I was recently speaking with a friend who had just gotten a mid-level leadership position in a big non-profit in my local area. They were brought on board with a mandate to make some improvements, in a similar way to every other mid-level manager who’s brought into a new position where there are issues which need to be addressed. On the positive side they had the intelligence, and they had the right attitude. Unfortunately being from outside the organization and the industry they were still struggling to wrap their head around all of it. That’s why we were having the conversation. I heard about what they were doing, and sent a quick email with some suggestions, and that email turned into a very long conversation about one particular issue they had. The challenge was related to a complacent office manager and an underperforming office. As I had been with my organization for a decade, working in and around the office they were tasked with improving, I knew the lay of the land including all of the history. What the new leader was tasked to do with the underperforming office was done in the past, and in other adjacent areas, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully. I explained the background, I explained the possible solutions, and I gave them all the contacts to get started putting it back together. As I was going through everything I realized it was all very déjà vu, and I was going to do it again. I was going to do it again, because the complacent manager wasn’t the problem, the system was.
In this case the office was understaffed and had the wrong person in charge of the office who had the wrong attitude. It wasn’t a bad attitude, it was just a wrong attitude, at least for what my friend was tasked with. I think after years of banging their head against the wall the longer serving office manager, let’s call her Ms. Complacent, found a solution that sort of worked. Unfortunately Ms. Complacent had compartmentalized what they would do and lost sight of the big picture. She defined the scope of her office in a limited way and only provided a small number of easily manageable service offerings. She would ignore large swaths of the services that people expected out of her office. Quite often I heard the office manager say “Oh, people think we do that, but we don’t do that here.” In Ms. Complacent’s defense, she was a very nice person who was trying to do what worked. She didn’t have the bandwidth nor the budget to get done what the general public expected out of her. Also her office was part of a very large non-profit and it was most likely never going to get the budget and manpower it needed to be effective. There were always other higher priorities, often written into state and federal law, that the Non-Profit had to follow. Ms. Complacent’s office existed because it had to exist, but it was always and forever not going to be the focus of the Non-Profit even if the office did have a place in the big picture of it all. Hence, the broken system.
Now, my friend, we’ll call her Ms. Leader, had to figure out how to fix the underperforming office. We both agreed she needed to get more staff without the resources to pay for it. Fortunately, In the nonprofit world, that isn’t as hard as you think. Most organizations are understaffed. To put a bandaid on the perennial staffing issues there is lots’ of quid pro quo. In effect the organizations who operate in the same orbit will sign a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU as it’s more commonly known. An MOU is just a formal agreement and commitment. It makes sense, but again, systemically there is a huge issue with this type of solution. Right off the top, everyone involved is either doing the work because they want to do it with little to no pay, or if they are getting paid, it’s by someone else. So if Ms. Leader goes and gets a bunch of MOU’s signed with partner organizations and they all agree to send people to her office, Ms. Leader can’t really control the situation. People will do what they want without any real ramifications. Also, they will come and go as their personal proclivities influence them or as their own organizations dictate.
I’ll use an analogy in my own world to explain. Just last night, I told someone about my ammiture DJ gigs I do for free. They are kid’s dance parties and I DJ them. The coffee shop owner I was talking to wanted to book me on the spot. I told him I’d do it in about four months. He had a disappointed look on his face. He wanted me in about two months but since he wasn’t paying, I got to tell him when I would be available and I made the decision to do it when it’d be best for my own schedule. It’s the same concept with the nonprofit MOU driven partnerships. Not only is a system which is made up of partners bureaucratic, it’s still somewhat unfocused. Also, overtime that lack of focus tends to see the agreement break down. Partner A gets understaffed and can’t send anyone. Partner B has a new initiative. Eventually the MOU’s expire and aren’t renewed or they are simply ignored. There is a positive even with this flawed partner staffing model. The benefit is exactly what Ms. Leader is trying to do. It’s a ton of work, but when done right, it allows something to exist that wouldn’t otherwise. In this case, a fully staffed office of a nonprofit without the nonprofit having to pay for it.
If you notice, this is one example of an area where the sense of déjà vu comes from. In the end it becomes a big cycle. New person comes in, finds a unique, but somewhat unsustainable solution to a systemic problem. They implement it, then as time goes by, it breaks down. Bringing it back to Ms. Leader, I really believe that she can pull it together. I think she’ll learn the partners, identify the most pressing of the services to address, and work with the community of agencies to fill the gaps. She can even let Ms. Complacent stay in her lane and do what she does best. The challenge is that Ms. Leader isn’t going to be around forever. As long as she’s there she’ll more than likely be the glue that holds it all together. But people move on from jobs. Eventually she’ll leave and without a strong structure in place to support the office from the parent nonprofit, it’ll eventually lose its partners and the system will go back to being the way it was when Ms. Leader first walked into it. Then a new Leader will be brought in to address some issues, and the cycle will begin anew.
Although I started with non-profits, this type of scenario also happens in the public sector. I saw it often with HR managers who kept being brought in at different companies. Usually there were personnel issues and the HR manager was given a mandate to change and was promised all the resources they needed to do it. Usually the big issue was that they couldn’t attract or retain enough people. It would typically take them just a few short months to understand that due to personality issues or corporate culture they would never have the resources, and because of that they could never expand the available population of workers. When I say ‘resources’ it’s a polite way of saying these companies weren’t paying enough. In addition the HR managers were not able to offset the pay with the things people would consider instead of a larger paycheck such as telework, or a good employer provided benefits package. That’s why I’d be brought in. I worked in workforce development and the only recourse for the beleaguered HR manager would be to reach out to the local agencies, and try to pack the top of their employee recruitment funnel. To use an analogy they were trying to put more water in a bucket than was leaking out of the bottom because they weren’t allowed to patch the hole. Eventually the HR manager would leave and a new one would take their place, and I’d get the call again. Rinse and repeat. I’ve seen it in other areas as well.
Organizational cycles exist and I just spent a great deal of time talking about something that most people reading this article or listening to my podcast understand. The unique twist to this commentary comes with longevity. As people change and cycles repeat, if you are one of the few people who’ve been around long enough to see the cycles you get to make a choice. The choice that most people make is to go through the motions. They see the cycle, they may comment on it, and they just go about their day. Admittedly I’ve done that before. I can think of one company in particular where I’d talk to the new HR manager every couple of years with the same problems. I could never say “This isn’t worth my time because you are never going to get anyone to work here until the company owner decides to stop treating people like dogs to be starved and whipped.” I have to admit that by the third or fourth time meeting with the company I really wanted to say something like that. All I could say was “Unless there is some cultural change, you may find it difficult to recruit from the available population.” In that situation, when putting in a ton of work would amount to nothing, I would give the HR manager some tasks that they needed to complete for me to do my job. The inside baseball here is that I had the option of going over and above, in effect doing the HR contact’s work to get things done for them with my agency, or I could follow the rules and let them do the stuff they were supposed to do themselves. For the ones who were new, and there was hope for a good outcome to their efforts, I would go that extra mile. For the ones who didn’t have any shot at change or success because of a systemic issue, I would follow the rules and let it drop. Sadly that’s a very jaded view and I don’t like a workday filled with pessimism. It’s one of the reasons why I left my old job.
Today, my goal is different. As I better understand the organizational cycles and systems around me I try to share it with all those who are affected by it but don’t quite realize it yet. That’s why I proactively reached out to Ms. Leader. I try to get people to understand the cycle they are in and to give them the options they need to get to some measure of success more quickly. I’ll also do it with new sales reps who call on me. I’ll take an hour or more to explain the system, and what they need to do to be successful. There have been times, once or twice in my career, where I’ve been close to the few decision makers who can make a substantial impact on the entire system. In effect these are people who can break the cycle. I’m happy to say I’ve had enough influence in at least once situation where I was able to hopefully change a broken cycle once and for all. Considering how many people were positively affected by that change, I believe these situations are some of the best accomplishments of my professional career.
Broken systems and their systemic cycles are never going to go away. Ultimately it all comes down to what you are going to do when professional déjà vu strikes. You could roll with the cycles like beach crabs deal with the tides. Hide in your hole when things are tough and only come out when things are good. To me that seems like an empty and unfulfilling way to live your life. I have chosen to take the time to help those around me who have become responsible for something affected by a cycle. I try to get them to recognize and understand their situation and assist with whatever their solutions are. If I can’t help them end the cycle, then I’ll at least help get from the tough part of it to the point where things are hopefully working better. Even if they don’t take my advice, there is one huge benefit to my assistance. No matter who I’m helping, they will never have to write up an MOU to get me to help out!