Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend regarding the difference between abstinence and sobriety. Is the specific goal of recovery not drinking, or a change in the way one leads their life?
My friend, who had already spent many more years sitting in crowded, smoky 12-step meetings, cut right to the heart of the issue. “You can’t hang a new door on old hinges.”
I frequently think about his impeccable insight. The point was obvious, and it continues to have relevance in so much of what I do personally and at work: Don’t overthink the challenge of transformation, but never underestimate what must be done for enduring change. Real change requires a great deal of self-reflection and a willingness to revisit every assumption — even the safe and obvious ones.
That conversation comes to mind when I work with nonprofit child welfare agency leaders who are trying to figure out their next steps toward becoming a community-based, family support-oriented organization. Keeping it simple does not preclude sacrifice, nor should it imply that we can hold on to all that we’ve known and done for decades. Agencies, like people, crave the familiar and are averse to loss.
Ordinary agency leaders can fill up whiteboards galore with all that they plan on doing. But they will flinch when it comes time to replace the old hinges. If they perceive change as a loss, they can retreat into endless conversations and distractions and slip back into a place of comfort.
With the approval from their nonprofits’ boards, it’s OK to jump into the water and explore fresh, family-friendly approaches while questioning everything about your agency’s culture and design. Creating a demonstration model, with incremental tests of change, and learning from the mistakes and the accomplishments is a safe and well-regarded process for innovation.
Following a little hand holding, most agency leaders are open to taking those steps. Few, however, know what it means to explore radically new roles for their team members and for themselves. And this is where my friend’s simple, but elegant advice becomes relevant to the issue of new hinges and enduring change.
Child welfare leaders who stand out and are partners in effective community-based programming models have a great deal in common. By almost any measure, they are transformational, servant leaders even though many of them fly under the radar. They’re not popping up at every conference or panel presentation touting their latest accomplishment, nor do they spend time creating a litany of complaints about their government funders.
Most have created a strong operational team within their agencies so that they are not mired in the endless conversations about contracts, rates and regulations. Instead, these leaders understand the intense level of community engagement and attention to the details that systems change requires. There is a good deal of rebuilding with the community that needs to be prioritized and they are up for it.
Whether it is instinct, an enhanced capacity for self-reflection, a distillation of their accumulated skill sets and experiences, or a combination of the above, these individuals have morphed the traditional role of CEO into CTO — the Chief Trust Officer. It’s never a designated position, but it evolves over time. From the perspective of the community and families they serve, this CTO role is what makes them special. These exceptional individuals understand that the “new hinges” are trust, partnerships with families and community stakeholders and a renewed sense of purpose beyond themselves.
It’s not as if they have the answers to all the questions, but they do have the confidence in their collaborators to find a path forward. Chief Trust Officers realize that our history of having the child welfare director as the center of decision-making, attention and adulation is exactly what keeps us from turning the curve from power brokers to partners.
CTOs are the first to acknowledge our historical missteps in child welfare, not in a patronizing, disingenuous way, but as part of the problem-solving path forward. They are not shy about communicating clearly the need for a fresh process and improved outcomes. They will clarify the “why” of their involvement but will avoid micro-management unless a project is going sideways. They are instinctively team players but know when to assert themselves.
The actions of these leaders are rooted in transparency and are an acknowledgement of the shared responsibility and recognition of the social justice issues inherent in our work. This is the transformational process on the way to a final product of trust through partnerships and the renewed sense of purpose on which they will hang the new door.
For any child welfare agency director who wants to develop an organization’s family support services and a greater role in primary prevention, there is an intersecting path with other community and family leaders. A chief trust officer realizes that community stakeholders don’t expect or welcome a lecture on how to get things done as much as they need the resources and collaboration to make things happen. The actions and accomplishments are the result of mutual sanctioning and supporting, initiating and innovating, trusting and teamwork.
Having a leader who approaches the work with this view can be the critical determinant for the enduring change we are seeking. Servant leaders, who are transparent, committed to partnerships, who influence and innovate and educate others with numbers and narratives and most importantly radiate hope and optimism have been and will continue to be the ones who take us forward.