Rebecca Masisak

24 November, 2015

Which managers in your CSO will make or break the success of your strategic change initiatives?

Be_The_Change_Report_Large_UploadIn early 2015 the International Civil Society Centre launched the Building an Organisational Culture of Change working group, bringing together 23 civil society leaders and experts for an exciting research project. Exploring the transformation that international civil society organisations (ICSOs) must undertake to adapt to disruption, the group developed an outline of a culture that embraces change and identified concrete steps towards establishing such a culture specifically in ICSOs. The results appear in the recently released Be the Change report. Rebecca Masisak was a member of the working group, and writes below about how the report’s messaging relates to her experience as CEO of TechSoup.

Disruption in society, business and government circles creates new opportunities for civil society organisations (CSOs) to look for innovative ways to meet their mission objectives.  Missions remain fairly constant – to create lasting solutions to poverty or to stop human rights abuses – but the programs and activities that CSOs undertake to meet their missions must change and adapt.  We work in times when the ‘shelf life’ of a program or approach may not extend beyond an initial grant or may need to continuously demonstrate extra measures of innovation to get attention in a crowded space;  Think ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’.  Meaningful impact for many societal needs may not be possible from such approaches.  The success of the most effective new strategies may often depend highly on effective execution.  And culture will be the ‘hard to see’ but ‘critical to get right’ factor in effective execution.

According to researchers at Harvard – a brilliant strategy or breakthrough idea can grab attention, but only solid execution can keep you on top.  It is necessary to be able to deliver on intent.  Important strategic and operational decisions must be quickly translated into action.  Successful execution will be the result of many decisions made every day by employees acting according to the information they have.  And organisational culture is the atmosphere in which every day decisions are carried out.  But when it comes to CSOs, there is often a layer of management made up of long-term employees who are loyal to the CSO and who identify with the organisation’s mission more than its strategy.  These middle managers may see themselves as holding the executive management accountable to the mission.  But such middle managers can sink a CSOs ability to succeed at its new strategies.  All while genuinely feeling that they are operating in the best interests of the organisation.

How can senior management effect cultural change with middle management?  First, by making an explicit component of your strategic direction a focus on the need for a new approach to fulfilling on your mission.  This will raise awareness and open mindsets.  Also, an intentional focus on the middle management layer as a special audience will pay off.  Planning special time, attention and support.  Frequent direct exposure to the strategic view that senior management understands, not just in the functional area that middle managers operate in, but for the enterprise overall can help.  It is imperative to take special measures to ensure middle managers have an external view, an ‘outside in’ perspective.  ‘Skip level’ meetings – checking in directly with the staff who depend on managers in the middle to guide them will help identify areas for course correction – if needed.  Observing signs of cross-silo connections, particularly for groups that are working on less exciting or more traditional program areas, will be important.  Where middle managers are holding your CSOs transformation or change initiatives back, if left unattended, can seriously jeopardise success.

A large technology team in our organisation was led by a very popular and charismatic middle manager who expressed loud and often to his staff his viewpoints, which often differed from senior management’s.

He often justified his ideas by directly linking them to our organisation’s mission and justified his actions as always driven by what was best for our mission.  In truth, he was setting his own strategy for the organisation and hindering the execution of the senior management’s own strategy, the board approved strategy.  When long term strategic improvement initiatives that his team was responsible for delivering got months behind schedule and senior management’s efforts to track progress and remove obstacles proved difficult, the middle management layer blamed senior management for the lack of results.  The camaraderie of the team was high but they were operating as an island and ensuring their own failure, ironically, as well as seriously hampering the organisation’s success.  Due to middle management’s leadership approach, the group had a strong culture that not only differed dramatically from the overall organisation’s culture but also went directly against the culture required for change.

Setting winning strategies and executing well against them requires middle managers who are truly ‘on board’, with excellent upward communications that help keep senior management on track.  A middle management layer that feels supported and senior managers that feel supported by the managers below them will find themselves working in a culture that is conducive to change.  An environment that is fun and full of meaningful results.

If you find that any of the long-term, loyal middle managers cannot create the cultural environment necessary for success after a few months of embarking on a change initiative, it might be worth considering separation or transfer strategies, where possible.  Nothing is more important for CSOs than carrying out truly mission-critical work; therefore, CSOs cannot afford to be overly patient with blockers to cultural change, no matter how well-intended.  The strategy that truly supports the mission is the one that all staff must adopt.

Want more? Watch the project video by Christoph J. Kellner:

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