A Path Forward

When I think about who might serve as a point of resistance to the shared ownership work that I am trying to achieve, I first think of my colleagues.  There are 11 of us total at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.  Of those 11, four are part of our senior leadership team and hold the most decision making authority among staff.

The current state of our relationships is nuanced and complex.  I’m hesitant to name it all.  A piece of the complexity is due to four team members being let go and five new team members being on-boarded in the last 10 months, and all of that turnover occurring at the “bottom half” of our org chart while our senior leadership team remained intact.  I sense and feel some mistrust, fear, uncertainty, and stress in our interactions.  At the same time, our hearts seem in a similar place.  I feel like we are all committed to our mission and have a passion for the work at hand.

I am struggling through several layers of next steps.

Externally,

  • I want our Foundation to adopt a strategy and begin using our investments, time, and voice to move a shared ownership agenda in Arkansas.  
  • I want the creation and implementation of that strategy to “bake in” shared ownership and shared power and be done hand-in-hand with partners, grassroots leaders, and community members outside of foundation staff.
  • I have a sense of urgency but don’t want that urgency to be at the expense of inclusion and thoughtfulness

Internally,

  • I want us to adopt more empathy, trust, respect, and shared power with one another as staff in our interactions and decision-making
  • I want to dismantle, rather than perpetuate, white supremacy in the way I move forward and show up in these conversations
  • I want to be true to my vision and values while also allowing all involved to meaningfully contribute to and decide on a path forward

Empathy and Resistance

In empathizing with my colleagues on the “bottom half” of the org chart – the seven of us not on the senior leadership team – I think resistance could come from a number of things and would look different for each person.  Generally, I feel like my teammates would not be as resistant to the concept of a shared ownership agenda than the process. Resistance might come from a general belief that I “own” this body of work.  I attended this workshop.  I am the one writing this post.  So, I can’t pretend the inception point was us.  And consequently, the team might feel excluded from strategy creation.  They might also feel like, if this work moves forward, I might get credit in a somewhat siloed, high-stakes environment where there is a need to perform and for validation.  My colleagues might also generally feel fatigued.  Fatigued by the weight of this pandemic, by racial violence, by our organizational culture, by inauthentic power sharing.  That fatigue might rightfully make them less engaged, less patient, or more skeptical.  They might also not trust me.  Because I’ve been at the foundation longer than any of them.  Because I’m a privileged white woman.  Because people with those characteristics have often proven untrustworthy or hurtful.  My teammates might also feel skeptical of our ability to get buy-in from our senior leadership team or our board or that pushing this agenda might impact their individual relationships or effectiveness.

In empathizing with my four colleagues on the senior leadership team, resistance also varies by person. Generally, I think there is also a need to perform.  To have impact.  To transform systems for good.  To show our board we’re on the right path.  To feel innovative and ground-breaking.  To get closer to our goals than we ever have before and at a quicker pace.  To have philanthropy, policymakers, and others look to us.  To lead the way.  I sense there’s a dissatisfaction with how things have gone in the past and may be a sense that I might lead us in a similar, ineffective direction.  They may feel I don’t have their best interest in mind or that of the communities we seek to serve.  They may feel I lack experience or expertise.

What’s Next / Enrollment

  • I think I need to have a one-on-one conversation with our CEO.  Not necessarily a enrollment conversation in regards to shared ownership, but first an empathy and enrollment conversation between us as co-workers and regarding me as both a subordinate and a leader of my body of work.  I think there is some healing to do or, if not, at least some growth in our relationship. My vision is for her to trust and be excited by my ideas, to be excited to share hers, to be honest, open, and vulnerable about where she’s coming from, to feel safe, to create a more direct line of communication.  From that stance, I think we can more easily move forward a programmatic strategy together.  I don’t know how to have that conversation and welcome thoughts on things to say or questions to ask.
  • I want to share what I’ve learned in this workshop, begin a conversation, but, once begun, immediately give power to the team to facilitate, shape, ideate, define, and lead what happens next.  Through that process, I want to not only define an economic equity strategy (which I hope will be rooted in shared ownership), but also model a new internal way of being – a new way of nurturing ideas, of collaboration, of shared decision making, of relationship with one another.  I don’t know how to do this either and welcome thoughts on next steps.

I’ve scheduled time with our CEO next week and have weekly meetings with the “bottom-half-of-the-org-chart” team.  I welcome any thoughts or coaching on how to move forward in those spaces, what I’m missing, and also ongoing conversations to reflect and debrief afterwards.

5 thoughts on “A Path Forward

  1. Sarah, I appreciate this very nuanced and, in my experience, spot on explanation of the dynamics within a foundation. People on the outside think program staff have all this power, and the reality is a LOT more complicated. I noticed when I was at the Pew Trusts (20 years ago, my first real job), that in the absence of financial performance metrics (like sales number), there were two types of currency: ideas and information. Who has an idea? And who knows what? It ends up becoming incredibly political to advance a new idea as a “bottom half of the org chart” staff member.

    My question for you is, do you trust your CEO? If you are honest with her, will she use that information to support you, will it build mutual understanding that comes from vulnerability? Or will she use it to harm you, either emotionally or professionally?

    (Since you asked for advice) Could you start a book club /podcast party or other open discussion forum with your colleagues to engage them in the kinds of conversations we’ve been having these past few weeks without lecturing them? How can you take them on a journey like the one you’ve been on? A foundation I know read Decolonizing Wealth and Winners Take All together and discussed as a team. They are now a “teal” organization and really trying to live into some of the ideas they discovered together.

    I don’t have any answers, just colleagueship to offer. Let’s stay in touch.

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  2. Our nonprofit underwent a transition from a traditional hierarchical structure to a worker-self directed nonprofit, which started over a year ago, and which is entering its final phases as we redesign our compensation policy. We have implemented policies which we co-designed using SELC’s policies as a starting place. The SELC resources might come in handy as you think about moving to more shared leadership within your organization.

    In terms of the conversations you are looking to have and the culture shift you are looking to create, I think that your approach already sounds sensitive and wise. Perhaps having someone external to the org who you can bounce ideas off of might be helpful as you enter this multi-stage, “infinite” process. I am part of a group of five women in business that is a structured group to support us as we move forward in our lives and work. We use the EO framework (https://www.eonetwork.org/) although we have adapted it, and meet once a month. It has been enormously helpful and we will continue to meet forever I think! Perhaps you could build a similar group of people who are already interested on this type of transformative work to meet regularly – the value is in being able to try ideas on with people who care and who follow you through the inevitable ups and downs.

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  3. Thanks for sharing Sarah!
    I think your insights were incisive and telling; and personally I think you’ve answered a lot of your own questions/suggestions in your posts.

    You mentioned the fatigue that all of the teammates with less seniority might feel. That fatigue probably extends to upper management as well. It’s what stifles new ideas and the courage to take risk. It could also be a good place to start with your CEO in terms of naming it, asking her how she is experiencing the institutional fatigue and her own personal fatigue and then inviting her to co-create – whether that’s co-creating processes that encourage authentic power sharing or new ways of going about investment.

    A good way to share what you learned in the workshop would be to learn from your colleagues. You mentioned the power imbalance and distrust that many people feel. You could organize a session where attendees do power maps – which you can introduce – of the organization itself and talk about what the current leverage points are and where people want the future leverage points to be. You could also try having informal discussions posing the same questions that were posed to you during this workshop to your team members; that way teaching and learning with them at the same time.

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  4. Thank you Sarah for your insightful and candid analysis of the situation in your non-profit. One of the most powerful Italian politicians of the 60s and 70s famously said “power is stressful.. for those who don’t have it” There seems to be a very clear power dynamic at work in your organization highlighted by the increased perception of precarity among the staff who are not part of the senior team (probably hard to imagine any of them being let go!) as a result of the recent turnover. You also have some positional power within the “bottom half” of the organization in light of your longer tenure and experience at the foundation. I was wondering if you could practice with the new recruits the same type of power sharing you are hoping the senior team would engage in. Maybe, as Sharon suggested above, the sharing of information with the newer colleagues related to what you learned during this workshop would be a way to share your (knowledge-based) power with them and also potentially getting them excited about exploring the strategy especially if they feel this could be presented as a collective idea as opposed to Sarah’s idea. Reading Jennifer Bryan’s most recent post https://sharedownership.blog/2020/08/26/3-reasons-why-our-employee-ownership-center-will-fail/ suggested a possible application of Jack Dorsey’s strategy to your desire to enlist the power and resources of your foundation in support of a shared ownership agenda for Arkansas. You have effectively already started the process in this post by thinking about the possible obstacles to wide adoption of your idea within the foundation, and you have already started to find a solution to some. I feel very fortunate to be in your group at this workshop!

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