Ending a Program? Two Thoughts: Communication and Also Communication
State Government Photographer - The History Trust of South Australian, South Australian GovernmentPhoto <1>Object record <2>, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87186004
See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn't come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it's because their work is satisfactory. Their budget--another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities-- remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you'd call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn't actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.
I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It's not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who've demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what's going on? There's a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?
Admittedly, if you're in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals--whether it's a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee-- are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it's subtler than that. Maybe they're in the top spot or maybe they're launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing's for sure: over the long haul, they didn't get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you're not learning, and you're not getting better. You're autonomous, but you're also--deep down-- unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague's suggestions or your leader's directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it's not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn't ask for all that. And now we don't need it. And it's costing us money. True of course, but that's because they weren't actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.
So what should you do if you're asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?
Celebrate. Leaders don't give stretch assignments to losers.
Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you're still on track and driving in the lane?
Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
If people put you off by refusing to meet--they're too busy, there's a worldwide pandemic--set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you've accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
If you're not sure about something, ask questions.
And if you're a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?
Know what you don't know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it's cut?
If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what's happening. Your successors will thank you.
Find the documentation about performance. What's been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it's good to know them and their skill set.
Remember, if they've submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren't the problem so don't blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that's on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.
It's almost July. Be well. Stay cool.
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you're in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.