The unifier Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Lee Friedman had quite the juggling act when she was named president and CEO of the Cleveland Leadership Center and had to merge five local leadership organizations into one.

“There’s a lot of balls to be juggled, and you want to make sure you don’t drop a ball,” Friedman says.

She says the first step to leading an organization through major change is to talk to them.

“It’s a communication thing,” Friedman says. “You have to have a plan and keep checking in to see how it’s going and have an open-door policy in case somebody’s floundering, they feel comfortable coming in and telling you. You have to give people permission to be able to admit if they’re having a hard time."

Make sure that you tell people that you want them to come to you and set that as an expectation.

“Then you have to deliver on that,” Friedman says. “If someone comes in and has a problem, you can’t crucify them for it. You have to be willing to work with them and not make them feel punished. You’ve got to practice what you preach and make sure that people understand that’s what you want — you don’t want surprises, you want them to come in if there’s a problem.”

Once you’ve set the expectation for the journey, then you need to decide where you’re actually going to go and create a vision.

“You have to have a broad understanding of what the general goal is — what are you trying to accomplish? What were the different pieces that were making up energy that would even prompt people to greet a new organization?” Friedman says.

To learn these answers, talk to people in your organization. Take as much of what they tell you and combine it to create the vision.

“Listen to what people have to say, and then put corners and edges around it, so it has some cohesion, and then explain back how you got there, and they should be able to find in what you’ve told them what they were hoping for, and that’s how you get people to follow,” she says. “You have to motivate them to get excited about it.”

While you can’t please everyone, try to be as inclusive as possible.

“When you go back to sell it to people, you ought to be telling them what they told you, more or less, and, obviously, not everybody agrees,” she says. “What’s required here is for you to put something together that has enough breadth and depth that the people you’re selling to all feel comfortable that it’s reflecting what they were hoping for.”

With a vision in place, you have to then make sure you give your employees the space to reach that vision on their own without micromanaging them.

“That means sometimes that it might be messier in a sense because people have their own interpretation of what you’re asking for, but over time, I still think that people that are given license to put all of their creative energy into something, they come up with the best product,” Friedman says.

You also have to make sure you have the right people to operate in this kind of environment.

“You have to set those terms upfront and make sure you’re hiring people that are comfortable with that,” she says. “Some people aren’t. Some people would like a lot more structure. I wouldn’t be a good boss for someone that needs a ton of direction and tons of structure. I don’t have the time to give it, and it’s not my style anyways. That’s a question of just making sure you’re hiring people that want it, demonstrate a lot of self initiative and have done it before.”

This has been particularly important for Friedman because a lot of gray areas come with building a new organization.

“There’s not an instruction manual,” she says. “I’ve had to be very mindful around making sure the people that I’ve hired are comfortable in an atmosphere when nobody has answers — myself included.”

As you move toward accomplishing your goals, you also have to celebrate the successes along the way. For Friedman, the first piece of success was getting all the boards to vote to merge. Then success meant getting the corporate community to fund it. Then it was when payroll and systems were set up. The definition changes, so enjoy it along the way.

“You measure success incrementally — milestones along the way,” she says.

HOW TO REACH: Cleveland Leadership Center, www.cleveleads.org