012 Taking Problems and Turning Them into Opportunities – April Sawhill of the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan

May 23, 2017

Taking problems and turning them into opportunities

April Sawhill on the Concord Leaders PodcastApril Sawhill is the executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan. In this episode, you’ll learn about her approach to taking problems and turning them into opportunities – whether seeing for-profit organizations encroach on your space or even letting employees go. You’ll leave this short conversation with ways to turn a crisis into an opportunity to change your organization’s direction.

You can learn more about the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan at https://www.dsawm.org/.

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CLP012 April Sawhill – Taking Problems and Turning Them Into Opportunities (PDF)

Marc Pitman: Welcome to the Concord Leaders Podcast. I’m Marc Pitman, the CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today, our guest is April Sawhill, the executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan. April, I am so thrilled to have you here. Thanks for being a guest.

April Sawhill: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be invited on your show where you’ve had some pretty accomplished leaders, so I’m quite flattered. Thank you.

Marc Pitman: You’re welcome. Well, one of the things that I, working in the non-profit sectors for a while now, has seen is that some people become the executive director or CEO position working their way up through non-profits. Other people come in from related fields. How did you come to your leadership position?

April Sawhill: It was a little unique. I am a lawyer by trade. I focused primarily on commercial litigation and some pretty significant personal injury type work. I was a trial attorney, but throughout my career as an attorney, what I really loved most about it was helping others and working with my clients, particularly the ones who had been in some type of tragic accident or life event. I had served on non-profit boards. I had volunteered with boards and when the opportunity came up to lead a non-profit and especially this organization, which I really had a passion for individuals with intellectual disabilities, it really was a nice way to transition out of that more corporate structure into the non-profit arena.

Marc Pitman: That is such a cool, cool story. Let me ask you in the time that you’ve been the executive director, what do you enjoy most about leading?

April Sawhill: There are many things that I love about my job and I love about leading, but what really drew me to being an executive director and what I really loved even about being an attorney, was problem solving. I think good leaders are really good problem solvers and I have to deal with problems every day. Most leaders do, but especially in the non-profit world, we have a lot of things coming at us daily, whether it’s from our constituents, our staff, our donors and you have to deal with those problems and navigate those for your staff and for different people.

Marc Pitman: As I know from having talked with you before that some of those problems aren’t just the people that are associated with your non-profit necessarily, but there are also other forces in the marketplace that are other people that are trying to, for good or for ill, address … Either meet the needs of your population or address the issues that your typical donors and the people that you service are facing. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, there are for-profit companies that will do things that our non-profits typically service. There’s a whole different problem solving that needs to go in with that, different than just talking to donor or working with board members. Would you agree?

April Sawhill: Yeah, absolutely, and as a leader and as someone who’s looked to by your board of directors or even by your staff, setting the coarse for the organization or taking your leader from the board in terms of the strategic plan that they’ve put together for the organization and implementing that, you really have to be the one to navigate those problems and still present the face of the organization in a positive, seamless, really confident manner and I think that’s what a good leader does is they’re able to think the problems and turn them into opportunities and do that in a way that shows that they’re confident but also the organization is not … Their feathers aren’t ruffled by what’s going on and they’re able to just continue moving forward, I guess, in a strong manner.

Marc Pitman: That’s really good, that whole personal ownership, but not personal offense, necessarily as things are being done. I think that a lot. That’s cool. As we all know, we even talked about it here, leadership isn’t a bed of roses all the time. It is problems. What was a time that you faced a problem and how did you respond to it or resolve it?

April Sawhill: One thing that I have been faced with in this position that was new to me when I came in and something that isn’t talked about, I think, very frequently, but happens, it’s pretty common in non-profits, the executive director’s role as the human resources department and HR and having to either let someone go or what do you do when someone who’s really vital or important to the organization decides to go. I have struggled with that. When I first came in, I had an employee that … She was a really wonderful person and a great employee, but the job fit just wasn’t right. Trying to decide how do I, as the brand new leader of the organization, I don’t want to come in and just start letting people go, but we both knew that … She knew it too and helping her work through it and just having an open dialogue about it and trying to find an alternative solution. Could we place her in a different position? If that wasn’t going to work, could we place her with a different organization that still had a similar mission and fit her passion for the organization or the people that we were helping? That was a really difficult one.
The first few months that I was here, I lost a very key employee. She had been looking before I even came in. Our members really loved her. She worked directly with them. She had been here for over five years and in some respects, she was really kind of the face for a lot of people of the organization. To get that news and then have to deal with that was a little daunting at first, but we found our way through it and just going back to the problem solving again, taking a problem and turning it into an opportunity, it gave me the opportunity to say, “Okay, well, now that that individual’s leaving the position, do I want to just fill her shoes or do I want to change the position altogether? Is that position really the type of the job or employee that I need right now, five years later? How has the organization changed since she was hired five years ago and is that still what’s best for the organization?” What I ended up doing was actually changing the position into a different role.
That was good for the next person who came in because there was an understanding that this just wasn’t the replacement employee. She’s the new … Let’s say Beth. She’s the new Beth and she has to fit into this other person’s pair of shoes, who did it really successful and was really will liked. No, she got to go into a new position, own that position, make it her own. It was what was good for the organization, so it was what at the moment, when the employee told me, I thought was a crisis, really turned into a great opportunity to help change and steer the organization in a different direction.

Marc Pitman: April, that is so cool. Let me ask you. Well, I know that there’s a lot of non-profits that our sector and I don’t know versus if it’s the same way in the commercial sector or a for-profit sector, but in the non-profit sector, we have a hard time having those tough decisions, those tough conversations with someone who doesn’t fit. Earlier, I think it was the fourth episode of the Conquered Leaders Podcast, Daniel McCormack talked about having these types of conversations also. Like you, he said the employee tends to know that before we even talked to them. They know the writing’s on the wall. My question for you is if there is a person on staff that it’s just evident from your … Even if nobody else gets it, you can see that they’re not a good fit, but kind of adding to it, that long term employee feeling of they may have been a good fit five years ago, but the organization has shifted.
If there’s a leader facing that kind of situation where there are employees that were well-loved and highly functional for the job they were hired, but things have changed and that job isn’t need anymore. Any tips on how they may start having that conversation of moving them aside, because I love your perspective of is there a different position in the organization or is there a different organization that we can help. It seems like you really went alongside this other person. What would you say to another leader that was facing that?

April Sawhill: I think probably transparency is key and having an open dialogue. If you have to have the conversation, you have to talk about it. You can’t just have it come out of the blue. I guess you could, but I don’t think that’s very successful and you’ve got to think about the morale of your other employees and your other staff. You are going to be setting an example and you don’t want them thinking what this person transitions out, wow, is that going to happen to me? Am I the next person to go with no warning? You’re really showing others how you intend to treat your staff and treat your employees. I think it’s as simple as starting from the point of view of this is the mission of the organization and this is where we’re going, this new strategic plan set out by the board or this is what I’m noticing the trend has been. How do you feel about that? Where do you see yourself fitting within the organization? If we take this shift, how are you going to assist in that? What do you think your role would be and just having those conversations in a positive way. How do you think that you can contribute to that? Like you said, I think that if they can’t contribute to that or if they don’t see themselves fitting in with that, they’re going to realize that pretty quickly.

Marc Pitman: Something you said right at the end there, in a positive way, so as opposed to an accusatory, “Hey, you’re a misfit now.” But coming at it from I guess gratitude for the years that they’ve invested and wanting the best fit for them, but also knowing that the best fit for them may not be the best fit for the organization or may not be in the organization.

April Sawhill: Right, it’s hard not to make it personal or for them to take it personally. Of course, they’re going to. It’s their job. It’s what they’ve been doing, maybe something that they really love and think that they still have a passion or do have a passion for, but it’s just not the same way the organization is going, but I think the focus should be on you are talented, you do have a lot to offer. It just may not be best offered here anymore. How can we help you meet those needs and meet the needs of the organization? If they really have an interest in seeing the organization succeed and they have a passion for it and they’ve been with an organization long term, isn’t that really what they want for the organization as well, to have the best people in place.

Marc Pitman: Wow, I’m consistently surprised at how quickly these conversations go. Thank you so much for joining us. I think you’ve engaged people’s heads and hearts in your thoughts today. What would you recommend leaders just do if they’re to do just one thing after listening to this conversation?

April Sawhill: I would like for leaders to be truly accessible, not just say they have the open door policy, but … We have an open door, but please don’t walk through it.

Marc Pitman: Right.

April Sawhill: Really get to know their … Maybe in larger organizations, they really can’t get to know all of their employees, but they can make themselves accessible. They can really build the trust of their employees by spending time with them and not just leading on high, but more of this team mentality.

Marc Pitman: Wow, well, thank you so much for being a guest today, April. This has been great. I’ve taken lots of notes and I love some of the ideas of that being accessible and putting in the context of the rest of the conversation [inaudible 00:12:09]. It takes a certain amount of humility as a leader to be real and to be accessible in such an authentic way with the people that you report to and that report to you. Thanks for modeling that. Where could people find out more about your work, if they wanted to?

April Sawhill: They can go to our website, www.dsawm.org and they can learn generally just about Down Syndrome or they can learn specifically about what we do.

Marc Pitman: Terrific. Well, thanks so much and I know people are going to want to consult this conversation over and over again too. For those of you listening, this episode as with all the episodes of the Concord Leaders Podcast, can be found at www.concordleadershipgroup.com/podcasts. Until the next time, remember that healthy non-profits start with healthy leaders.

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