In 2011, I started a job as an Executive Director .
No one thinks of their life as extraordinary — a tool for teaching and leading others. I have learned all of us are mistaken. For good or bad, our lives have an impact on others. We carry our experiences with us. Often, we don’t even know we are carrying them. We lug them into places they don’t belong and realities that don’t align, even if our minds and hearts think they do. When years or decades have convinced us that one thing is to be expected, or ‘normal,’ even if it’s wrong and toxic, it’s hard to let that go.
The building was designed, I quickly learned, by architects with a sense of humor (or too much time on their hands). By elevator stops, there were three floors. By changes in elevation, there were seven floors. The Executive Director’s office, as is stereotypical, was at the very top of the building. The staff would joke that you had to pack a lunch to get from one department to another. After my tour, I believed them. My new office was huge, complete with a six-foot table and a large desk. By far the biggest office I had ever had. It was also the only one in the building with windows looking out onto the street. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me.
On my second day, I decided to bring bagels to work. And to serve them on the table in my office. The bagel shop is at the end of the street where I live, and it was an easy thing to do. I didn’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary.
Why Bring bagels?
Because I am my grandmother’s and mother’s daughter. If you want to get to know people, share a meal with them. Serve them (literally and figuratively).
I thought it would help me match names with faces and get to know the staff of almost 50. I chose a wide variety of bagels and types of cream cheese, set everything up, and sent out an email to the entire staff, inviting people to come to my office and get a bagel.
And no one came. I sent out a page and still, no one came.
I started to grow concerned. Clearly, what I expected to happen—bring food and people will come and eat it—was not what happened in this organization.
I called one of the Associate Executive Directors. A woman I sort of knew prior to starting my job. I asked, somewhat panicky, “Do people not like bagels? Should I have gotten donuts? Maybe yogurt and granola?”
She paused and my heart sank a little. She said, “People aren’t used to going to that office. Except for their first day when touring the building and their last day. They just don’t have any context or experience for going to the Executive Director’s office. Certainly not to share a meal.”
I was incredulous. I said, “Can you please just help get them into the room? If you can get them in the room. I think I can do the rest.”
It never occurred to me that people would be uncomfortable, perhaps even afraid of sharing a meal with me. It wasn’t my lived experience. That was not how I saw myself.
That’s not the type of Executive Director I wanted to be. I too had that kind of boss (more than once). We all have. And while I wasn’t so naïve to think that the title didn’t come with assumed and real power, it certainly wasn’t my vision of leadership.
The Queen Bee
I thought back to a few short weeks prior when I told my former boss I was leaving. The first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, so you’re going to go be a Queen Bee.” I responded (incredulously), “Well I never thought of it that way, but technically, yes, I guess so.”
And here on my second day, I was smacked across the face with how the “worker bees” perceived the “queen.” And I didn’t like it and that persona didn’t fit. And I knew the most important thing I had to do, in those first weeks and months, was to address this culture I had inherited. And work alongside my new team to change it.
That morning some people did come up. They trickled in. As if the brave ones were scoping me and the situation out. I had hoped they would stay and eat, so we could chitchat. Very few did. For those that did, I took it as a win, a first step in developing relationships.
And it was also clear that when those scouts returned with food and apparently unharmed, it nudged others to come up. Not everyone came. Not even close. There were a lot of leftover bagels. Bagels I stubbornly refused to move to the kitchen or conference room. I wasn’t going to concede that point: my goal of using food to start and make a connection.
Over the weeks and months, I spent as much time as I could out of my office. Interacting with the team. Sharing myself—as a person—a real person. Not the principal or the queen. Some people came around quickly. For others, it took a long time. Some were pretty shell-shocked from past toxic bosses and experiences they had throughout their careers.
It was as if they couldn’t quite convince themselves that I meant that I wanted the culture to be different. And that I was committed to working with them to create a new culture we could all feel good about.
Gradually, Trust and Relationships were Built
Lots of food is served from that office table. The candy jar regularly has to be restocked. The team knows, literally and figuratively, that the door is always open.
And stop in they do. To ask questions, share ideas, give feedback, and talk about their lives. They believe me, not because of my words, but by my consistent actions. They know I am there for them. Always and in all ways.
The Board hired me, and I report to them. I work for the staff. It’s my primary task to serve the staff and ensure they have everything they need to be successful. (and get out of their way and let them do it!). How else could the organization (and I) be successful?
Years later, we still talk about the day I brought bagels. It’s become, I suppose, our “creation story.” A simple act that I had no idea would become an eye-opening experience.
A mirror held up to the culture I inherited, and the painful issues staff carried with them that needed to be addressed. And a tiptoe into the water of building trust and real relationships.
The other side of the story…
Approximately 40% of the staff who were there that day are still here nearly 12 years later.
I recently asked what they remembered about that day. Probably the biggest testament to our new culture is that I could ask, and they felt free to respond honestly and openly.
Here’s what they had to say:
- Someone who had been on staff for years prior to that morning remembered asking a coworker where the Executive Director’s office was. She commented, “Doesn’t that say it all? It was an open door policy without an open door for most staff.”
- Several others commented they remembered not wanting to go up because it was awkward and out of the norm to do so. They were afraid.
- One person reported she went to other offices to ask if anyone was going up. She went on to say, she gathered her courage and went up as she was curious. But most people didn’t.
And when asked what has changed since that day, my colleagues had this to say:
- You are personable, friendly, relatable, kind, humble, and tough when we need you to be.
- You have had a unique way of being our leader, feeling deeply about what we have been experiencing, and if we are content and happy at work.
- I think the appreciation you have for what we all do and the interest in wanting our opinions is a big change.
- You are more focused on our work-life balance.
- Departments work together more than before.
- You trust that staff will get the work done and be good stewards of our work time and taxpayer dollars.
- In the past, we could not inform our staff of certain things until we had the go-ahead from upper management. Everything was so secretive and structured in a way that you could not stray from the norm. This made our working environment very stressful. It also made a division between management and staff.
- The culture has changed in such a way that you are more accessible and available because of your view on how an Executive Director should support their organization and your staff.
These responses are humbling.
It’s been a lot of hard work, intention, and shared leadership to create this culture of trust, respect, and fun. It’s something we talk about, pay attention to, and nurture.
And I’m grateful for our shared commitment to the continued development and growth of our culture. I will, years from now, retire from this position.
However, if I ever do become a leader somewhere else, you better believe on my second day, I will bring bagels and serve them from my office. It will tell me all I need to know about the culture I inherited.
My advice to you as you start a new job in a leadership position?
Bring bagels and serve them in your new office.
About the Author:
Christy S. Renjilian, Executive Director, Community Connections for Children
Christy S. Renjilian holds a Masters in Social Policy Analysis from the University of Chicago and has served as the Executive Director of Community Connections for Children since 2011. She previously worked at the United Way of York County, and for YMCAs in several cities across the US.
Community Connections for Children, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit with a staff of 85 and a $144 million budget. They serve childcare providers and low-income families overseeing Child Care Works and Keystone STARS, Resource & Referral Services, CACFP, and the Parents as Teachers Program in thirteen counties in South Central Pennsylvania.
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