Standing on Their Shoulders

Old And Young Hands

My staff may get tired of hearing me say, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” but I absolutely believe it. Our organization would not be where it is today without the values, the passion, and the can-do spirit that have fueled our 160-year heritage.

And, I also recognize that no organization survives for more than 160 years without being willing to change. It is important to point out that I put an “and” between those two statements, not a “but.” Far too often I have seen staff feel like a major organizational change means we are saying there was something “wrong” with the way they were doing things before. In fact, the old way may have been exactly the right response for the circumstances at the time, but we live in a fluid environment . . . variables change, opportunities present themselves, new information becomes available and we have to respond accordingly if we are going to continue to extend our mission reach.

In such times of change, when you are asking staff to stop doing something they believe had a valuable impact, and start doing something that often (at least at first) feels risky/frustrating/bureaucratic/misguided/or a myriad of other things, the right kind of communication is critical. So what is the right kind? I believe a leader needs to not only clearly communicate where the organization is going, but also how the decisions made in the past uniquely prepared them to take this next step. With credit to my predecessor and mentor, in our organization we often refer to this as “God’s arithmetic.”

Undoubtedly, there have been decisions made, people hired, experience gained that, while perhaps seemingly unrelated at the time, work together to guide your decision making in this moment. Connect those dots for your staff. Help them see it is because of what has been done in the past that you are now able to take this step forward. Honor and value the hard work and commitment of those whose actions brought you to the place where you can respond to the opportunities before you. Creating a narrative that demonstrates how the foundation laid in the past will give you solid footing going forward helps staff see change as a continuation of your good work rather than a course correction for something that wasn’t done right in the past.

Does such a narrative make change painless? Of course not. But I do believe this perspective helps staff see change as a part of who we are, and how we do things, rather than a criticism of what has been done in the past. It helps them see that the organization is about more than a single decision or situation (or leader). It is about building on our past and continually reaching for greater heights on behalf of those we serve.

Climb on up. The view from here is pretty incredible.

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