What does a leader do when things do not go as planned? How can a leader help to restore or improve an organization’s operations when a situation stalls or interferes with its functions? Although taking a proactive approach to planning is desired, change may occur suddenly and unexpectedly causing immediate consequences. A skilled leader must be able to assess a situation in order to prioritize the steps necessary to stabilize the organization. This process must focus on a short-term strategy to address immediate concerns and include strategic decisions that will affect the long-term sustainability of the organization.
Working With Organizations: The Southeast Planning Group
The Southeast Planning Group (SPG) is an organization that was created in 2000 to facilitate the Office of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Continuum of Care planning process. The key elements of the approach were strategic planning, data collection systems, and an inclusive process that involved clients and service providers. The fundamental components of the system are 1) outreach, intake, and assessment; 2) emergency shelter; 3) transitional housing; and 4) permanent housing and permanent supportive housing. The outreach, intake, and assessment component identifies an individual’s or family’s needs in order to connect them with the appropriate resources. Emergency shelter provides a safe alternative to living on the streets. Transitional housing provides supportive services such as recovery services and life skills training to help clients develop the skills necessary for permanent housing. The final component, permanent housing, works with clients to obtain long-term affordable housing.
SPG works with the local government; service providers; the faith, academic, and business communities; homeless and formerly homeless individuals; and concerned citizens in the designated service area. During the first 5 years of its existence, SPG was staffed by one part-time and four full-time staff members and oversight was provided by a 21-member board. SPG’s founding director was well respected and liked in the community. She was noted for her ability to bring stakeholders together across sectors and focus on the single mission of ending homelessness.
After serving 5 years as the executive director, she abruptly resigned amidst rumors that she was forced out by the board. Although she had been effective in bringing people together, there were concerns that the goals and objectives had not been met, and there was a lack of confidence in her ability to grow the organization. Approximately one month after her resignation, a new executive director was hired.
One of the new director’s first priorities was to reconfigure the structure of the organization in order to increase efficiency. As a result of the restructuring, two positions were eliminated. The people who were let go had been with the organization since it was created, and similar to the previous director, they had strong ties to the community. Once the community and SPG’s partners learned about the changes, there was suspicion about the new leadership and the direction they wanted to take the organization. Stakeholders were split in their views of the changes—some agreed that they were necessary in order to advance the goals of the organization, while others felt the new leadership was “taking over” with a hidden agenda to promote its own self-interest.
I worked with the group as an evaluation consultant to assess the SPG partnership during this period of transition. In order to assess how these changes were perceived by the stakeholders, I conducted key informant interviews with various stakeholders, both internal and external to the organization. The partners shared many insights about how the month without consistent leadership contributed to the uncertainty about SPG’s purpose and strategy, and it was generally agreed that the leadership transition was not handled well. The results from the evaluation were used to help SPG identify strategies to improve communication with stakeholders and utilize the director’s leadership role to build upon the organization’s past successes while preparing for future growth.