This paper was written for CCE 576 (Leadership and Management of Educational Programs) to summarize an interview conducted for an Organizational Analysis assignment in July 2008, and appears below with citations clarified, minor writing edits, and with identifying information redacted.
I interviewed the Human Resources Director of an advocacy organization and confidential shelter for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition to advocacy and shelter services, this organization also offers a variety of education programs, including presentations at schools, public events and on the radio, as well as training for volunteers and staff.
According to my interview subject, the organization practices “feminist management,” which includes a focus on participatory management and offering opportunities for staff to provide input and be heard, even though the Executive Director has the final say. In the 1980s, the organization was run as a collective. It now has a hierarchy, but it still retains an underlying collective philosophy.
My interview subject reports that she once asked one of the organization founders if the collective structure had ever worked, and she was told that there were doubts even at the beginning. My interview subject believes that a collective is a problematic structure for organizations, especially as they become larger, and it is simply impossible to reach consensus on everything – she had spent some time researching this when issues arose at the organization. Her research suggested that collective organizations typically last about 20 years, and she sees this as a part of human nature that even when there is no named leadership, people will still rise and take over leadership roles, which can cause resentment in the collective and lead to its implosion.
My interview subject identified several leadership qualities as important for the organization. One of the main points she repeatedly described as critical to success are “interpersonal skills,” something she considers personality-driven rather than a set of skills that could be developed through training. She seems to echo the Kouzes & Posner (1995) characterization of leadership as the ‘art of mobilizing others towards shared aspirations,’ because much like an artist, there are many technical skills that can be taught, but there is a dimension of leadership that seems rooted in natural talent and inclinations.
My interview subject noted that the organization needs people with insight, a high degree of integrity, motivation skills and well-developed communication skills, and she listed these qualities as a contrast to the necessary technical skills (such as a thorough understanding of the law) that she considered obtainable through training. I’m not convinced that the qualities she seems to see as inborn and unresponsive to training are so out of reach for people who want to improve. For example, while emotional intelligence is treated as somewhat distinct from interpersonal skills by Whetten & Cameron (2007, p. 65), it is clear that improvements in emotional intelligence can foster improved interpersonal skills, particularly in the areas of emotional control and appropriate emotional responses (p. 65). In addition, self-confidence can be improved (Whetten & Cameron, 2007, p. 451), insight can be developed (p. 200), motivation skills can be improved (pp. 335-357), and people can become more supportive in their communication (p. 247).
My interview subject also told me about one of the trainings conducted for staff that seems to illustrate how interpersonal skills can be improved through training. The participants were asked to define various terms related to values, and it turned out that every participant had a different definition. The exercise dramatically facilitated an understanding that people interpret words and concepts differently, and led to an improved realization about the need to verify understandings and to make sure expectations were clear. My interview subject described the need to confirm understandings and expectations as a part of effective oral and writing skills, and the awareness that developed from the exercise seems exactly like the kinds of interpersonal skills she considers so valuable yet beyond her ability to control.
My interview subject also said that it is critical to be able to work with diverse populations and cultures. For example, they have an Asian Culture Outreach program that has a different structure and different outreach channels that are tailored to specific needs and cultural issues. There is also a Cultural Advocacy Committee that meets once a month to discuss recruitment, the expansion of services and outreach, and to develop plans to promote diversity and cultural competency. She said that the organization has to respond effectively to a generalized mistrust of the white population that exists in various cultures, and this is a key part of effective outreach and recruitment of staff. “Cultural competency” is another good example of interpersonal skills that can be improved with training that raises awareness about other cultures.
In contrast to my interview subject’s perception of interpersonal skills, Whetten & Cameron (2007) highlight the importance of interpersonal skills and then focus on the central aspect of communication skills. Whetten & Cameron (2007) describe a series of strategies to improve these skills (pp. 243, 246-248), which emphasizes the potential for growth in these skills. I recommended the Whetten & Cameron book to my interview subject during the interview and she expressed a lot of interest in my description of its focus on the issues she identified as problematic for the organization.
Staff development activities at the organization currently include a book club for supervisors, and they are currently reading a book entitled “Breaking All the Rules.” My interview subject wants to increase training about how to be a supervisor, but seems to have difficulty with the assumption that interpersonal skills are innate and would not improve with training. She appears to recognize a source of dysfunction in the organization but then appears to conclude that it cannot be improved without raising the salaries. She seem to limit herself with what Whetten & Cameron (2007) describe as a “conceptual block” (p. 187), which leads to the consideration of a narrow range of options for the improvement of interpersonal skills. The Whetten & Cameron (2007) materials note how the problem-solving process requires a wide search for information and that it is necessary to use far more than opinion or speculation to effectively define the problem (p. 179). My interview subject appears to use some speculation and opinion to define the problem, and now appears to have difficulty generating alternatives (p. 180) for possible responses.
It also appears possible that my interview subject may not be empowered with a sense of self-efficacy when it comes to addressing the need to improve interpersonal skills in employees (Whetten & Cameron, 2007, p. 451), because she did not seem to have any confidence that she could facilitate improvements.
My interview subject described her role as being “a resource to the boss,” and said it was a “tricky” position because there is a need to avoid “triangulation” and to avoid undermining the supervisor. She said that she would avoid triangulation between an employee and their supervisor by making the appropriate referral of the employee to their supervisor when appropriate, and said that this is a critical skill to work effectively with supervisors and other employees and volunteers. Making her role clear and maintaining appropriate boundaries appear to be an integral part of her management style.
The organization has a strategic plan that was last updated in Jan 2008. My interview subject said that planning for every program includes looking at the strategic plan and evaluating how it relates to the goals of the organization. Detailed action plans are included, as well as performance measures with benchmarks and targets. She considers the performance measures to be a critical part of the strategic plan, and this echoes Whetten & Cameron’s discussion about motivating others (Chapter 6) and the need to establish clear performance expectations (2007, p. 338). Overall, the use of the strategic plan by the organization confirms the wisdom in the Yogi Berra quote offered by the Hon. John F. Daffron in his discussion of Futures Planning, that “if you don’t know where you are going, you might end up somewhere else.” (Daffron, 2008).
A major goal of the organization is fundraising and the issue of the need for financial resources came up several times in the interview. According to my interview subject, a major issue facing the organization is the salary. She believes that people tend to work for the organization because they have a passion for the work, even though they could make more money elsewhere, but also sees the salary creating a difficulty with attracting and retaining talented staff. The organization could exert more control over its ability to hire and retain staff by allocating its resources differently. As for the organization’s ability to inspire staff, the main problem appears to be that no amount of inspiration will pay the bills.
The organization has three staff that form a development team, which takes a huge responsibility from the Executive Director. The Executive Director is still closely involved in the process but isn’t the one trying to write all the grants, which my interview subject considers an “insane” thing for an Executive Director to have to do. The organization decided that the investment in the development team staff will pay off, and the broad array of funding sources, 30 paid staff and 70 volunteers seems to confirm that. There is also some delegation of roles that the organization might otherwise handle to other community organizations.
Overall, I learned a lot from this interview and I was impressed with how the strategic plan guides the overall development of the organization as it works to fulfill its mission “to strive to stop sexual and domestic violence and advocate for personal and societal change through crisis intervention and education.” This is very difficult work and it is clear that the strategic plan is a source of strength for this organization.
Daffron, J.F. (2008). Futures Planning. CCE576 Week 5 Guest Speaker – Interactive session online.
Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (1995). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Whetten, D.A. & Cameron, K.S. (2007.) Developing Management Skills (7th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall