Little did I realize what I was getting into when I was offered my first managerial job after three years in the Peace Corps and graduate school – chief operating officer of a large but quite troubled local nonprofit providing a wide range of educational and job training services. Talk about a challenging situation, especially for a guy not yet 30 years old! This relatively new nonprofit was on the verge of closing down because of a threatened removal of Federal funding due to a history of mismanagement. My COO position had been created to provide oversight of a consultant-recommended comprehensive management improvement program, reporting to the young CEO, who’d only been on the job for a year or so.
Staff morale was naturally at rock-bottom. Anxiety and fear were rife. And the management improvements I’d been hired to implement were anything but a welcome solution. Indeed, most staff apparently believed that the major outcome would be their replacement by more qualified managers.
Although Ben, the CEO and my boss, wouldn’t have used the term, he stepped up to the plate soon after my arrival on the scene to play what I call the “Demystifier-in-Chief” role to the hilt, while I held the fort on the administrative front. At a series of departmental staff meetings at headquarters, Ben explained how our nonprofit had ended up in this dire situation, walked through the consultant-recommended management improvements line-by-line, and answered any and all questions. He also traveled around the city meeting with the staff of the several sub-contractor organizations whose continued existence depended on funding from our nonprofit. Ben enthusiastically played the Demystifier-in-Chief role virtually full-time for a couple of months, until he was confident that the great majority of staff at headquarters and in our contractor organizations thoroughly understood the problems we had to deal with and the remedial steps we needed to take, and that people were calmed down enough to get to work saving our organization.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons from this experience that have served me well since then as both a nonprofit executive and eventually a CEO adviser and coach. First, in times of rapid organizational change and crisis, when many if not most staff can’t firmly grasp what is happening, fear can too easily take hold, making them feel like victims of mysterious forces beyond their understanding and control. Such ignorance-based fear can be paralyzing and consequently worsen an already negative situation. Second, my CEO Ben taught me how important it is for the chief executive to don the Demystifier-in-Chief hat in these situations. No one else in your organization has the stature to play the role, which the really extraordinary CEOs I’ve come across over the years embrace with gusto.
Perhaps the all-time master Demystifier-in-Chief in our country’s history was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who employed his wildly popular radio “fireside chats” to educate and calm citizens during the national catastrophe we know as the Great Depression. As historian David Kennedy observes in his outstanding history of the era, Freedom From Fear, FDR “soothed the nervous nation.” But as Ben and countless other nonprofit CEOs have amply demonstrated, you don’t need to be President of the United States to serve as a highly effective Demystifier-in-Chief. And if you aspire to be a truly extraordinary leader, you’ve got no choice but to embrace the role when circumstances call for it. If you, the CEO, don’t, no one will.
I would love to hear from our readers about their experience as Demystifiers-in-Chief in their organizations.