CLP005 Wendy Rohrbacher – Acting Anyway (PDF)
Marc: Welcome to the Concord Leaders Podcast, I’m Marc Pitman, the CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today our guest is Wendy Rohrbacher, the Executive Director of the Hospice of the Northwest Foundation. Wendy and I have interacted a number of times over the last couple of years, marginally in conjunction with the non-profit storytelling conference. Wendy, I’m thrilled to have you on the show today.
Wendy: Thanks, thanks very much.
Marc: I got to interview you at the non-profit leadership conference last year, I’ve got to hear a little bit about your work. As an Executive Director, I’d love to know what do you love about leading?
Wendy: I think what I love about this job is it requires me to do something different everyday. I think there’s so much different talent tools that I have to dip into, different knowledge that I have to know, learn or figure out, it never gets boring. I think that’s my favorite part of it. I also really find that this process of constantly learning means I’m interacting with staff all the time, learning from them, using what they know to increase my knowledge, to make the decisions that are going to get us into the next step or the next level where we need to be.
Marc: Interesting. I think that’s huge to see you as an Executive Director, a coach often find that, especially new ones to leadership, find that the expertise that got them there. There used to be the question answers and now they need to be the question askers. Was that a hard transition for you to do or do you find that throws your staff off when you’re always learning? Do they respond well to that?
Wendy: I think that’s a process I learned as I learned about leadership, as I learned how to take on the CEO role. I’m a much different leader now than I was six, sever or maybe even five, three years ago. Learning how to synthesize your staff’s needs and their knowledge into the decisions that I make was a process for me. I felt as a young leader that I was supposed to know everything, that would be weak of me to admit I didn’t know something or ask for input and help on things. That was a frightening place to be when I was a young leader. I think it was a bumpy road for me to get here where I feel very comfortable.
Now, I’m saying “You know what? What are your thoughts on this? What do you guys think we should be? How would you guys approach this problem?” Really let their knowledge shine and help direct those decisions.
Marc: As you’ve done that, that’s such a great transformation and you expressed it so well, all of us, as regarding leadership, come to realize that’s actually a strength, not a weakness. It’s almost the impostor syndrome or the don’t look at the mirror behind the curtain when you first become a leader. You think you’re the wizard of Oz, you want to have that kind of shocking appeal, but you’re really just kind of making up as you go too. Maybe with a little more of experience. Do you find staff respond well to that or was that a transition you needed to help them get through too? You’re not always having the answers, but you’re trying to get back on that and getting their input, honestly getting their input.
Wendy: I think they respond well to it. I think it engages them in a different level. I think they feel like they’re part of the process and they get ownership over the direction of the organization, over the decisions that we make to accomplish our mission. They have buy in to that. It also helps them if things start to go slightly off the track or we see a road block ahead, I think it helps them recognize that and discuss it a little more, because it was a process all of us talked about, there’s no blame, I guess, there’s no “Oh, well, somebody made this decision and now it didn’t work” it’s a “you know what, we tried that guys, let’s try this now”.
I just think it gives them a sense of inclusion that I don’t feel I really ever had when I was lower down in the ranks, I think I was often just candid “We’re going to do this now” and that’s what we did. It’s very hard to feel like I was part of that process.
Marc: That’s powerful. You mentioned roadblocks and the question I always ask is we know that leadership isn’t always a bed of roses, what was the time that you experienced a challenge and what did you do to deal with it?
Wendy: I think one of the most recent challenges for me, I’ve been in this position for 4 years, I think most leaders have the same experience where you come into a new organization and they’ve been doing something the same way for years and years and years. You as a new fresh set of eyes can see that this is just not working and it needs to change. Especially, for me, the example I have was their Beloved Annual Gala Event trying to make some very drastic changes to that was incredibly challenging, they did not want to do it, it was very personal, for someone at the board, some of the trustees, even some of the staff, because they were so invested in doing it that way for the past 15 years. To suggest something that basically really changed it …
Marc: Share with everyone what that big suggestion was, the one that I’m thinking anyway.
Wendy: About getting rid of the silent auction?
Marc: Yes, I think oxygen just sucked out of all the rooms and listeners right now, they’re like [crosstalk 00:05:55].
Wendy: I killed the silent auction and I have to tell you they were married to that silent auction, they really didn’t want to let it go, I understood what they were saying to me, it just the data didn’t back it up, I think that their perception of it and the reality of it were not in alliance. When I started bringing this up, I was met with a lot of resistance, I think for any Executive Director who’s new, who has a new board of 15, 20 people, who are essentially their boss, that can be a scary place to be, it can be a really difficult place to be, trying to get everybody on that same page. I wasn’t able to do it the first year, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it the first year, but I just kind of bit it off in little tiny chunks.
The way I approached this was to just stay on track with my message and give them as much data as I possibly could. After every event I presented them the data on what that silent auction really was bringing in or adding to the whole of the event. As several years went by and I kept talking to them about our need to be more mission focused and how we need to bring more of our mission into our event, I think gradually, some of the people in the room were going “Oh, I see”. It was a slow process, it was glacial, which was difficult for me because I started off three years ago going “That’s got to go, how do I change that?”. To have to keep dealing with it, through three more events until I could have enough data to finally say “No more, here’s what this costs us, if your direction to me is to continue this I will, but we’re going to spend this much money to bring somebody else in to manage it, here’s why that data works.”
I just flooded them, I gave them so many charts and spreadsheets. I included for the first time they were seeing what staff and volunteer time costs to manage that part of it, they hadn’t really thought of how that was pulling the staff out and how we weren’t able to make sure that we had the right people on the room. One of the harder things, this is a very scary thing to say out loud in a board room, I don’t know I’m [inaudible 00:08:28]. I think we all want to be inclusive, we all want to think that we’re here for everybody, especially when we’re talking about our donors, we value the 10 dollar gift as much as we value a 10 million dollar gift.
We want to make sure that every gift is appreciated. But I would get board members who would say to me “you know, my friend only has 50 dollars, if we don’t have a silent auction what will they do?” My response was always “If your friend only has 50 dollars, why wouldn’t they raise their paddle at 50 dollars, why do I have to sell them something at 50 dollars? If they have to buy something with their 50 dollars we’re not doing a very good job as a non-profit, engaging them at what we do.”
It was scary, to a larger extent I said to the board member “Maybe our event isn’t the place for somebody with 50 dollars, maybe there’s a different event that we do like coffee hour, open house, our walk that we do that would be more appropriate for that person, maybe you want to think about finding somebody else to fill that slot at your table who have more than 50 dollars” that was another scary thing to say and I was starting to talk to them about audience development and how do you do that and matching the right donor to the right event.
Marc: What good information you have, there’s so much here that I know people are going to want to listen to this over and over, what one piece of advice that you could give to some listeners today that they do right now after they finish their, at least, their first time through listening to this, what would you suggest they do?
Wendy: I think for me, the best piece of advice I’ve ever had, I have no idea where this came from, I’m sure some famous person said it, that every leader gets scared and a great leader acts anyway. I really took that one to heart. Because some of the decisions, some of the things we do are scary, change is scary, change in direction of organizations can be scary, starting new programs is scary, losing a giant funder is scary. I think that what makes a leader really good is to say “yeah, I’m scared, but act anyway”, use that fear and continue going forward. Don’t let it paralyze you.
Marc: Wendy, thank you so much, I am thrilled that you were able to be on this and I know that this is going to be one of our most listened to sessions because you are right, there would be no need for courage if there were no fears. Courage is moving through fear. It’s not the absence of fear, is pushing through it. That’s really good.
Everybody listening to this now, if want to refer other people to it, this and all the other episodes of the Concord Leaders Podcast, can be found at https://concordleadershipgroup.com/podcast/. Thanks so much for being here with me.
Wendy: Thanks so much for having me, it was fun.
Marc: Until next time, remember, healthy non-profits start with healthy leaders.