The Constancy of Change: An Ongoing Challenge for Sector Leaders

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The Constancy of Change: An Ongoing Challenge for Sector Leaders

Ed Boswell (left) and Daryl Conner leading a packed session at the InsideNGO Annual Conference earlier this year.

By Susan Barrows Libby

Director of External Relations InsideNGO

Humentum is offering Leading Through Change: Insights and Approaches on September 20 in Washington, DC. Register here.


Are you standing on a burning platform? Daryl Conner first coined the phrase "burning platform" in 1988 and has been asking senior leaders that question ever since. Conner, a leading expert on managing change, uses the burning platform analogy to illustrate how and why leaders commit to organizational change—or don't—and coaches them on when to jump, how to land safely, and how to prepare for both.

For leaders within the Humentum community, representing more than 330 international relief and development organizations, change is a constant. Our leaders and their teams are dedicated to mitigating some of the world's most pressing problems. For them, identifying effective solutions in an always uncertain and shifting landscape is a mandate. How they lead their teams through these shifts—whether new funding regulations and priorities that challenge organizational sustainability, or advances in technology that make some staff members obsolete yet accelerate the need for those with other skills—is ultimately how their organizations thrive or just survive.

What We've Learned About Change

Over the past five years, I have had the privilege of working with some senior leader workgroups regularly convened by Humentum. Without fail, as I reach out to members to ask for agenda items to share in our quarterly meetings, the topics and challenges they're most eager to discuss have been those created by change. From culture, to organizational structure, to technology, to risk, senior leaders are bombarded with the need to do more with less—fewer resources, less time—yet with greater success. It has been striking to me how many organizations, both large and small, across all domains, struggle with issues where change is at the core.

To begin to address the leadership challenges stemming from change, this past March, Humentum partnered with Daryl Conner and Ed Boswell of Conner Advisory to pilot Leading Through Change, a workshop on transformational change. In advance of the workshop, we fielded a survey to our senior leaders, asking them about the challenges of managing change in their organizations. We discovered they face new demands, an increasing complexity of changing environments, and are predicting an era of accelerated change in the future.

Our survey results noted that interrelated factors driving change at international NGOs were seen in three primary areas: resources, overall direction, and organizational shifts. Changes in funding, staff, and strategy were most often cited. Almost 75% of international NGO leaders reported that the degree of change will increase or strongly increase in the next 3 to 5 years, both organizationally and individually. Most strikingly, a majority of leaders reported that the pace of change will increase or strongly increase, and will seem even more accelerated for individual leaders.

Individual NGO leaders reported that they must be agile and adaptable to lead effectively in the environment that is emerging. Success is characterized by adapting to the changes at three levels:

  • Strategic level, including new approaches and practices being developed in NGOs and the sector
  • Organizational level, with ongoing changes in the staffing and structure of their organizations
  • Personal level, with better alignment of professional interests, changing roles, and growth from new opportunities.

During the course of the day at the spring Leading Through Change workshop, the mood in the room was striking: Teams huddled together during breakouts, excited to share ideas about how they were going to approach a sticky problem, or begin to plan how to accomplish a BHAG (big hairy audacious goals!). Individual participants found themselves engaged and inspired while working with their own colleagues or those from other organizations they hadn't met before. Most surprisingly, cell phones were rarely if ever checked. Paul Auxila, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of MSH, sent a note the next day calling the session, "The most informative and relevant (for me) talk on leading change that I have ever attended. I learned a lot, met some new folks, and had a great time."

Lisa North, VP of Capacity Building and Planning wrote to say, "Many, many thanks for the Leading Through Change workshop which couldn't have been more timely. The presenters, Daryl and Ed, provided an excellent overview of a very elusive topic. It helped that they were able to call upon several decades of research across all kinds of change initiatives and all kinds of organizations. I have already brought some of the concepts back to my team."

How We're Moving Forward

Listening to the feedback from that first, pilot event in March, and given the clear message from our survey, Humentum is pleased to partner with Conner Advisory again to offer Leading Through Change next month. In addition to the full-day session, participating organizations will be offered a complementary one-hour follow-on consultation with Conner Advisory, to focus on their own change management issues.

Those working in our sector are committed to transforming lives—they are finding new ways to distribute vaccines, enrolling the world's most vulnerable girls in school, and working tirelessly to get refugees safely to shores and shelter. They need strong, healthy, dynamic organizations in order to make these things happen.

Are you standing on a burning platform? Are you ready to jump? Come explore how your organization can prepare for the inevitable changes ahead, and be ready to talk with Daryl and Ed afterward about how best to prepare to land safely. Register here.

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