Bringing Frontline Workers Into the Forefront:
A Progressive Method of Organizational Management
Paul Feuerstein, MSW, Chief Executive Officer, Barrier Free Living
Editor’s Note: The work environment for social work practice needs to be an expression of the value of social work. It assures open communication not just from the top down but from the bottom up, so that those in management and administration understand what is needed by the clinician or social worker to optimize the relationship with the client. Currents invited Paul Feuerstein to share his approach for organizing his agency, which attempts to achieve such a balance in the workplace.
In 2004, Barrier Free Living began a process of strategic planning in anticipation of opening Freedom House, the first totally accessible domestic violence shelter in the country. When Freedom House opened, we doubled our annual budget and were able to develop a more robust administrative platform to achieve our goals. Faculty from Columbia’s Institute for Not for Profit Management recommended Peter Brinkerhoff’s Mission Based Management.
Brinkerhoff is a management consultant for not for-profits. He looks at not-for-profits not as charities, but as mission driven businesses. Clarity of mission and values is critical for our work. Traditionally, mission statements are developed by boards and handed down to staff. Mission-based management turns that process on its head. The BFL management team went through a self-evaluation using Brinkerhoff’s workbooks. That team acted as a catalyst for focus groups of staff and constituents to develop mission, vision and values statements to be taken to the board for approval. The Program Committee of the board worked with the management team on its presentation. As a result of every staff member having the opportunity to contribute to the future of the agency, researchers from NYU who work with us have commented that staff throughout the agency had an awareness of our mission and values that they only found in upper management in other agencies. The message to staff was that every staff member played a critical role in carrying out the mission of the agency.
Creating a system of total communication with staff is a critical part of our focus. We developed an innovation award. Any staff member who developed an improved way of promoting our mission and values in our work would be recognized with a monetary prize as well as a certificate in recognition of his/her contribution. Two years ago, we began to do 360 evaluations with staff. We use Survey Monkey to create an anonymous means whereby staff can give honest evaluations of their supervisor or peers. At first staff did not believe that the surveys were anonymous. After presenting a compilation of the results of the entire management team’s surveys and challenging staff to create their own surveys to see how they work, we began to see greater participation in this year’s surveys. We introduced the mission-based organization chart, with the board and the CEO on the bottom and direct services staff and our consumers on the top. We are still living into our aspirations.
Staff comes with preconceptions of what working in a social service agency is supposed to be. Managers do the same. We have begun working with the concepts of Daniel Goleman’s Primal Leadership and the way in which our limbic systems control our responses to being a leader. Its purpose is to help managers become more emotionally intelligent. Goleman’s work shows that it is possible to modify emotional responses to situations with practice and social support. The goal of the supervisory relationship is not to exercise restricting or controlling behavior, but to support workers in exploring how they can best contribute to our mission. We have started by working with our managers to find a better way to work. We still have work to do with our direct service staff to convince them that they have more influence in our work than they believe they have.
Dr. Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School did a study of corporations world-wide that had the greatest track record for growth. The companies with the greatest consistent growth valued stability of staff, transparency of values and continual small changes to refresh an organization. Stability provides the platform for innovation. Transparent values permit risk taking within the organization. One of our values is “failure is a natural part of growth that can lead to success.” Best practice for mission-based management is reviewing and revising the mission, vision and values of the organization every two years. That is an ambitious goal that we have had difficulty achieving. We have found that the process of inclusive review can take six months or longer to achieve.
One of the successes of mission-based work has been our marketing initiatives. It helped us clarify who all our customers are: the people we serve; our funding sources; our referral sources our collaborators in the social service world; the general public. Our marketing team is not made up of a group of social service professionals, but a cross section of staff. It has included kitchen staff, accounting staff, social workers and administrative staff. Anyone can see the results of their endeavor at www.bflnyc.org. Every page of the website has a link to the Mission, Vision and Values of the agency. Videos of staff, consumers and friends of Barrier Free Living populate the site. Our Organization Development Manager keeps up our website with a blog on our home page as well as a Twitter feed, “Three Things You can do to make a difference,” and a Pressroom that not only highlights BFL’s stories, but anything in news touching on People with Disabilities, Interpersonal Violence or Homelessness.
Mission-based management starts with buy-in from the board of directors and the leadership of an agency. It means sharing power and control. A mentor of mine once said “the more power I share, the more authority I have.” That speaks to the heart of what makes this system work.
Mission-Based Management: Leading Your Not-for-Profit In the 21st Century (Wiley Nonprofit Law, Finance and Management Series). Peter C. Brinckerhoff (Nov 23, 2009)
Mission-Based Marketing: An Organizational Development Workbook (Wiley Nonprofit Law, Finance and Management Series). Peter C. Brinckerhoff (Dec 9, 2002)
Primal Leadership, With a New Preface by the Authors: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (Aug 6, 2013)