Mashonda Taylor had just been named Executive Director of Woodlawn Foundation when the magnitude of COVID-19 began to sink in with Americans across the country. As a foundation created to serve the Birmingham, Ala. Woodlawn community, Ms. Taylor immediately went into action to gauge what Woodlawn residents would need most. Speaking to her in early April, we asked Taylor how she was maintaining contact with the neighborhood. “I’ve been walking through the community and talking with residents. We quickly learned people were being saturated with options for help. It was confusing. Now we’ve got an app that’s a one-stop place for information and services. Our residents are at the forefront of all we do and they guide our initiatives.”
Taking pause to listen, like Woodlawn Foundation has done, rather than scrambling to initiate several new programs, is good practice in most situations. Keeping mission at the forefront when you’re solving problems can help minimize analysis paralysis. Focusing on mission can also prevent you from spreading your efforts too thin, causing them to be less effective.
Our company Intentional Works partners with social impact organizations for executive search and leadership development. Just as everyone is adapting their businesses to serve, we’ve shifted a lot of our energies to the organizational development part of our work, connecting with leaders to help them solve problems and to act as a conduit to bring groups together. Through our conversations with leaders across sectors, we’ve learned how teams have adapted well in the face of change, and where the struggles are. To help you not just survive, but thrive, now and in the future, here are a few of the main themes we’re hearing.
Focus on your mission. Your organization has a mission or purpose statement. Read it with your team and discuss how the work you’re doing reflects it. Mission is our north star in moments when we’re all scrambling to serve. There will be temptation to inact numerous programs to solve as many problems as possible. Be prepared to say to no to some things. Go back to your mission and invest in initiatives that specifically support your purpose. Taylor says the Woodlawn Foundation’s mission “isn’t to be a service provider but a service convener. Food insecurity is a top concern for our residents. We brought all the organizations that provide food on a call and had them list their needs. Through the course of the call, they were able to help each other and solve their own needs like shortages of gloves and PPE, access to a commerical kitchen, etc.” This helps avoid duplication of services and supports natural partnerships. Taylor and her team resisted mission creep. Focus on what your organization does best and join with others in the community to help in meaningful and efficient ways. “Know the partners in the ecosystem and who is doing what,” Taylor says.
Talk with your peers. Don’t be shy about picking up the phone to talk with colleagues. We are all in this together. You might initially call to commiserate but leave with a new collaboration. Woodlawn Foundation Executive Director Taylor is involved in numerous conversations with leaders around Birmingham who share and learn from each other. We want to emphasize that seeking divergent views from your own is critical. However nice it is to hear your idea validated, it’s also important to hear some pushback. For example, if you’re an idea person, ask that really analytical person in your office what she thinks. Don’t bristle when she pops your balloon, either. Use her gifts to help flesh out the practicality of an idea. This is a true and frequent example from the halls of Intentional Works! You need diverse perspectives.
Listen to your team. As the CEO or ED, the buck stops with you. But you’re not alone in finding solutions. Invite your team, and not just your C-suite, to brainstorm. Avoid opening the floor on a videoconference call — it’s too crowded and you’ll generally hear from the same voices you usually do. Announce the problem you’re trying to solve and invite email responses or schedule one-on-one phone chats. This allows space for thought and collaboration and also gives voice to more introverted staff or people who might not generally participate in the higher-level conversations.
Get off the hamster wheel. Allow for rest, peace and space. You’re no good to anyone if you’re running on fumes. Limit your news intake. Increase your consumption of media that inspires. Now that many of us have blended our work space with our home space, it’s challenging to turn off. But you must. And make sure your team knows it’s okay (and expected) to turn off, too.
Finally, remember these are unchartered waters. There’s no “normal.” We’re creating it day by day. Have some forgiveness for yourself and others. Now’s the time to take a risk, as long as it aligns with the mission. And remember — we’re in this together, and we’ll get through this… together. Care for your community, however that looks, and care for yourself.
Laura DiBacco and Evan Lovelace are the founders of Intentional Works, a consulting firm in Atlanta which partners with social impact organizations on executive search and leadership development throughout the US.