The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of the Inspector General went through some pretty traumatic years, struggling with wrong-fit leadership and a national scandal that brought both public shame and fierce Congressional scrutiny.
Their scars were practically visible, and the burdens left in the wake of the agency’s internal divisions made both domestic and international program oversight even more difficult than one would expect in a dynamic, cross-cultural environment.
The leadership team called me in to make an assessment, and to deliver a program geared toward shared expectations and advanced communication tools.
I made it clear that I actively resist using commercial program packages. Instead, I listened deeply and offered personalized tools to clear away some of the emotional clutter standing in the way of effective teamwork.
In the end, I provided one-on-one coaching for each member of the leadership team which helped to alleviate long-standing interpersonal hurts to clear and effective career changes for nearly half the team!
Congress appointed an Inspector General from outside AID, with primarily domestic experience, making for an interesting culture shift within the leadership team. The coping skills, more effective language, and tools for self-awareness the team members learned in coaching, made that transition much easier.
Villa Julie College went through a renaissance in the mid-2000s and reinvented itself as Stevenson University. Located in the Maryland countryside, a half hour from Baltimore, it is home to a diverse population in an exurban and politically conservative landscape.
When a racial slur was painted inside a campus elevator, I was called in to help relieve disturbing tensions.
Attendance for my seminar was voluntary so I was both surprised and gratified by the size of the crowd we drew on very short notice. There was a palpable air of crisis and stress, but the attendees were attentive, and my interactive presentation style solicited some quite frank and raw commentary.
The President, and members of his Board, were present and stood in sharp contrast to the student population but, they too, entered into the conversation that began in defensiveness and ended with a clearer understanding and actionable goals.
I was called in to do a ‘diversity’ workshop but I knew in my heart that was not the real need. I never used the word diversity, but together, we explored the depths and remedies for fear on both a personal and political level. Helping that group pull themselves out of a clichéd quagmire and move forward with deeper awareness, is one of my proudest moments.
Mindshare, Inc. was an award-winning, boutique digital public affairs agency that took the advocacy world by storm.
Their creative-genius leader came to me to assist in an annual event geared toward encouraging problem-solving outside normal parameters.
It was a caper!
On the surface, they were team-building games, but on a much deeper level, the events brought out natural leadership, uncovered deficits in loyalty and comprehension, and gave the staff the opportunity to see each other both as freestanding individuals and as partners in success.
Each caper was designed around a real-world crime such as a bank robbery, or an international credit card theft ring. Teams were given a set of locations, clues and background details. They were required to design a team identity, work together to solve the crime and to deliver a final report on the path they took to their conclusion.
While I helped with both the creative and logistical design of the events, my primary responsibilities were to closely observe each team’s process, serve as the honest judge of the outcomes based on team-work, creativity and legitimacy of conclusions (sometimes creativity won over accuracy) and to report on my assessment of individual staff competencies.
All of this was tremendous fun. The outcomes were extremely useful in making decisions about how best to support and grow the staff. And, I was charged to support, and sometimes rein in, unbounded, visionary leadership.
Imagine negotiating for support and services with every type of leader, from Governors to Mother Superiors and from farmers on tractors to captains of police. Now, imagine doing that with no money, no insurance, no cellphone and no computer. Now, imagine doing that 200+ times, along country roads and through city streets, while living in a tent that moves every day. Oh, and imagine doing that while herding between 250 and 1500 people of every socio-economic and philosophical stripe imaginable toward a singular goal.
That was The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament and I arranged for their walking route permits and for hundreds of spaces to park their trucks and pitch their tents.
As a leadership group, The Peace City government riffed on our own version of that old Army motto with: “It’s not just an adventure…it’s a JOB.” And, to be honest, I never want to work that hard again in my entire life.
It was a spectacular, and formative experience and through it, I learned to use my spine of steel for good. I had to adapt to any environment while promoting the community’s needs to often hostile authorities. This required a deep understanding of conflict while resolving endless conflicts and crushing goals at warp speed.
There are hundreds of stories from this epic journey and an unexpected benefit through all of it was discovering my ability to draw disparate thinkers together into focused accomplishments. 30 years on, I’m challenged to use that skill more than ever!
The National Science Foundation (NSF) straddles two worlds; government structure and scientific advancement. One is static and bottom-line oriented while the other pushes, by definition, against the boundaries of what is known. It is populated by a mixture of career civil servants and adventurers of both mind and body.
It is a fascinating environment of controlled chaos.
I was asked to address communication issues within the leadership team under a Director, who had been my boss at an arms control non-profit prior to taking her post at NSF. I was especially honored by her trust, given that our worldviews and communication styles were polar opposites.
The leadership team joined me for several events, but most notably, for a senior staff retreat dedicated to resolving the misunderstandings between program and management functions where the most often heard lament was, “People around here just don’t know what I do!”
Distrust had developed between individuals speaking very different functional languages while competing for scarce resources. Ironically, this organization dedicated to curiosity and exploration had ground to a halt at the top level when a heavy us-vs.-them dynamic took root.
Through extensive interviewing and creative program development, I was able to illustrate where energy was stuck, and to offer practical communication tools that helped lighten the atmosphere and bridge gaps in understanding.