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Change Leadership in Change-Averse Times

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Association staffers have weathered a host of challenges in recent years. Leaders shouldn’t shy away from making necessary reorganizations. But, as two executives explain, it’s important to tread carefully.

When Natasha L. Rankin, MBA, CAE, became CEO of the Irrigation Association in 2022, she knew she’d have to make some changes. IA still hadn’t settled on a policy around remote and hybrid work, and anxiety among the 20-person staff was high.

“I had to assume that I was starting out with a negative balance of trust,” she said.

Rankin’s first step in her role as change agent was to both get and deliver clarity around her new staff. She developed an onboarding plan to the board that meticulously tracked what she wanted to accomplish in her first 30, 60, and 90 days on the job, and how she would communicate her goals to staff. Much of that involved one-on-one communication with employees.

Rankin learned that IA was heavily siloed: staffers understood what projects they were working on, but not how they related to other departments or strategic goals. Rankin also noticed that internal communication was often disorganized, with too many work messages circulating off-hours and on weekends.

So, she started relatively small, setting guidelines for staff on what qualified as urgent communication. “My thought was, I want people to be able to bring their best selves to their role,” she said. “And that means giving them opportunities to disconnect.”

With the temperature lowered somewhat on a day-to-day basis, Rankin could more confidently pursue more complex organizational changes. Part of that process meant redefining staff roles, which meant consistent communication about what work would need to be done and who would be doing it.

“It’s been an ongoing education process of creating awareness, giving examples, and showing people the positive impact by them experiencing it, product by product,” she said.

Handling what needed doing was managed in tandem with how it would be done. IA established clear criteria around remote and in-person work. “It was a way of saying that we’re removing the arbitrary from the table when it comes to what your workplace is going to look like,” Rankin said. “These are the criteria we use, and if there’s a change, we’re going to have a discussion about the rationale about that.”

I’m a believer that the more preparation we can do for supervisors, the better off the organization is going to be, because that’s where the staff are going to go when they have a question.”—Rhea Steele, ODCP, FASAE, CAE, School Nutrition Association

Middle (Change) Management

The School Nutrition Association has been facing a similar period of anxiety following the pandemic. During the early months of COVID-19, SNA was forced to lay off staff members for financial reasons. Then, in 2021, the board announced plans for a reorganization to bolster its digital strategy and to improve relationships with industry members and allied organizations. The staff was understandably tense.

SNA leadership offered reassurance that the reorganization would involve staffing up, not further downsizing. But a key part of the process’ success was making sure the changes weren’t delivered in a top-down manner, said Rhea M. Steele, ODCP, FASAE, CAE, chief of staff and VP of strategy and governance at SNA. Department leaders were trained in how each job role would be changed or affected, what professional development would be required, and how the changes would be communicated.

“A lot of times organizations focus their communication on the senior level,” Steele said. “But I’m a believer that the more preparation we can do for supervisors, the better off the organization is going to be, because that’s where the staff are going to go when they have a question.”

The plan has worked well thus far: Steele said that no staff members have left because of the reorganization, new hires were brought on, and a number were promoted. Throughout the change, it’s conducted regular pulse surveys to monitor the staff’s mood.

“We’re seeing a reduction in the overall stress levels of staff,” she said. “There was some anxiety around ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ But we communicated, and what we heard was that even if they were uncomfortable with it, it made sense.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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