weaknesses took our already strengths-focused approach to a whole new level.   For example, we now understand how little help we are to others when we attempt to give advice.  The dignity we give to everyone levels the playing field so we can appreciate the youth of the young and the wisdom of those who have lived longer than us.   Practically speaking, we learned the value of the questions that we ask—and how the questions themselves lead to different outcomes.

Arriving back in the office last Tuesday, this new model was immediately put to the test in a conversation I had with a vendor.  In a fit of self-righteousness, I got huffy with a vendor and what I perceived to be “bad customer service”–something I abhor from the core of my being.  But what did this accomplish?  Nothing other than a demonstration of the thing I was annoyed with: bad customer service.  Furthermore, I felt lousy and likely started a chain reaction of cranky people.

What would it take, to honor everyone for what they must do every day in their jobs? And what could results include? For starters, rather than remembering me as “That Royal B*tch,” perhaps I could be known as that “amazingly gracious person who was willing to take the time to understand me.”  Though it may take years for me to generate compassion for people I want to put “in their place” with my “amazing knowledge,”  I now have a greater understanding of what I can do to create places of work that bring out the best in others.

And the really cool thing?  PANO staff are all on the same page.  We are practicing this together—and holding ourselves accountable through honest, in-office conversations.  We talk about how to better honor each other and those around us. And because we had the same training, no one is giving the hairy eyeball to anyone else.

For those of you in any kind of transition, I highly recommend that you invest in getting your team on the same page.  And I recommend Hildy and Dimitri’s model of “being” rather than “doing.”

If you want to join us in our journey of growing gains, please continue follow our posts.

Anne L. Gingerich, MSW
Executive Director

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