WHAT THE FUNDRAISING

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EPISODE 11: Leadership, Culture, and Building Organizations for Impact with Avary Kent

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“There’s a lot of paradigms that a leader has to shift if they’re going to really implement the kind of culture that supports people to thrive, and that helps to build that foundation of psychological safety.”

 AVARY KENT
Episode #11

Overview

In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to serial social entrepreneur and consultant, Avary Kent. Since the pandemic, Avary has focused on a very important topic: mental and emotional wellbeing for business leaders. 

In this conversation, we dive deep into how to build a healthy organizational culture and improve leaders’ mental health. Do you feel psychological safety in your work environment? 

Many people do not. So, we are asking why and how have we dehumanized professional roles? Is the nonprofit world mining people for their passion and then having them work for peanuts? And how does this impact our work and effectiveness? 

There are so many important questions and conversation points in this interview. 

Join us in this conversation where Avary drops the truth on power dynamics and how it is urgent to change paradigms in our work culture today! 

Avary Kent is a serial social entrepreneur and consultant, Since the pandemic, Avary has focused on a very important topic, mental and emotional wellbeing for business leaders. 

Avary’s work returns the humanness to people in leadership roles and reminds us of their needs as parents, advocates, workers, and individuals who have a whole lot on their plate.

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NON PROFIT SHOUTOUT

Conveners.org

Building a strong ecosystem of support is often undervalued and underappreciated.  I love Conveners.org because they are building communities of trust and support for both conveners and accelerators.  Their members are supporting thousands of change-makers working to build a thriving world.  When I support Conveners.org, I know I’m making a difference globally and across every issue area, from eliminating poverty and hunger to improving education and combating climate change.

episode transcript

Mallory: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s episode. I’m so excited to have you here with someone that I really admire, Avery Kent. We are going to be having an exciting conversation about business culture and mental health. She has so much wisdom to share in all of these different areas. So Avery, let’s just start with you introducing yourself and giving us a little background on your history and what brings you to this moment and to this conversation today.

Avary: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure to participate in this conversation. So my name is Avery Kent. I am a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started five different companies that have run the gamut from media for-profits to consumer products companies, to community spaces, and most recently a global association of conferences and accelerators that was a nonprofit.

And through that process, I’ve also really been through the spectrum around mental health, wellbeing, and self-care. I think for many folks after the incredible disruptions that COVID-19 imposed on all of us, that the regulations imposed at all, it feels like there’s this moment now where we can talk about mental health and wellbeing and resilience without the same stigma that I know I personally experienced earlier in my career that made it very challenging to find support and to find connection and to feel like I wasn’t alone in my burnout or in my blow-ups with my co-founders or anything like that.

Mallory: Yeah, it’s really amazing how we feel the same way that I really had no place to ever talk about burnout, that there was this real acceptance of hustle culture being a value of effective leadership. And that there wasn’t a lot of space to talk about the ways in which it was actually detrimental. I remember thinking at some point, like, why am I [00:02:00] struggling so much to take care of my staff?

And then I was like, “Oh, perhaps it has something to do with the way that I am working”. And just looking at that big mirror on my own experience too. 

Avary: Yeah, that cult of “busy” is extremely pervasive, and I found for many folks that it ended up bleeding over into their personal lives as well. And really seeing that as this badge of honor, instead of seeing it as a symptom of something being fundamentally broken. 

And both as a business leader, how do you hold up that well being for yourself? But also modeling that culture for your team. And I think there’s a generational shift that’s happening around that as well that I’ve seen in a lot of different things I’ve read around a rejection of this nine to five or nine to six, just somehow being a body in the seat is worthy of praise versus being a sign of inefficiency.

And what does it mean to just do your work, do it well, do it within a flexible time scheme? There’s a lot of paradigms that a leader has to shift if they’re going to really implement the kind of culture that supports people to thrive, and that helps to build that foundation of psychological safety.

Mallory: So I love that. So talk to us about that. What are some of those paradigms? 

Avary: Absolutely. Psychological safety is a concept that comes up over and over again, both in the peer-reviewed academic literature, but also in just articles in Fast Company or Inkle you’ll see this kind of come up time and time again.

And it comes back to this idea of, do you feel safe or comfortable disagreeing with leadership? Do you feel safe or comfortable naming early if you think you’re not going to be able to achieve or complete or finish a project or a task? Do you feel safe asking for help? And that can be viewed through one paradigm which is a very narrow lens of purely within the business context.

I check my personal life at the door, I show up and now maybe I feel safe, naming that I’ve got too much on my plate, and so I’m not going to get that concept note written for example or did that article reviewed. But do I feel safe naming, “Hey, actually, my grandmother’s in the hospital right now and my child is sick with the flu and I don’t know how I’m going to juggle all that and do all of this”.

That’s a very different level of transparency and of sharing. And it’s one that I feel a lot of organizations were forced into grappling with throughout 2020 because everybody was now working from home. And people were getting sick and these were things that you couldn’t check it at the door, there was no door! 

And so I think that’s a part of the paradigm shift. And I think the other part is a pretty significant shift away from seeing employees as just interchangeable parts that honestly goes all the way back to the industrial revolution. To really seeing employees as partners and knowledge workers and relationship holders and folks who are contributing their full selves and their full creativity.

And we in many ways, especially where I’m based in Silicon Valley, worship disruption and innovation, but you cannot fundamentally have innovation if you don’t have psychological safety. Because the default becomes saying yes to authority saying yes to power even if you don’t think it’s a good idea or if you have information that is pertinent, you don’t share that because you don’t feel safe sharing it or you don’t have a reason to or a container to.

And I think a part of this paradigm shift is if we really want to be innovative, if you want your organization to be at the forefront and therefore also to be financially viable and successful, there have to be ways to hear the hard truth or to hear multiple perspectives that maybe go counter to your assumptions that you’re walking into it with.

Mallory: Yeah. I love that. And I think what you’re talking about in terms of nonprofit leaders, in particular, is such an astute point around disruption and innovation, which the nonprofit sector in many ways, same with the startup world and everything, but is really tasked with solving these massive problems that exist for nonprofits in particular in this scarcity framework that doesn’t create a lot of safety period, definitely not psychological safety. And so then they find themselves in this continual hamster wheel of how do we create the space where our brains can even solve the problem in front of us, but everything about our daily operating procedure is in direct conflict with what we’re asking our brains to do.

Avary: And this may be a bit of a tangent, but a lot of my work has also been around effective philanthropy, and how do we support nonprofits in receiving funds, especially grants in a way that’s less painful. And one of the things that comes up around that is the fundamental disconnect between this philanthropic focus on efficiency and reducing overhead, and the kind of pervasiveness that ends up happening in the nonprofit sector of mining people for their paths.

For some reason, the sense I have, if I’m wrong please correct, but the sense I have is that a lot of times we expect that if you are doing something that is deeply mission-aligned or deeply connected to your personal passion, that means you’re supposed to sacrifice your salary to do that and that you’re supposed to work for peanuts because of that. And there’s a deeper value system there that I think fundamentally contributes to what I believe is the larger pervasiveness of burnout in the nonprofit or social sector where folks are being pushed because they believe their work matters so much.

They don’t want to let down their constituents. They don’t want to let down their team. They don’t want to let down the cause. And so they’ll power through without really having space to restore and space to get that energy back. And it’s not just about increased financial compensation, it’s also about companies having the resourcing where people are being asked to do the work of three humans. Where someone taking vacation days is celebrated, not scorned, or where as a new parent, you could actually take time off to be with your kid.

I took five weeks off and ended up having to come back cause there was a bit of a financial crisis. And that was extremely difficult to navigate and something I’ve seen coming up on different women’s founder’s groups I’m a part of on Facebook of new moms who are also founders asking that question of like, “How am I supposed to do this?” 

Cause you can’t predict the impact on your health, your sleep, your focus, your clarity of thought until you’ve actually had a kid. And yet your company’s your baby too, so how do you nurture both at the same time? 

Mallory: Totally. And I think so much about what you just said that I think is really important. That overhead conversation certainly sets a tone for the value of people. I had another conversation recently with someone talking about inner safety, you’re talking about psychological safety within culture and organizations, but then this person was talking about inner safety. How do we feel safe in ourselves too, and how do we protect ourselves through boundaries? 

And then I think about these leaders in the nonprofit sector, who are you being asked to work for nowhere near enough because their heartstrings are being tugged at and their mission alignment is being I don’t know if manipulated is the right word, but really being leveraged to suck as much from these people as possible. And then they’re not supposed to feel offended when they hear that someone doesn’t want to give to overhead, which is essentially devaluing their work. It’s so complicated. 

And I feel like there’s this constant tug on “We need you to care a lot right now when it comes to what you’re going to produce for us, but don’t care too much later because that wasn’t personal what we said next”. And it’s this truly emotional rollercoaster, and then in the midst of this, we’re asking nonprofit leaders to set up these thriving cultures and I found it to be almost an impossible task with the competing pieces around me. 

Avary: And I’ve found with that idea of a thriving culture, there are a few different pillars to it. I believe it always starts with the individual. It starts with the leader and your personal alignment. Are you clear on what you need to physically be healthy? Are you clear on what you need to emotionally be supported? Are you clear on what you need to intellectually be stimulated and curious? And spiritually, are you feeling connected to some form of higher purpose? Whatever that might be. 

And what I have personally found as a leader over and over again, was this very deep isolation where it wasn’t safe to be honest to my board because I needed them to believe in me. It wasn’t safe to be honest with the team because I needed them to not be riding the roller coaster of uncertainty. That was my everyday experience. Definitely, it wasn’t safe to be honest with my members or my community.

So much of building any organization for-profit or nonprofit is a little bit of a confidence game, right? People have to believe in you and have to believe that you’re going to be successful to unlock the resources and the programs and relationships and all the things that you need to genuinely thrive.

And I think oftentimes being honest about the stress, about the tool on sleep, the toll on eating behaviors, the toll on your physical exercise, the toll on your personal relationships can very much be seen as undermining that confidence. That’s why a very important program to me and something that I’ve been really curious to pilot is this idea of nonclinical peer support.

What does it mean to have access to other business leaders who’ve been there? Who’ve had those experiences and to have a confidential container where you can be honest about those roller coasters and where you can ask for help. 

And this is, fortunately, something that I’m really excited to be piloting with Kaiser Permanente. Our thriving leaders circles will be running this summer, and it’s an opportunity for small cohorts of 10 to 12 business leaders to come together and have that space to just be honest with each other and to build that sense of shared experience. And I think that alone can do a lot to combat that sense of stigma and the sense of isolation that happens when you’re looking at just like the individual wellbeing of a leader.

Mallory: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I totally agree. When I was an executive director, I got invited to participate in a young executive director cohort. It was game-changing for me because you’re right, especially for the executive director, but I also think the development directors fall into this a little bit too, especially in organizations where there’s one of them, where they feel really isolated, they feel like, “Can I be totally open with my executive director around my fear around these numbers? Can I talk to the board about this thing? Should I share that piece with the donors? Who are your people?” And then I find that those continue then to perpetuate the fear, as opposed to just saying “Actually here’s this thing that just always feels scary.”

I have never seen an organization without doing some very specific work around it, just totally set back “Oh, yeah, like we’re good. It’s just going to keep rolling in like this”.There is this thing you care about that you love so much that you believe so strongly in there is always and baked in a sector fueled by language around scarcity. There’s always this feeling of will it still be there? Is there enough for everyone? 

And so many of those things, when we think about how they relate to the tactical numbers in our bank account, versus the things we feel inside. Is there enough time for me to exercise and work? Is there enough time for me to be a mom and a business owner? All of those scarcity principles, they just feed on each other. 

Avary: Absolutely. And they compound each other. There are things that you are asked to do as a founder or a business leader, or even as a development director, because it’s tied fundamentally to bringing in the resourcing that pays everyone else’s salaries, that there is a level of responsibility you hold for everyone else’s financial goals, personal situation, life standing. When you hear from somebody, “Hey, my family is going through X, Y, and Z. I need to be able to support this family member”. Of course, you want to say great, “Let’s give you that raise, let’s enable that so we don’t lose you”. 

But because of the very nature of the structure of how nonprofits get funded, you don’t get multi-year grants, you don’t get enough unrestricted funding. You don’t have the power to show someone that they’re valuable in that way. And that feels so absolutely inverse to what I’ve seen in the venture capital field. That’s the only time where I’ve seen somebody come in and say “Oh, I need a million dollars for this”, and the investors go, “Actually you need 1.7 to be comfortable cause I know I don’t want you coming back and asking me for money in six months”, or “you need that because you’re not going to get the best marketing director you can find at that salary, you need to be able to pay more”.

And if we approached philanthropy with that kind of mindset, that efficiency actually is your responsibility That if you want to achieve the impact, attracting the best talent, maintaining the talent, being able to commit to long-term plans and programs and the relationships that are deeply entwined in those and that at the end of the day, that will help the underlying mental health of the organization.

Talking about paradigm shifts, that to me would be absolutely game-changing if we saw that kind of change. And that’s not even accounting, especially I think about stories I heard from folks over this last year of how emotionally impactful it was to have to lay people off. It’s almost like it’s one thing if you’re firing somebody for poor performance, cause like you can make the argument that like this isn’t a good fit dah. But when you’re laying someone off, just because you can’t pay them, that is gut-wrenching. 

There’s almost no support provided to the leaders or managers who are having to go through, it’s also obviously gut-wrenching to receive that news too, I’m not trying to minimize. The impact for people who’ve lost their jobs, but there is also a psychological toll for the person who has to make that decision and then implement it. And I think that’s some of the places where there’s a lack of empathy or a lack of understanding for all the things that business leaders have to hold, that makes it different. And when I am saying business, I am absolutely including nonprofit leaders. Your tax status is irrelevant, you are having to run a functional organization that can survive and thrive and grow. So I think those are other elements that ended up getting buried or covered up and can increase that sense of isolation we talked about earlier. 

Mallory: Yeah. I could not agree with all of that more. So I feel like there are growing bodies of research around this whole person. We watch like Adam Grant talking about these types of things constantly, and yet still this massive disconnect between organizations big and small being able to implement “best practices”.

If we know, and if studies are showing that innovation and creativity are being tapped off, when we treat people in certain ways or create certain structures within organizations, what’s the barrier, what is holding people back from being able to adopt some of these paradigm shifts? 

Avary: I think it depends on where you are in your organization’s development. There are very different challenges if you are starting a new organization with a new team, then if you’ve got a legacy organization with 25 or 50 years of history, and the in-between. I think there are also challenges depending on size and scale, but given those parameters, I think when you’re looking at any kind of legacy organization, you’re fundamentally running into a behavior change and culture change issue.

Organizational development folks have been focused on this for decades. Getting people to change an entrenched culture is extremely difficult and we rarely prioritize or allocate the time. And the level of conversation necessary to unmask some of the behaviors and incentives that are why people are doing things the way they’re doing currently.

We also very rarely I think have the courage to change management. What’s the phrase? People don’t quit a job, they quit a bad manager. Oftentimes a lot of the cultural signaling comes from middle management or leadership about whether or not it’s safe to disagree, whether or not it’s safe to ask what you need flex time-wise, whether or not it’s safe to take off work if you’re genuinely. Can you take a sick day? Can you take a mental health day? Or can you take a vacation day? 

All that gets very subtly coded in culture, and if there isn’t a clear process and facilitated mechanism for talking about that and maybe even changing leadership or management, if they’re not aligning to the new culture, things change on paper without actually really changing the practices.

And I think that’s very different than when you’re in startup culture, for either a new nonprofit or for profit. Where yes, there’s a lot of creativity and flexibility to create, but there is similar pressure that it’s seen as luxurious to make the time. And I, that is an intentional language choice. I often say making the time versus taking the time, right?

Because you need to choose to make the time to have those conversations about structure and process. And I’m a huge fan of Tuckman’s model of small group development that I learned in grad school, of forming, storming, norming, and performing. And that all teams go through this and oftentimes storming can either break a team or it’s that point that teaches them how to start creating norms and processes and clear expectations and containers for feedback and all the things that bring them into what high performance is.

And I think a lot of startups come in with the myth that you can just start high-performing out of the gate. And it’s a myth!  And storming doesn’t have to be a breakpoint depending on emotional intelligence, and communication. I always think back when I was starting Conveners.org that I worked with Topher Wilkins, it was his baby and I was coming in like, “Yeah, I’ve got this network of accelerators. Let’s do this together”. 

And there was a point where I was going to do my first call with a community member where he wasn’t present. He was just being quiet and standoffish, and finally, I was just like, “It’s over, what’s going on? Are you afraid of something happening?” 

And he was like “Yeah. You’re going to mess this up”. And I was like, “Okay, thank you for being honest about that. What if we practice? What if I pretend you’re this person and I’m going to deliver the thing the way I would if you were them. How does that feel?” He was like “Okay, let’s try it”. We did it. And then after it was just like, “Oh, you got this. I don’t have to be afraid anymore”. And like storming can be as small as that, just naming a discomfort or a fear and like then saying, “Cool. Now we can get creative about how we address that fear”. 

Mallory: Oh my gosh. I’m so obsessed with that story. And I just want to add that I think this is such a critical part of fundraising fears because I talk a lot about this in terms of our ability that one of the most important things an executive director could do with their fundraising team is to talk about people’s discomfort and fears of fundraising.

Because as long as we perpetuate, and I believed this for so long, that because I was nervous because I got that pit in my stomach that I must be bad at it, that there was no way that the good fundraisers felt the way that I felt, I was sure it was just me. And so I’m constantly saying the more that you can talk about this being an incredibly natural part of the vulnerability of talking about money moving in this way in particular. Which is in the opposite direction that we typically think about money moving, in terms of buying a product or something like that. I just think it exactly what you said, when that can be talked about the entire conversation, the creativity around fundraising campaigns and different conversations with donors, it just opens up so much more possibility, so much more opportunity than if we’re dealing with that we’re in that fear-based state that no one can talk about, and there’s just that tension in the room. 

And I also just want to call out for folks who are listening, the bravery that you had in saying, “I’m noticing this dynamic in our relationship right now, what’s up”. And for folks to really encourage them. We know how scary that is, but to find ways to say it. I’ve said to bosses too, “I can tell that there’s some nervousness around this. Could we talk about that?” Or, “I would really love to invite you to share with me how you’re feeling about this upcoming meeting and I’m prepared to hear whatever it is that you’re thinking. I want to make sure we can go into it, knowing where each other is at”. 

Avary: And I think there’s a piece of when you’re starting an organization or leading an organization, it’s quite probable that you’re coming in because you have a lot of expertise or skill sets in that specific area. Maybe you know a lot about clean water, and that’s why you’ve risen to the top of this organization, or you started this organization. I know a lot about education, it doesn’t mean that you’ve actually gone through education or training about facilitation, organizational development, about critical thinking…

Those are pieces that I think it’s sometimes assumed that leaders just have but quite probably, that’s not something that they ever actually got access to in their education. And maybe they were lucky and maybe they had a mentor earlier in their career who taught them those things, but that’s not their expertise. So I think there’s a double standard sometimes where we expect leaders to come in and know how to facilitate these kinds of conversations or know what kind of productivity containers to use. But we never really taught them how to do that. 

And so one of the tools that I’ve used in various contexts that I’ve found really helpful, there’s a whole arsenal of them, but knowing and understanding when there is a deep power imbalance that is in place. And how do you use facilitation techniques to disrupt that power and balance?

Because the truth is that conversation with Topher could have caught a totally different way. I could have said, “Hey, I’m noticing this”. And he could have just said, “No”. That was just as probable of an outcome of that statement. And so tools like conversation mapping or anything that enables anonymous collection of what people are thinking or feeling about a topic, and then you share that and you talk about that as a group.  That is a really powerful technique to free people from fear of repercussions, for being honest about their experience. So that’s one technique, it obviously works best with slightly larger groups so that you aren’t doing the detective work to be like, “Oh, Amy said this”, but that is one technique for disrupting power dynamics..

Another one was… my friend Julie when she was a new media venture, she was the one who told me about this concept called 10, 10, 10. And it was a feedback container that she was using with her teams, where they had a recurring weekly 30-minute meeting. And the first 10 minutes were for the employee to just share anything that was up for them ideally things that were not working. Then 10 minutes for the manager to share what they were observing with, not respond, but to just share their things. And then 10 minutes to talk about what the resolution was. 

And there were a few pieces in that design that were really meaningful. One was the every-week piece because even if you missed one week, it was happening frequently enough that nothing had a chance to fester. There wasn’t a chance for somebody to start spinning out their own narrative, and assumptions, and things because it wasn’t being addressed. Like you talked about it a while ago, it was still really fresh. 

The second was having it blocked on the calendar because oftentimes I’ve heard leaders talk about having an open-door policy, you can come in anytime. And that’s not acknowledging the power dynamic at play. And that puts a lot of burden on your team members to have to take that first step, get the meeting scheduled, to talk about something that’s fundamentally going to be uncomfortable. And so if that block of time is just always there, you’ve removed that power dynamic.

And then the third is how shockingly, a lot of times folks just want to be heard. And that sometimes the resolution is you need to change your process or shift away from working together. But a lot of times it’s just, “I just needed to know you heard me and that you knew that this was up, or I just needed an apology or something.” Like that can be so quickly addressed. So those are two specific facilitation kinds of containers or techniques. 

And another one that I always tell leaders is to never underestimate the power of appreciation. It costs you nothing to pay attention to and give specific personalized kudos to people that you work with. And that will go so far in setting that psychological safety and in setting the filling people’s cups. One of the things that we hope for is that people will assume the best intent from others on the team. And a lot of time dysfunction and stuff spins out of the narrative you’re telling yourself is that this person meant something bad versus it was a mistake or it was just miscommunication or something else.

And if you want people to assume the best intent, appreciation, and visibility, not just top-down, but across the team, goes so far in just creating that buffer and that emotional resilience. 

Mallory: Oh, I love that. All of those are great and we’ll make sure that there are links below this episode so folks can find resources and you, and all of those different tools because they’re phenomenal.

I want to go back to something you said at the very beginning of this, where we were talking about the paradigms and then, thinking about COVID-19 and this disruption to paradigms and potentially this opportunity to rethink some of the paradigms. Because we’ve been forced to do so when you were talking about all those ways in which paradigms are institutionalized via management or bureaucracy or funding streams or anything, but over the last year-plus, we have been forced, all of us at every level, to do things differently. I can’t think is there anyone who didn’t have to do something fundamentally different throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? I am sure there is, but I just can’t think of it.

So what does that mean? What are you thinking about are some of the primary paradigms that we now have the opportunity to discuss? I know one of them, we mentioned briefly before this, was around parenting and I’d love to talk about that. Let’s just go back there for a while.

Avary: Yeah, I would say that three of the paradigms that come to mind, one is parenting, and the blending of that balance. I think the second is actually about trust and autonomy and embedded in that is this idea of flexible time. And I would say the third is about proximity. 

And so starting with parenting, I’m a parent of an almost four-year-old. I gave birth while actively running an organization, went through a super painful contraction, right after giving birth, where I had to lay off team members financially. It was very difficult. Had to build back up from there. And I’ve also had employees multiple employees who’ve given birth. And how do you manage maternity leave or parental leave as the case may be?

And I actually am thinking of this NPR story that I was listening to two days ago where someone was talking about “I’ve been picking my child up from school every day at three. I don’t want to give that up. And if you make me go back into the office and work from there, that might be a deal-breaker to me.” And I think as business leaders recognizing your need for control. Actually going to undermine your ability to keep the best talent, because I think it will ultimately, and I think there is a conversation to have intentionally with your team about what has worked for them about virtall and what hasn’t and not just saying it’s all or nothing.

What hybrid looks like for one company is going to be very different from what it looks like for another company. And so I don’t think it is about best practice. I think it’s about intentional conversation and asking the questions and not being afraid to give space for folks to come up with creative solutions and improv tools like “yes and” can be really helpful in that process.

And I think also as parents this question of when and how do you make space to bring in your personal experiences into the workplace in a way that still feels professional, but also feels connective. I think a lot of folks have gotten used to like folks, kids jumping on video calls and saying hi in a way that obviously would never happen in a meeting, but that’s not a bad thing, that’s not a downside for folks to actually feel connected to one another and to know and ask questions about someone’s life, that’s what actually builds a lot of the comradery underpinning, and that’s what leads into this trust question. 

A lot of old-school managers in my view want nine to five because they want to keep an eye on you as if people aren’t messing around on Facebook and doing other stuff on their laptops. Just cause their butt is in the seat, it doesn’t mean they’re being productive. That doesn’t mean that you are having that control, it’s an illusion, right? And so I think if leaders can confront that illusion part and step back from that a little bit because a lot of organizations have found in their own internal studies that actually productivity has gone up with work from home, not down, that’s not true for every industry or field, but know what’s appropriate to your industry, to your field, to your organization. 

And I think that trust piece ends up coming back to having that conversation. What is actually enhanced when we’re together? Social time is really valuable, there’s a lot that comes out of that, that you can’t manufacture in a pre scheduled zoom call, or brainstorming meetings or strategic planning meetings, or there are certain types of meetings where it is actually really helpful to be in a room together to be playing with space and getting out of this tiny little box that does limit your thinking because it’s small.

Maybe we need the whole wall. Maybe we need to walk around together. And so I think naming that and knowing when and how those need to be deployed can be really valuable.

And then I think coming into the third is about looking at the paradigm of almost like how we make decisions. Is it top-down, which feeds back to the trust? Is it you telling everyone what’s best? Or is it creating those containers in those spaces? For everyone to contribute their ideas and to do that “yes, and-ing and, to build off of one another? Because that ends up being a lot of that root of innovation.

The human relations association, one of the studies that they came out with was speaking to how many people are planning to leave their jobs. A lot of folks hunker down and stuff that they didn’t love because they had to, and as the economy starts to come back and things start to improve, it comes back to like people leaving bad managers and not bad jobs. And so that ownership as a leader of your own wellbeing and of creating space for your team to have that.

Also has just a valuable business case to it. Turnover is expensive. Hiring new people is expensive. And if you’re talking about development where relationships are the heart and soul of it, it is expensive. Even if you’re not bought into the hippy rudeness of well-being, and self-love and all that stuff, for just the pure financial security of your organization, unleashing productivity or not incurring these heavy costs that can come down because your culture isn’t supporting your team. That just makes business sense regardless of the tax status.

Mallory: And something that I love, and I feel like you really model this type of thinking in  a lot of what you do is that you’re always asking curious questions from a what’s working perspective too. I think one of the things that’s happening, even with the research about productivity over the last year, is a lot of people are falling back into “this has always been the way it’s done”. 

But you’re bringing up so many important points. Like even when you were talking about kids coming in on calls. I think before the pandemic, many of us would have said it’s unprofessional to have a child interrupt a phone call with a donor. We would’ve just thought that. 

Avary: Think about the viral video of yours on BBC and the kids coming in. And we thought that it was just….

Mallory: Outrageous! We were like, “How embarrassing!”. Exactly. I was thinking about that when you were telling this story, this outrageous moment was a kid breaking through the door while he is delivering the weather.

But it’s so interesting because part of that, I think I’m just actually processing this right now,  is because we have, and that goes into everything that you’re talking about and everything that you’re working on, we have dehumanized professional roles to need to sit in a box where they aren’t connected to these other components of our lives.

And that’s often what makes us feel isolated and alone and afraid and all of these different things. And yes, there were tremendous challenges over the last year plus from a parenting perspective and childcare perspective. I have a two-year-old and we didn’t have childcare for five months when she decided to start walking, and, we were running around the house, 

My husband would work for half the day undisturb, and then we’d switch the baby half the day through and there was still crying and screaming and banging in the background and feeling like we weren’t good at either thing, that I wasn’t giving my daughter the attention when I was with her and working till 11:00 PM with frozen peas stuck to my feet some days. Yes, those things were really hard, and there are many things that I found about myself as a working mom that I love, that I don’t want to give away.

This belief system shifted for me around compartmentalization that I somehow believed that to be better where like my daughter did sit on my lap in donor meetings or client meetings. And it was so beautiful and me and the donor got to talk about motherhood and rights. All these things. And so I think what you’re asking us all to do that I’m just doing right now on this call is to say, what are the beliefs that we’ve been holding to be true about work culture, about ourselves as leaders, where did they come from? And maybe we don’t even need to know that, but maybe we do in some situations, but let’s challenge whether or not they’re true with really open minds and asking, what else have we seen? What else works? What else might be possible? 

Avary: And are they still serving you? Yeah. A lot of times we develop these ideas and beliefs. I was actually talking to a fellow board member today about childhood trauma. Our childhood trauma influences how we show up with employees or show up with board members and being able to feel safe enough to name some of that and be like, “Yeah. And I developed those coping mechanisms because they served me then. But do they still serve me now? I don’t know. Maybe”. 

But that also helps when you understand where or why someone reacts or responds the way they do, especially in a distributed team. And I feel like, in some ways, boards have been doing this a lot longer because very often boards are distributed even if a team is in a centralized location. 

And there are those real questions of do we assume positive or from other board members? Do we assume competence? How do we receive respect? How do we perceive respect? What does trust mean? And so those are a lot of things that we’re working through as a board right now. Another tool that I will shamelessly plug is the Thomas Killman conflict mode assessment. That’s a tool that I experienced for the first time in grad school and I have used it in almost every single organization I’ve been a part of because it gives you a model for understanding conflict. 

I think culturally, we innately have a connotation that conflict is bad. It means you’re fighting. And the reality is there’s this thing called productive conflict. And then if you want innovation, if you want disruption, you have to be able to disagree and not have that result in personal harm, but actually results in a better idea. And so they map it along degrees of assertiveness and degrees of cooperation. 

And part of what I love about this model is that it never demonizes any of the modes. It really names, there is a time and a place where avoidance is actually the right strategy versus collaborating versus cooperating with each other versus competing versus accommodating . That there’s a time and a place where each of these is actually the right response. And if we only put one up on a pedestal, that collaborating is the be-all end- all of the servant leadership and all this stuff, it removes your ability to name actually collaboration takes a huge amount of time, a huge amount of resources. To do it well, it requires a significant skill set around facilitation and it means your organization can’t move quickly. If that’s how every decision is going to be made. And there’s a time and a place where hierarchy and authority, like not authoritarianism, but like a clear line of authority is actually what’s needed.

And I think sometimes in the non-profit space, I see such an allergic reaction to hierarchical for-profit business structures. Everything needs to be collaboration or compromise. And no, actually sometimes you need to just know how and when to make a decision quickly and to move forward. And folks just need to be clear on that process so they can expect it. 

And so that’s another tool and this idea of being productive, then you really start to be high-performance and I think that’s true at board levels. I think that’s true between leadership and boards. I think that’s true between leadership and employees and between employees. Each level needs to understand when and how they can engage in conflict in a way that’s going to be additive and supportive and not disruptive.

Mallory: Oh my gosh. This has been amazing. I feel like we all just got a 101 in creating, thriving cultures in our organizations and our businesses. I wish I could have listened to this before I was an ED, or before I was a managing director.

So I’m so grateful for you sharing this amount of wisdom. And we will definitely link to a number of resources below as well, but also I want to make sure that folks can find you. So where can they find you? 

Avary: Absolutely, LinkedIn is the best. I’m very blessed that actually I’m the only Avery Kent  on the planet. So my SEO is just naturally awesome.

But yeah, LinkedIn, I always appreciate folks reaching out and little LinkedIn tip, don’t just click connect, leave a note to say why you want to connect with somebody and you’re more likely to get a response. 

Mallory: Who knew you were going to get that tip here too!

Avary: So LinkedIn is definitely the best for me. Definitely, my passion is how to support us as a community as we’re moving through this transition. And how do we make sure we are building intentionally the culture and the organizations that we want to succeed and to create impact in and not just defaulting to what was. How do we do this in a way that can unleash hopefully the new normal or the next thing, the next paradigm for business?

Mallory: Wow. Yes. Okay. People find Avery, bring her into your organizations. I hope folks use this conversation as a conversation starter with their boards of directors and with their staff, that they use this as a catalyst to have some of these harder, bigger conversations and utilize the tools they need in order to create that psychological safety for themselves and then their teams.

And I’m always just so grateful for you. So thank you for joining me. 

Avary: Thank you for having me.

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