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Recombobulation

Recombobulating in 2021 after Discombobulating in 2020

 

Recombobulation. I really love that word – in fact, it might be my favorite word. If you don’t know the meaning, perhaps the onomatopoeia helps – it means, “to put yourself back together.”

As we head full steam into the thick of 2021, it has already proven to be and continues to persist as a year of recombobulation. I don’t think we can truly put ourselves back together until we take a look at how and where things fell apart in the first place.

For me and my newly elected position of board president of the Friends of Hoyt Park and Pool, 2020 was going to be a great year; we were headed into our 10th season. We were financially in the black with a healthy rainy day fund. How hard could being president of a board that ran a pool and beer garden really be?

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It was hard. I faced the toughest decisions that the board and staff had ever been presented with. We are a nonprofit that relies nearly entirely on patrons for revenue. If we weren’t going to be able to open in some capacity, we had to figure out a way to go dormant for a season – a tough position to be in for any organization. By pure coincidence in 2018, we began a series of workshops with an outside consultant who worked extensively with the board, our executive director and our staff. We went through EVERYTHING- from operating principles to number of seats on our board and how frequently we met. We looked at job descriptions, duties, and succession. But most of all, we talked about the future.

“To be a good leader I think you also need to have been a good follower.”

I don’t remember the word pandemic ever coming up, but we talked about contingencies for operating at a loss (for us its weather). While we can never be certain, in hindsight, it seems that the decisions we made in 2018 and 2019 set us up to get through 2020. Like I said, it was hard, but what got me through the toughest of decisions and the most precarious of meetings was this – as board president, it is NOT my job to run the organization, it is my job to lead it. Leading means setting direction and tone but it also means every once and a while, looking back over your shoulder and making sure people are still following you. Are you listening to them or hearing them? Are you making decisions based on emotions or facts? Are you seeking wisdom or acting on instinct?

To be a good leader, I think you also need to have been a good follower. My favorite television show was the political drama The West Wing. Throughout the show there is a patriarchal character named Leo, who as Chief of Staff to the President, runs the day to day operations of the White House. When a new president is elected at the end of the show’s run, Leo’s deputy Chief of Staff becomes the new president’s Chief. As a reminder to him to never forget where he came from and those that mentored you, a friend gives him a note that simply says, “WWLD?” What Would Leo Do? This is such a simple reminder to us that we weren’t always in the position we are currently in. Somebody was there before us and their experience can become our wisdom.

I have three takeaways that I would like to pass on to you:

Build Trust Before You Need It

Heading into 2020 we had a very strong and experienced Executive Director. She had been with the organization from the start. She knew the in’s and out’s of the industry and her job. She had a great relationship with her staff and a good rapport with the board. But MOST of all, we trusted each other. I let her know that I valued her experience and that I had her back. This became critical as things got worse and worse before getting better. SO, if there are any weaknesses in your ED, work on them. A class on a deficiency can bone up skills. A board workshop can help strengthen the ever tricky Board- ED relationship. A staff retreat can work to build teamwork and unity. Any one of these ideas can help to continue to build trust.

Make sure your financial team is where it needs to be

Our board treasurer had wanted to step down for a while but was willing to stay on for one more season. THIS made an extraordinary difference because of his knowledge and experience, as well as the good working relationship between him and our finance director. But what if he had left the board at the end of 2019? It shouldn’t have mattered. This brings me to my 2nd takeaway. Make sure your financial team is where it needs to be. Learning spreadsheets and P&Ls in the middle of a pandemic isn’t a good use of valuable time. Knowing that whoever is in charge of your organization’s finances has the knowledge and experience is invaluable. Is your Achilles heel your financial team? Fix it now.

Seek support to your organizational foundations

I mentioned before that prior to 2020 we had hired a consultant to help us to make sure things were where they were supposed to be and that had turned out to be extremely valuable. The middle of a pandemic would have been a less than ideal time to be working through all of that, so my 3rd takeaway is this: If you have been considering working through structure, organization, mission or vision - especially if ANY of that was a hindrance to how you got through 2020 - now that you are recombobulating, perhaps this is the time to slide that pan from the back burner to the front of the stove. Maybe you can’t afford to right now, but more likely you can’t afford not to.

As 2021 plows on I hope you find a way to put 2020 behind you. But never forget the valuable and unique lessons along with the challenges and opportunities that would have never happened without it.

Bobby Pantuso

Bobby Pantuso

Bobby Pantuso likes to think through problems and come up with solutions especially ones that are outside the box... Specializing in general nonprofit operations, government relations, social media content, and staff/board relations. He has a B.A. in Community Engagement and Education from UW-Milwaukee.
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