Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It only takes a spark to ignite, but just as easy to put out.

Here is a recent article that I wrote for a YMCA magazine. I must preface this with the fact that there is no organization that I love more than the YMCA, which is why I still work there and get as involved as I can. Noone would ever doubt my passion for the YMCA. If you dont belong to a YMCA, you should. Period. Your kids, family or spouse will thank you in the long run. Even if it is just you, you will be better from it. We are not just a gym and swim, the best YMCAs are the hub of the community. We have been impacting communities across the US for over 150 and will be here for another 150 years. For example do you know that the YMCA in Chicago has and continues to work on job training, recruiting\retaining businesses, fighting infant mortality, feeding\caring for elderly, raising youth government awareness, fighting gang violence, providing free\low cost but still high quality child care, and much more. I didnt see a gym, swim, tread mill or bar bell listed in there.

With that said, here is my article:

Lost Leaders

By Steve Heye

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” That was the start of the song we sang each year at Central Leaders School back when I was a teen. Lets flashback to the 80’s when hair was big and I was little. Each summer a group of teens would gather at a college and spend the week learning how to be a better person and a better YMCA leader. Each year I would leave Leaders School a better person with an experience that would change me forever. At that point I would do anything for the YMCA, it was where I spent all my extra time, just ask the staff that used to chase me away. But I wasn’t alone, my brother and sister both had similar experiences, plus the hundreds of other leaders. It is just as easy to spread a spark as it is to extinguish it.

For six years I went to Leaders School and made hundreds of friends, many of which I said would be my BFF (best friend forever). But where are they now? Back then we didn’t have email, internet, MySpace or IM, we just had letters and the phone. So it was hard to keep in touch and I lost track of many great people. But that isn’t the story here, the story is how the YMCA lost track of these people as well and couldn’t keep the ones who wanted to stay.

Ignored. Of those hundreds of YMCA Leaders, I think I can count how many have stayed in the YMCA on two hands. But Y? Lets take a look at a few examples of what has gone wrong. First the most obvious problem, very few people followed up with us YMCA Leaders to see how college was going and if we were interested in a YMCA career. There were individual staff members from Leaders School who informally kept in touch and encouraged us. But where was a formal program or method to keep these leaders in the movement? Who better to work at your YMCA than someone who has been volunteering for years? We already had the passion, we just needed a nudge and some skills.

Set up to fail. There were those who did decide to try out the YMCA after Leaders Club and got that first YMCA director job. But the luster quickly wore off, I think it is best to tell a story rather than make my own judgments. Lets call this friend Betty, this is a real story about a real person with real facts, just a fake name.

Betty loved the YMCA as a teen. She was a volunteer and a YMCA Leader, the only future she saw was to work for the YMCA and make a difference. Her dad was a senior staff member at her YMCA and she was proud. She spent much of her childhood doing everything for the Y. She was one of the most organized and purposeful teens I have ever seen. She kept a file folder system in her desk at home with everything neatly put in its place. She had some of the best skills to work with others, teach kids and make things work.

Years later, after college, a husband, a couple kids and a couple moves, she decided to return to the YMCA as a site director in child care. Within two years though, Betty was done with the YMCA and wasn’t going back. She was set up to fail. She was asked to work countless hours with no help, direction or enough staff. She wasn’t given much, if any information or support. She was just told what numbers to meet and then pushed to the edge. When things were going well the senior staff took the credit. But staff left and weren’t replaced, the work grew and it was all just added to Betty’s plate. Betty thought if she put in extra hours, just tried harder it would get better.

As Betty was continually overworked things started to get missed and deadlines slipped. This wasn’t because Betty wasn’t trying, rather everyone was too busy to notice the real problems. Betty tried to get help and told her directors about the problems, but the response was always, its your job fix it. But how do you fix the root problem that you have no authority to change and when you are so buried in the symptoms that you cant see it? The only solution was to quit and let management see it…

So what can we do to avoid that? Well I think more YMCAs need better communication between director level staff and senior management. This has to include a real openness to constructive criticism and problem solving. I also think we should stop trying to cut corners and be honest about how much work and responsibility a director can handle. These are often younger staff, with limited full time management experience and a low pay scale. We also need to be sure we are equipping them with the technology, tools and resources needed to do the job. We need to be proactive to regularly review the workload, processes we are using and expectations.

Dismissed. As YMCAs face budget crunches tough decisions have to be made, but at what expense to the movement? I have two examples of close people who both were laid off by a metro YMCA due to financial considerations. Each is a story waiting to be told with an end not in the YMCA.

A few years ago a YMCA faced large budget concerns and at the same time had built up a considerable amount of possible overstaffing and multiple layers of management at its branches. So they crunched the numbers and made the tough and possibly correct decision to lay staff off. But the question I had was about how they decided who to let go. They just went by numbers and positions to make it less personal, but it was personal to those leaving.

One of these people, call her Suzie, was an aquatics lesson coordinator who had been there for over 10 years. She never wanted to climb the corporate ladder or be a director, she just wanted to lead the lessons and teach the kids, and she was good at it. She and her husband volunteered for years at Leaders School and sent her kids through the program. She just went to work one day and was told her position had been eliminated. She would have been more than willing to change her role, shift her work or make other changes, but wasn’t given those options. There were no options or other considerations offered. Yes, they were respectful, did offer severance and took care of her, but she ended up leaving the movement.

Another example, lets call her Lisa, was on track to be a CEO and will be soon, but maybe at another organization now. She worked her way up through a couple YMCAs to senior program director and executive director. You will never find someone with YMCA running through their blood as much as Lisa. If her husband would let her, she would have a giant Y tattooed on her forehead. Yet this YMCA couldn’t seem to find the right place to use her skills. They bounced her from position to position, never seeming to give her the tools, authority or longevity to make a difference. Each time she was in a position, they just changed it and seemed to say, don’t worry she can handle it.

The YMCA faced a situation where they needed help with a branch that was going to close. They needed some leadership to manage that exit strategy. She took on a portion of that responsibility and when the work was done, she was told there was no position for her to return to. There was talk of her getting another position, but no position was given. So she ended up leaving the YMCA. She did find a job she loves and has a great future there. She has the skills, knowledge and a network of respected colleagues that will enable her to go far and be a future leader. Just not in the YMCA?

Had she been told that there was not going to be a position for her sooner, she would have still had a chance to stay in the YMCA movement. There were numerous job openings that were perfect for her that were open before and after her departure. Yet this YMCA chose to focus on its own immediate needs, not the individual’s future in the movement or the need for more leaders. I understand that making staffing decisions like this may be necessary, but isn’t there a way to help that individual?

My regional AYP has a We Care Network member that can help those YMCA staff in transition, plus the YMCA of the USA has field staff and Lisa was an EDI program graduate. After Lisa’s departure from the movement these resources found great opportunities that came open, but not in time for consideration. Why weren’t these networks leveraged better to keep a very talented leader in our movement?

Business staff are replaceable. My own story follows much the same. In my own completely biased opinion it seems that the YMCA in general does not afford the same opportunities to grow and participate for it’s business staff as much as other staff. We offer limited training, conferences, resources and support for our HR, Technology, Fiscal, Risk Management and other business staff. At many YMCAs there is that one person that makes it all run. They pay the bills, balance the cash, write the policies, fix the computers, manage the payroll and answer the phone.

Yet we offer very little to these staff. We have program schools, membership universities and Executive Development institutes, but where do the business staff go? With the new YMCA of the USA strategic plan this seems to be even more exaggerated. They have taken the little resources that were available and closed them. They have decided that vendors can solve these problems better and there are other methods to meet these needs. Which in almost everyway is correct, except who will help these business staff find and use these resources and vendors? Who will bring these business issues to the front and ask the hard questions?

The approach will be to wait for the YMCAs to ask for help then find someone with that expertise to help. Back to these small YMCAs with a single person doing all of the business tasks, they may not know what they need, so cant ask for help. And they sure don’t have time to research the issue, read all of the information out there and make the best decision. They need help, not a vendor selling solutions.

So just like many other business staff across the country, the role of many business related functions like technology that I work on is being outsourced to the experts and vendors. YMCAs need to realize that their business and technology staff are just as devoted to the mission and need to be included, they can not be treated as just a tool.

Possibilities? So what can we do? I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but here are a few of my thoughts.

First, I think we need a national program to retain the interest of alumni from our teen programs, like Leaders Club, Youth and Government, etc. This could be volunteer led, let the community of existing leaders shape it, they are already trying at Central Leaders School but cant succeed without some support and direction.

Second, all of us should be more aware of the demands on our staff, be realistic about work-loads and pay attention to burn out. I know there is an inexhaustible amount of work to be done and little resources to use, but if we cant build healthy staff then we wont sustain the movement.

Third, I understand tough decisions like staff cuts may be unavoidable, but if a staff person is valuable cant we take time to ensure they are taken care of through our resources like EDI, AYP and Y-USA staff? This could also be facilitated if the YMCA of the USA created a method for new or existing staff to post and share their resume online, similarly to how they allow YMCAs to post job openings. Fourth, we should be leveraging our business staff to make everyone’s job easier and embracing them as accelerators of the mission, rather than underpaying, overworking and providing inadequate resources. Our business staff deserve trainings, resources, networks, conferences and a career path too, rather than leaving them in the hands of vendors.

Summary. It seems strange to me that we all would agree that we are facing a leadership deficit in the future. Yet all of these people who were dedicated to the movement are gone. The stories I shared are only a few out of the dozens I specifically have heard about and I am sure you have some of your own. I don’t claim to know if this is happening at every YMCA, actually I know it isn’t. I would guess for every bad story there are hundreds of good ones, but how many can we afford to loose. It also strikes me that there isn’t more outreach to my generation and the ones following to find out why we leave the movement. The only people that seem to have a valued opinion are CEOs. So the question that I have to all of you, is how are you treating the staff, middle management, kids, teens and young adults at your YMCA that are the future leaders? Will you be the spark for future leaders?

END of ARTICLE, now dont forget, I love and still work at the YMCA. So go join today, donate now and be a part our org. Or better yet, join our staff, bring in some technology skills and make a difference in an org that has been changing the world and will continue to do so.