Facing a Leadership Change

The staff of OGS is facing an internal restructure as a result of a big leadership change. As the Executive Director of OGS for the last 6.5 years, my leaving the organization in June of 2020 has created a leadership hole that needs to be filled. Although the existing staff (with 40+ years of history with the organization combined) is the most qualified to fulfill these needs, none of them were eager to step into the Executive Director role as it has been defined. But, after three weeks of brainstorming, imagining their ideal jobs, and visualizing out of the box possibilities, they came to a remarkable, courageous, and cutting edge solution.

The staff and board has decided to restructure the inner workings of the organization entirely, take on all the leadership roles in a staff “Leadership Team” format, and promote one of their own to a re-envisioned version of the Director role. This happened through a series of all staff meetings which encouraged creativity and process based brainstorming.

The Process

Week 1 Brainstorm: What’s your perfect job with OGS?
  • The first week of work entailed each staff member envisioning their perfect job within the organization. What would it entail? What number of hours would it take? What new tasks would you take on? What current tasks would you give away?
  • The second week included looking at each person’s list of ideal duties and what was left out. It started to emerge that current staff members were excited about an “Leadership Team” style where five folks would take over the tasks formerly held by one director. Possible organizational charts started to emerge.
  • The third week we put it all together and came up with some proposals for the board to consider and contemplate including a comprehensive look at how all my former roles would being covered.
List of all former “Executive Director” duties and new “Leadership Team” members who will now manage them

The Outcome

A newly formed Leadership Team emerged with five staff people (Cameron, Nicole, Sera, Agatha, and Rodney) taking on the bulk of the duties formerly held by the Executive Director. One of those people, Cameron, will step up to chair that team and hold the official title of Executive Director. As a result of this momentous direction, all the other structures within the organization will be changed and reoriented with leadership across departments (previously defined as Farmer Programs, Conferences, and Home Grower programs) instead of keeping those departments in silos. Two areas were determined to need extra input and the team will look to hire new folks for those positions, which are fundraising and programming support. Stay tuned for job postings.

Still to come is determining job titles and pay rates for all of the staff as well as navigating the details of this brand new team structure. Everyone will shift roles and take on new tasks and let go of old tasks. It will require lots of communication and flexibility. This team is completely up for the tasks ahead.

New internal structure for the OGS team.

Lateral Leadership

A team or multiple managers approach to running any endeavor seems to be a healthier, wiser, and more sustainable practice than the hierarchy of old-school paradigms. Thought leaders around the world are taking their businesses, non-profits, and NGO projects in this innovative direction. Putting all the responsibility on one-person’s shoulders is a recipe for burnout and shortsightedness. Whereas sharing the load, utilizing the best of the group mind, and having others to lean on opens up endless horizons and new vistas.

This is especially needed in our current experience of uncertain economic and political future. The nature of in-person education is changing. And the landscape of sustainable agriculture is also in flux. This team approach will allow the OGS staff to be flexible, adaptable, and most importantly “in it” together.

The Building of Trust

I truly believe that our early and ongoing process of building trust with each other has paved the way for the ease of this transition and the extreme amount of grace with which the staff has taken the steering wheel. Early on in our team building together, probably around 2015, we focused on building trust as a staff. We studied up on trust in the workplace and defined three areas of trust based on the work of Charles Feltman. 

  1. Integrity: Synonyms include: Honesty, Reliability, Believably, Congruence, Sound thinking, Consistency, Loyalty, Commitment, Predictability.
  2. Competence: Synonyms include: Capacity, Skill, Knowledge, Follow through, Resources, Independence/Cooperation, bringing input and open to input.
  3. Care: Synonyms: Consideration, Respect, Openness, Diplomacy, Calm, Mutual Trust, Safe Space, Sharing Vulnerabilities (personal), relatedness.

While each staff member placed difference importance on each of these values, it became clear that all of these are necessary to build solid and dependable relationships. Once we became literate about these distinctions and their values to each staff person, we became higher functioning. As we worked with this over months and years, we learned we could communicate and give feedback to each other using these criteria, both in the context of things going well and things going badly. It allowed us to understand how each person “ticks” and improved our personal relationships.

The group identified these feelings when experiencing trust with each other: Confidence, Calm, Creativity, Bringing My Best, Shared Reality/Responsibility/Support, Valued/Acknowledged, Collaborative/Pro-Active, More Flow and Letting Go, Spaciousness, Pleasure, and Safety. The group also defined how they felt that these improved feelings of trust would impact the entire team, the organization, and each project: Flourish, Increased Capacity, Leadership, Credibility, Respect, Integrity, Collaboration.

Defining Staff Values

In December of 2019, on the OGS Staff retreat, we redefined our values as a group with the intention to perform with more excellence, deepen our sense of the team, and more effectively accomplish the mission of the organization. The six core values of the OGS team are:

  1. Resilience
  2. Authenticity
  3. Visionary Leadership
  4. Positivity
  5. Relatedness
  6. Stewardship
Working with our values to define actions that lead to high performance & excellence.

Throughout the beginning months of 2020, we continued to work with these values specifically through defining what high performance, medium performance, and low performance actions look like in each of these categories. This helped us to shape a structure that encouraged actions and behaviors geared towards group defined “excellence” as well as framing a culture and language that would allow robust, specific, and in-the-moment feedback, both when these values are met (positive and affirmative feedback) and when these values are not being met (sharing challenges and concerns).

What the Future Holds

A restructure of this magnitude is a sea change for any organization. No doubt there will be fits and starts as well as failures along the way. Yet the foundation of trust and goodwill among this team is extraordinary and I believe that is this very foundation that will have them soaring in their new roles in no time. Additionally the extended OGS family comprised of constituents, stakeholders, participants, and funders is engaged, supportive, and encouraging. With that combination of traits, good things are bound to happen.

I have a mentor who has schooled me often about the tenants of effective leadership. She says, “Document all aspects of your job and train others so thoroughly that you work your way out of leadership.” She went on to say that “good leaders leave their team more empowered and more inspired than ever before.”

I continue to be impressed by the level of integrity, creativity, and accountability exemplified by this staff. I know they will take this organization to new heights, beyond anything we thought possible.

Hurray for new leadership!


Author: Lee Warren

Lee Warren has been homesteading and farming for more than 25 years. She is the former Executive Director of Organic Growers School and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm in Rutherford County, NC. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and social justice issues.