When your long-time executive director departs unexpectedly, what should you do? While this is not a situation any nonprofit hopes to find itself in, it happens all too often.
When Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC) suddenly found itself without its executive director in late 2021, staff were thrust into uncharted and stressful territory, and the board faced a new and unexpected challenge. From an overdue budget to staff issues to legal concerns, everything was happening everywhere, all at once. A recently-formed staff management team quickly assumed the bulk of the executive director’s responsibilities, and an ad hoc board committee began meeting weekly to manage the complex organization-wide issues TREC was facing.
And that could have been it: overstressed staff and board members running too hard, too long, until a new executive director could be hastily hired.
But TREC chose to walk a different path: instead of reacting and letting our sense of urgency drive us, we paused. We took a moment amidst the chaos to consider where and how we might leverage this unexpected opportunity to try something new, in service to our values. (Yes, it took work to reframe what could have been a crisis into an opportunity, but it was worth it!) The majority-BIPOC board hired a BIPOC interim executive director with an express commitment to building stronger structures and policies around equity and inclusion. We also hired a BIPOC DEI consultant to work in parallel with our Interim ED and tend to TREC’s structure and culture in a thoughtful, holistic manner. Out of a rocky, unexpected leadership transition, our team forged a path forward that moved us toward our values and dreams and embedded equity more deeply into TREC’s culture, policies and structure.
Now, nearly a year into this transition, we are officially moving to our new organizational structure and welcoming in new executive leadership, both of which will support us to live even further into our mission to amplify the innate capacity of individuals, organizations, and networks by providing inclusive, responsive, holistic, and in-depth capacity-building services. We are committed to continuing to live into our commitments to serve our clients with the intention and care that we’ve always centered, but with an even deeper focus on inclusion and equity. We know this is how we will best achieve our vision of having leaders, organizations, and diverse networks collaborating to support the well-being and interconnectedness of Western North America’s lands, peoples, and animals.
In service to supporting all of you who may also be facing transitions, we are sharing our journey. So, what exactly are we doing?
- Moving into a New Distributed Leadership Structure that Unlocks the Wisdom of our Staff
Upon arriving at TREC, the top priorities for our interim executive director, Ananda Valenzuela, were to tend to staff morale and to help the organization determine its long-term structure. From Ananda’s perspective, building a healthy culture is more important than having the perfect structure, so he moved quickly to facilitate a board-staff workshop that supported folks in self-assessing how they wanted to hold power and make decisions. This intensive, yet time-limited approach built strong buy-in and resulted in an organizational restructuring on a six-month timeline.
Where did TREC end up? Because of the nature of TREC’s mission and staff, it became clear that the team wanted to shift from a classic hierarchy to a more distributed leadership structure, with power being placed directly in the hands of folks across the organization based on their roles and expertise. While there are many beautiful and effective organizational structures, this particular structure was the best fit for TREC.
This restructuring has resulted in the following organizational chart for TREC:
Looking to the environment and world we seek to support, TREC developed an organizational chart that reflects our values: a lotus flower blooming represents our clients and our work to support them, the rich soil held gently by human hands represents our operations team and their work to nourish all of us, and the pollinators surrounding the image suggest the essential role of our co-directors in attending to all the parts.
In the end, this restructuring is not dramatic; staff’s roles have mostly stayed the same, but often their level of power & responsibility has deepened, and we have deepened the collaboration between our coaches, leadership faculty, and consultants.
And while our organizational restructuring is the most visible change we made, and most likely what folks externally will comment on, the culture work has been far more crucial to our transformation.
2. Welcoming Our New Co-Executive Directors, April Nishimura and Kristi Chester Vance
When we chose to move to a distributed leadership structure, we knew we wanted to start by accessing the wisdom that already existed on our team. Our interim ED interviewed each team member to better understand their desired role in the organization and who they wanted to see in leadership, and used feedback that to propose a structure that supported each person’s growth in the direction that best fit their talents and passions. TREC was incredibly fortunate that this process resulted in two long-time members of our staff and board choosing to step into co-leadership.
These individuals were seen by their peers as wise, talented, values-aligned leaders who were trusted to hold the complexities of organizational strategy and steer TREC in the right direction. And TREC was so lucky that they both said yes to this enthusiastic invitation to lead!
Kristi Chester Vance will be taking the lead on organizational strategy, programming, and communications for TREC. She will also continue to work directly with our clients through our leadership program and coaching.
April Nishimura will be taking the lead on organizational culture, operations, network building, and thought leadership for TREC. In addition, April will also provide executive coaching services to TREC clients.
We are excited to embrace partnership, accountability, and transparency at the most senior level of the organization. While each of our two co-executive directors hold decision-making power over distinct realms of executive leadership, many decisions are in the hands of other staff, who use the Advice Process to make decisions well.
3. Growing a Nourishing Culture that Centers Our Values
In most organizations, if staff are asked whether they often give and receive feedback directly to their peers, their honest answer is “no.” Organizational development consultants regularly encourage staff to improve their feedback skills, but giving feedback is just one part of the larger puzzle of healthy organizational cultures. If staff don’t feel safe and supported in giving direct feedback, if that feedback is not being celebrated, or if senior leaders don’t welcome and act on challenging feedback, then the organizational commitment to giving feedback doesn’t “stick.” And giving feedback is a muscle. If it’s not regularly worked, it atrophies. So, while many organizations aspirationally talk about being a “learning organization,” the lived experience doesn’t tend to match that.
TREC was no different, and this disconnect between the DEI values we espoused versus the lived reality was causing harm.
To address this disconnect, TREC hired Sapna Sopori to facilitate deep culture work, centering equity and inclusion in a year-long arc that invited staff into deep reflection, building on past work of reading books like An Indigenous People’s History of the United States and How To Be An Anti-Racist. Staff shifted into an action orientation, delving into questions such as: “What are TREC’s values?” “What does it mean to live into those values intrapersonally, interpersonally, and organizationally?” and “What does it NOT look like?” Those iterative conversations were interwoven with a proactive modeling of this culture shift, starting with senior leadership. Actions speak louder than words: from undertaking healing processes to heal old hurts to proactively supporting BIPOC staff in their leadership development, TREC thoughtfully moved in a healthier direction. And beautifully, one of the core values TREC has committed to is “Joy,” which is now being woven into our cultural fabric to ensure that TREC’s long-term arc will be a joyful one.
While the work of this past year is what we are celebrating here, it is built on many, many years of conscious learning and choices to create a more inclusive and equitable TREC, as well as a team that is far more diverse across many identities than we were just five years ago.
4. And throughout it all, a Deep Focus on the Communities we Serve
The conscious choice to hire an interim Executive Director and slow down this transition was also in recognition of our need to continue serving the environmental nonprofits to whom we provide capacity-building support. We were committed to ensuring that TREC’s high-quality services continued steadily, no matter how challenging these internal issues may be. We carefully balanced our time, tracking and limiting how many hours each month were devoted to this internal organizational development work, so that staff could maintain a healthy work-life balance while still prioritizing our clients.
And had we not had the trusted ongoing partnership of Wilburforce Foundation throughout this transition, this could have been a very different story. Transitions are a time of uncertainty that, unfortunately, can sometimes trigger reductions in funding. But they are also an incredible opportunity to make transformative change. And we don’t use that word lightly! Wilburforce has been, as always, an incredibly supportive partner to us. We hold the privilege of our relationship with them with the greatest responsibility for our clients and the environmental movement more broadly.
Even though TREC’s staff are capacity-building consultants themselves, we are well aware of the gift that it is to have folks on the outside providing caring support and guidance when navigating challenging changes. Bringing in capacity-building consulting support during a leadership transition should be a baseline expectation for all organizations.
If you are facing transitions in your organization, we encourage you to pause and consider what’s possible and what you seek, rather than slipping into reactive mode. We are here to support you as your capacity-building partners.
TREC’s story of transition over this past year could have easily been a story of chaos and stress. And there were moments of that, for sure! But by taking time to pause and double down on our values, exploring what was possible instead of letting fear drive the bus, and having the privilege of partnering with our board, staff, and the Wilburforce Foundation, we are thrilled to bring you this story of transformation and celebration.
We hope that our journey will serve to inspire and support you as you navigate transitions of your own. Please join us in celebrating our new co-EDs and this brave, committed team that is working daily to create the TREC of our dreams, in service to you all.
Ananda Valenzuela (outgoing interim executive director), Diana Toledo (board chair), David Lamfrom (board vice chair), and April Nishimura (outgoing board member and incoming Co-Executive Director)