How a non-profit successfully achieves strategic realignment

What does it take to bring about an organization's strategic realignment? In this episode of Toughest Call, Scott Skinner, CEO of Clean Foundation, talks about how he and his team strategically repositioned their organization to heighten its impact. Scott takes us through how he initially positioned this strategic pivot for success, and then kept it on course, during execution.

Scott Skinner: We had really great, well-educated, competent people that could take on complex projects, so I saw this, I was like, I need to apply these people to their highest and best use. So that may require a pivot.

Chaz Thorne: Welcome back, or welcome to Toughest Call, a podcast for organizational leaders where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career-defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. 

In this episode, I'm talking with the CEO of Clean Foundation, Scott Skinner, about how he and his team strategically repositioned their organization to heighten its impact. 

In his leadership role, Scott works to ensure that the foundation's programs achieve the most significant outcomes they can for the communities in which they work. 

Several years ago, still fairly new to his role, Scott took stock of the talented team he had around him. This set him on a journey of refocusing Clean on where he felt they could make the most real progress toward a cleaner future as they took on climate change challenges. 

Managing the points of view of various stakeholders during change initiatives is incredibly difficult. Scott takes us through how he initially positioned this strategic pivot for success, and then kept it on course, during execution.

Scott Skinner: So I was probably about a year into my new role at the Clean Foundation, you know, getting my feet underneath me, learning the organization and the people getting a sense of like, where the political context was at the time. And, you know, I was determining that it was really good, we had great political alignment across all three levels of government, you know, around needing to take action on climate change. And I saw standing in front of us a whole lot of opportunity. I was also very happy to be focused on an organization or working with an organization that was focused on home, like Nova Scotia, my previous career, I'd spent a lot of time on the road and traveling to different places, which was great. But I really was happy to be grounded in Nova Scotia, and especially happy to be working in my hometown downtown Dartmouth. People who know me know I'm very connected to downtown Dartmouth and very happy to see the rejuvenation that's happening here, and Clean Foundation, we're very committed to being part of that community,

Chaz Thorne: What activities were Clean doing at the time that you came on board and during this first year: 

Scott Skinner: We have a lot of diverse activities. But at the time, the organization was more or less organized around two key themes. One was energy, like energy efficiency, and we work mostly there with low-income communities. And the other was what we called at the time community programs, which were sort of a grab bag of different things that we did over the years, that had more in common with, like the average nonprofit experience or like, annual funding, cobbling it together from various sources, you know, really, really tough to make it all work, whereas the energy work was long, multi-year contracts, properly funded, you know, financially sort of secure, to plan around for the long run.

Chaz Thorne: What came about to bring this discovery to you that you needed to make a change? 

Scott Skinner: You know, if I recollect back, it was kind of two things. One was that I was looking at sort of the landscape of what needed to be done around like transitioning our economies, or communities and economies to deal with climate change. It was sort of what we see now is the systemic responses that you've found in a lot of pieces over the last two years around green recovery, build back better, green the grid, make better use of efficiency, deal with resiliency in our communities, electrify as much as you can and educate people. And I saw how the assets and resources we had to Clean really lined us up well to start to focus on those things. And not the least of it was our people resources. We had really great, well-educated, competent people that could take on complex projects, you know, that was proved out through the energy team, big complex project, big budget long term. And then we had a few on the community side that really looked like, professional project management, so I saw this and I was like, I need to apply these people to their highest and best use. So that may require a pivot.

Chaz Thorne: When you had to communicate this need for change, which for you is really the tough call. How did you clearly and concisely communicate what the change was that you were trying to bring about?

Scott Skinner: Well, it wasn't, it took a while. I mean, I worked with the senior staff on this, you know, it was more like a reflection of looking ahead, and, you know, sort of that annual business planning process to think, what should we be doing? And what should we not do? And, you know, that's often the hardest question of like, deciding what you don't do. And, you know, it was building their comfort with saying no, to some activities we've done for a long time to our staff, partner, and stakeholders, and including some of the people on our board who were attached to some of these activities, that which I put into the community side, which were hard to find hard to resource, you know, didn't have the best stability year to year. So I had to build their comfort with this idea that it was okay to bring some things to an end or figure out what to do with them. But it wouldn't be with us.

Chaz Thorne: How did you go about building that, really that argument for change in terms of communicating it to your board, and those that would potentially present a challenge or a barrier to making this change?

Scott Skinner: I think the most important part of that was, you know, instilling the confidence in the team that it was okay to pursue change, that you know, that I had their back, when they were going to go out and talk to some of the partners and funders to say, hey, we just want to give you a heads up, we may decide not to do this next year, and that we'd had a plan to provide to them about what happens because some of these activities like very clear to everybody, and I think we all agreed, it wasn't that they weren't important, they continue to be important. It just, they could be done by others just as well. You know, it was about finding our role or our most appropriate role in the ecosystem of climate action. So, you know, it was that process of like, building the confidence that they understood the decision, they were part of it, and that they had my support on the hard discussions that may need to happen. And that we were going to do sort of the right and ethical thing, by making sure that we didn't leave important activities without a home.

Chaz Thorne: What's an example of an activity that you that was working, that you then passed on to another organization so that it can live on? 

Scott Skinner: The main one that we struggled with, and you know, it took a while to get to the decision around, it was The Great Nova Scotia Pick Me Up, which is essentially, you know, providing support to community groups on litter pickup campaigns. So at the time, if you ask people who Clean Nova Scotia was or Clean Foundation, they would associate us with the litter pickup campaigns. You know, we were going through this internal discussion at the point in time like, litter pickup is important. And like, once you see litter, you can't unsee it. But we weren't really having an impact on the source, you know, and the discussions around single-use plastics and things like that were coming to the floor. And I was like, what we need to do as an organization is to support thinking and activity further back, and then maybe at the, you know, the litter cleanup phase. There's other organizational groups at the community level, who would gladly take this up, you know, so this is the other factor that was at play is organizational brand awareness. So this was the thing was like, well, we can't give this up. This is how people know us. My point was, well, is that how we want them to know us?

I think what we do at this point in time, is we want them to know us for the much more complex, harder work, the capacity building the things that are new, the things that we're going to have to work through, like very painful and difficult difficulty in the transition to a low carbon economy, not as the group that goes out and picks up litter. You know, it took a while to bring people around to that idea.

Chaz Thorne: You went through this process, planning, building buy-in, communicating the change to, especially the internal stakeholders, staff board, other people on your leadership team. Was there a particular moment that you remember of boom, now we're moving into implementation. This is the first time that we're actually going outside of these conversations that we've been having internally. And we're starting to live this change.

Scott Skinner: So the way of being at our organization is, you know, we don't come to anyone, each other or partners, with problems, we come with solutions. So what we did is we did what not like nonprofits don't often do, we gave the project away. We found an organization that could take it on. And we not only said, Okay, here's the space for you, we said, here's the applications that we have sent in the previous years for funding, here's the website we use to organize it, here's somebody that's going to be attached to it to help you, you know, ramp up over this first six months. 

Once we did that, you know, one of the organizations that we ended up working with on it, Adopt a Highway, you know, it made it really easy for them. It also made it really easy for the partners and funders, because they didn't feel like there was any loss of continuity, like we didn't, it made that transition a whole lot easier. Like when I first said, you know, we first went out, it's like, well, we may not do this anymore, they you know, people, there was some resistance, and then we said, but just wait, we've got a plan. And in walks, Adopt a Highway, here's the whole rollout plan. And it really stewarded in that way with trust, like it only really took, you know, half a year to move beyond it. And then we could feel safe and in the space that this important activity continued. And, you know, I had hoped as well that we set an example that we would be able to use again, that it was okay to stop doing some things. 

And we followed that. Over the course of the last five years, like every year, we say, Okay, should we do this anymore? Are we having like for us the test is like, is it having an impact? Right? And if we can't have continued to have impact or improve things, well, then they need to go somewhere else. And we'll find something else to do because we have really great people. But at no point do we go and like, like wash our hands of it. We always come with a plan. And I always like end up now pointing back to this pretty simple example with the great Nova Scotia Pick Me Up is that this is how this is the best way to do it. It was awesome. The first example works, so now we can build off that. And our partners can trust us because we have an example.

Chaz Thorne: I hope you're enjoying this episode of Toughest Call at OnePagePlans.ca. My team and I get organizations aligned in just two days with strategic plans that fit on a single page. And since strategy is all about making decisions, we created a suite of free decision making tools for organizational leaders like you. So to get some assistance with your next tough call access these complimentary resources at ToughestCall.com.

As you move through and as you started with the you know, the Pick Me Up is a large example of a change that you made. As you move through your portfolio and looked at other other activities that you looked at passing off to other organizations and re refocusing. Did you come up against any significant resistance or potentially even some resistance that you weren't able to overcome with a stakeholder?

Scott Skinner: There was another like, it's actually kind of a similar program that we used to run for many years it was called Ship to Shore. And what it did is we had somebody that went around to small small harbors, not like the big ones like Halifax and worked with like the people in the community to try to encourage them to generate less waste. And you know, you go to the same places year after year after year and talk to the same people like you kind of run that conversation to its logical end. And in the end it's really hard to make the progress. And that was another one we decided, well, I don't know if we should do this anymore. But here's an idea and what we decided to try to pursue was bringing you know abroad as a group of stakeholders together around this thing called a clean ocean Summit, so we brought, like nonprofits, government, academics, industry and indigenous groups, all to like a working conference with an idea of coming together out of it, like in creating some working groups that could attach these issues at the source. But for some of the stakeholders around Ship to Shore, because it's such a, like, intractable problem, and if you've, if you've read or heard anything about ghost gear, it's like just, it's just a, it's a crazy issue, like a large percentage of ocean waste is in discarded fishing gear. Like, you know, there were some stakeholders there that like, took me to task. And, you know, I remember those meetings vividly. You know, basically saying, like, I understand you're upset, we can't take responsibility for this forever, and not see things change. But here's something we're going to try to do to bring people together. And, you know, it's a sentiment that we try and think about all the time right now. It's like these issues of environment, climate change is so big, there's so much to do, we need to divide and conquer. So part of our job is to bring people together and say, okay, let's get people working with the same ideas together, rather than working across purposes. But those first initial meetings were very tense for something that, you know, in the grand scheme of things, the general public would have no idea that this program was funded for like, you know, 10 plus years.

Chaz Thorne: Interesting. Did you, you mentioned previously, that the new way that you approach things in terms of deciding what you would do was based on what is the impact that this will or potentially could have? How do you define impact for Clean Foundation?

Scott Skinner: You know, that's a tough question. When you look at the broad challenges that sit in front of us today. And we say this to ourselves all the time, like, we're going to prioritize impact over revenue. So we won't chase a project, just because there's money associated with it. It's like, do we have something to offer? And can we make a difference? You know, some of the things are really easy to, to, to capture, like, right now we're doing, you know, electric vehicle awareness and education, plus running rebates around it, you can see the numbers, we know how many bumps have been in seats and electric vehicles. We know how many media impressions have been on our social channels. We know how many people we've talked to, we know how many rebates went through. Like, that's really easy. 

Some of the other things that we're doing right now are much harder to quantify. And these are like, what we'll call capacity building work. So we're, you know, we'll work with municipalities on helping them gain knowledge and resources around climate adaptation to climate mitigation, you're not going to see that right away in projects in those communities. Like it takes a while for these things to occur. But I guess the way that I've tried to capture it is like, how are people responding to us? Are we being invited back to the table? Are we coming up with new ideas that we can build upon? Are we bringing new partners to the table, and if I see new faces and new organizations that we're partnering with, and like, I think we're on the right path. 

So not everything can be like, you know, I know that the management adage is like, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. When you're talking about bringing communities along on a big transformational shift, you're not going to be able to measure everything. And you know, we're going to have to live with that.

Chaz Thorne: How would you define what, what or who Clean was, before this change was made? And what or who Clean is now?

Scott Skinner: The years before me, like it was a harder struggle to get funded, pay for staff, that type of thing. So I think there was this notion that we were trying a bit to be everything to everybody. And now we're less so like, we have a strategic framework that we work with that, you know, basically maps, you know, like I mentioned earlier, the green recovery build back better within the climate change lens, we stay within that framework, we focus on marginalized communities, and we allow the teams that are sort of broken up into these separate areas to pursue and grow as long as they stay within those boundaries. So I think right now, I hope people see us as advancing, like knowledge around what our company needs to next supporting governments and communities on putting together things that can be actually implemented in the communities. You know, there may be capacity building, but we're always going to be talking about action. You know, so I hope that we're seeing, and this is like very intentional for us, we want to be very partnership-oriented, a hope we're seen as, as open armed partners, and, you know, that are focused on these things that are the transition to low carbon economy. And I know, like, there's a lot of jargon in there. And that is part of our job right now is to communicate that. But we certainly don't want to be no, just, you know, thought of as, like, we're out there to solve every environmental problem, it's just too much.

Chaz Thorne: When you think back to the processes that you went through as a leader, like the thought process, that the processes that you went through are the things you did as a leader, leading up to making this tough call of, of changing this organization. And then the things that happened, as you implemented this change, is there anything in hindsight, that you may have done differently?

Scott Skinner: What I'm not sure is like, did I get the timing? Right, you know, in the end, it worked out. And I think we're on a great path right now. But, you know, I think there was, you know, during that first year, when I was, you know, finding my feet here, you know, that period probably wasn't the easiest for some staff. And probably, if I look back, if, I probably could have communicated it in a more structured way over the course of these changes, you know, because change is hard. And, especially with the nonprofit organizations that are always subject to cyclical funding, or annual funding agreements, like, one of the things that we try to think about a lot here is how staff feel about this, the security in their roles. And, you know, as much as I and the senior team here try to communicate and deal with that, you're probably never doing enough to make people feel that they're really secure. So, we've been very lucky in the time in my time here that it's been like a growth period, it's so much easier being in these types of organizations, when there's opportunity and growth. I'm very aware that that's a luxury and it's not inevitable. So, you know, you have to communicate with people as change is occurring.

Chaz Thorne: What words of advice would you have for another organizational leader who is sort of staring down the barrel of a potential tough call like this, where they're looking at proposing a really significant change for their organization.

Scott Skinner: You know, I'd say, you know, test out your ideas with people you trust, make sure that you build support with your senior team, or the people in your organization that are going to be affected by it. And then, once you make the decision, start with it, and, and stick with it. Like, you can get in a cycle of introspection on decisions like this. 

And if the longer you drag them out, the less likely they're going to be successful, or you're going to, you know, have people's trust as you go through it. Like, I'm very, I try to be very action-oriented. So like, you know, think, think, think and then when a decision is made, now it's time to do and that would be my advice is like, get to that point of decision and then start doing.

Chaz Thorne: Scott's process in this episode is an excellent breakdown of what it takes to bring about an organization's strategic realignment, but as a preliminary step, how do you even begin to assess your organization's change readiness. 

One of my favorite books is “The First 90 Days” by Michael Watkins. Now, though it's positioned as this onboarding Bible, if you will, for executive leaders, the book really includes a lot of just excellent insight into strategy formulation and implementation in a broader context. 

One of the frameworks he puts forward in his book is the stars Model, S T A R S. In effect, the model allows you to get clear on the lay of the land, so to speak. Now this clarity is essential, because if you jump into proposing significant changes before you do this foundational analysis, you're likely going to encounter quite a bit of resistance from the team members that you're actually expecting to ultimately implement these changes that you're proposing. 

Now, whether you've led a team for a while, or you were recently promoted or transferred internally, or you're stepping into a new organization altogether, STARS allows you to answer two key questions. The first is what change am I being called upon to lead. And the second is, what type of leader must I be to lead this change. In other words, you may have to adapt your typical leadership style in order to match the context of what's required here. 

So to break it down for you in a bit more detail, STARS is an acronym for five different types of status. Now, this can be the status of an organization, a division or even a project or an initiative. So they are: 

startup,

turnaround,

accelerated growth,

realignment, and

sustaining success. 

Startup is defined by pulling together the capabilities, so that would be talent, money, technology, other assets, to get a new venture or project up and going. Now one of the significant challenges here is building strategy structures and systems from scratch without any pre-existing guidelines or frameworks.

Turnaround is defined by your attempt to save an initiative or an organization that is clearly in significant distress, it's gone off the rails, what can be especially difficult as a leader in that situation is motivating and engaging stakeholders and staff who may be demoralized by the present state.

Accelerated growth is defined as a rapidly expanding organization or initiative. So to succeed in that context, you need to create revised systems and structures that allow sustainable and scalable growth.

Realignment is defined by re-energizing a previously successful organization or initiative that is now facing challenges. And accordingly, a first step, if you want to motivate change in your team is, you actually need to ensure that they recognize that the organization or initiative is in trouble in the first place. 

Sustaining success is defined by preserving an organization or initiative’s health, while simultaneously exploring opportunities to sort of level up. So here, you'll likely find yourself fighting against that all too common mentality of if it ain't broke, and you're trying to overcome this, while you're attempting to identify ways to create further growth. 

Now, the strategic responses you develop will vary quite a bit based on which state you identify in this STARS model that applies to your particular situation. And it's also, I should point out, that it's unlikely you'll encounter a situation that perfectly aligns with the above, especially if you're looking at the organizational context, because you know, an organization will be in different states, particularly if it's, it's large. But it doesn't change the fact that if you first get clear on your status using this model, you're more likely to create and communicate a change process that will ultimately be successful. 

So our team at OnePagePlans.ca developed this free rapid assessment that can help you determine where your organization or initiative lives within Watkins’ STARS model, and then how to lead others accordingly, based on what the assessment tells you the status is. Take the rapid assessment: Matching Strategy to Present State.

If you'd like to learn more about the work of Clean Foundation, you can check out their website Clean Foundation.ca and follow them on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter


And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to ToughestCall.com to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to Toughest Call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.


Guest
Scott Skinner

Scott Skinner is the President & CEO of Clean Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental environment organization based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia that focuses on cleaner future initiatives. Scott is a member of the Nova Scotia Roundtable of the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity; he sits on the Federal Sustainable Development Advisory Council as the representative for Nova Scotia; and, Scott is on the Board of the investment fund Wind4All Communities.

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