News: College Access & Success

Leading and Managing Through Uncertainty: Advice for Executive Directors

Monday, May 4, 2020  
Posted by: Colette Hadley, Director of Consulting Services
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Are you feeling a great deal of pressure after weeks of trying to lead an organization during unprecedented times? You’re not alone. A multitude of business and education blogs are full of cases and advice regarding the difficulty of coping during the COVID-19 crisis. The weight of managing daily operations and remaking strategies while looking out for the well-being of your coworkers can feel overwhelming.

This is also a very emotional period, with many of our colleagues, friends, and loved ones dealing with sickness, unemployment, financial stress, and a variety of challenges related to balancing work, school, and family responsibilities. Leading an agency during this time of uncertainty is likely to be the biggest professional trial that most executive directors will face in their career.

Although the global pandemic brought on by the coronavirus is vastly different than other crises we have encountered to date, some experts are finding links in how difficult it can be to lead and manage through this challenge by revisiting the Great Recession of 2008-09.

I clearly remember what it felt like to be responsible for leading a nonprofit college access and scholarship program during that time 12 years ago. I felt hopeless as we wrestled with heartbreaking personnel decisions and dramatically reduced programs at a time when students needed us more than ever. The financial stress was intense. All we heard was worsening news day after day, with millions of people hungry and out of work, and no end in sight. As bad as that seemed at the time, it has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Somehow we made it through the global recession, little by little. And we will eventually make it through this pandemic too. There will certainly be more trauma associated with COVID-19, and we will need to address that and adapt to very new ways of organizing and approaching our daily lives and routines. But taking into account what we observed in 2008-09, there may be a few items we learned then that could be helpful now.

First, whether you are directing a nonprofit organization, a district or school, a higher education institution program, a foundation, or an education association or network, experiencing a crisis doesn’t mean that the two primary principles of running an agency are set aside. Rather, the roles of leadership and management become even more important. Leadership is about inspiring and getting people to comprehend and believe in the vision you set for the organization and to work with you on achieving the agency goals. Management is more about administering and making sure the day-to-day activities are happening as they should.

Leadership and management are linked, complementary, and both are always needed to move an organization forward, during standard years or during unprecedented emergencies. This might be simultaneously, or in trade-off as the situation dictates. Even in crisis, we still need to find ways to inspire our team and to help guide the necessary operational decision making.

It might be hard to believe, but we are in a slightly different stage now than when the coronavirus was starting to make its impact in the U.S. in mid-to-late March. At that time, we were all reacting in a rush to move as many staff members as possible to remote work, keep people safe, and to adapt our program strategies and delivery to find ways of reaching and reassuring our students, partners, and donors. News updates move at lightning speed and we have already learned that we need to adapt as quickly as possible.

Now, only five weeks later, most organizations have moved from that first reaction to immediate pressing needs, and are now trying to further refine the organizational response, deal with the financial reality, support grieving colleagues, explore new workarounds and possible solutions, and develop strategies for the uncertain future.

For all of us, the future is both short-term – when public health improves and shelter-at-home regulations begin to ease and we might be able to gather and see students and donors in some in-person way – and long-term, such as making plans for how the agency will deliver on the mission in the future, and what changes in programs, finances, and administration might take hold and be adopted as permanent. Will our agency survive this ordeal and someday thrive again? We don’t all know the answer to this question, and need to make decisions as best we can with the information at hand.

As we do our best to lead and manage through this crisis, experts from a variety of nonprofit and education backgrounds offer valuable advice. Here is a brief summary of guidance and recommendations:

  • Aim for transparent communications.
    • Increase communication frequency at all levels, and ensure that lead messaging comes from the top executive.
    • Remember to include appropriate messages for all stakeholders – coworkers, administrators, volunteers, supporters, and donors.
    • Craft reassuring and honest messages, and maintain hope and a belief in a better future.
    • Practice deep listening, show compassion and flexibility, check in frequently on coworkers’ personal feelings and challenges.
  • Accept reality and make decisions.
    • Try to learn to cope with the unknowns. You will make some good decisions, and some decisions that you will change later on.
    • Prioritize and focus on immediate needs first to keep the agency functional.
    • Work as a team to revise systems to pivot service delivery for clients. Be open to new ideas and strategies from any team member.
    • Celebrate small wins along the way.
  • Reassess and innovate.
    • Begin planning for short- and long-term change.
    • Forecast financial impacts, and be creative when assessing possible revenue sources. Don’t be shy in asking for help from all sources. This is a crisis – act urgently and boldly, but not recklessly.
    • Deploy maximum flexibility when envisioning how internal business will be carried out and how service delivery for clients will occur.
    • Learn from this situation to eventually develop emergency response plans for future crisis situations.

Experienced leaders point out that severe emergencies can sometimes even inspire us to take greater action to address historical inequities. I like this quote from David Mansouri, president and CEO of the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, in a blog he wrote for The 74:

“The challenges and impact of this public health crisis are playing out all around us. One result of COVID-19 is its unbiased way of surfacing our education system’s vulnerabilities and gaps. It would be easy to get discouraged about what this will mean for education; but what if someone told us that the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, with all its current devastation on life, the economy, our schools and our daily routines, would also serve as a moment of awakening and transformation in how we deliver learning that prepares students for a lifetime of success? What if, in the year 2030, we look back to this moment, with all its negative impacts and consequences, as a game-changing opportunity to create a more equitable, student-centered education system across all of America?”

We all likely feel overwhelmed right now, and can’t do everything, let alone do it perfectly or on time. It is very difficult to look to the future while concentrating on a challenging present. But I have great faith in our leaders in the college access and success field to continue as champions for equity and progress.

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