How do we communicate without communications staff?
Having a dedicated communications team is out of reach for many nonprofits, but the need to communicate effectively to external audiences is still there. This episode of the Smart Communications Podcast features a conversation with Wayne Ho, President and CEO of CPC, a large social services organization located in NYC. Out of CPC’s 4,000 employees, none have “communications” in their job title. Listen in to find out how Wayne encourages all staff to be effective brand ambassadors.
Sarah Durham: I’m here today with Wayne Ho who’s the president and CEO of The Chinese American Planning Council or CPC. CPC is the nation’s largest Asian American social services’ agency, that’s pretty awesome, Wayne. And prior to that he served as the chief program and policy officer of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies or FWPWA. FPWA is a 90 year old network of over 200 community and faith based organizations, aiming to promote the social and economical well being of vulnerable New Yorkers. He was responsible for expanding the policy, advocacy, community organizing and capacity building initiative to achieve FPWA’s economic equity agenda. He’s got a really long and impressive resume of leadership roles including a number of executive director positions and before all that when he was just a wee baron, he received his bachelor of arts from UC Berkeley and his masters in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy school of Government. Wayne’s an inspiring leader who’s extremely thoughtful about internal communications at his organization and in general, so I invited him to join us today to talk about internal communications, so welcome, Wayne.
Wayne Ho: Thank you for the invitation, I’m happy to be here.
Sarah Durham: Really nice to have you here. Our team had a meeting with you a couple months ago and you said something in that meeting that our team thought was really powerful and I asked you to write a blog about it, that lead to your blog Three No’s Equal Yes, which we’re going to link to the show notes, so people can read it, but what was striking about your comment and sort of the thinking that you expressed in this blog is your consciousness as an executive director about internal communications. So, do you mind just recapping kind of what you said and maybe talking a little bit about what ‘internal communications’ means to you?
Wayne Ho: When I joined CPC, which, from my previous leadership I used to run non-profits that had ten people, then so people and then coming to a non-profit like CPC that’s 4,000 staff, I knew that I had to communicate differently and there’s three rules that I use for internal communications; no title, no surprises and no drama and we can talk more about each of those three rules, but I think that the main lesson is that as a leader of an organization, especially the new leader or a large organization, it’s very important to be intentional and strategic and transparent in all your communications or there’s no way that you can carry out your vision for the organization.
Sarah Durham: Why is that? Why would being unintentional or not transparent or opaque, I suppose, become barrier?
Wayne Ho: Well, I think as a non-profit organization, it’s always very important for us to make it clear what were trying to accomplish and it’s up to the leader of this organization to motivate the staff and put a vision that can move, not only the staff, but also the board, also funders and other stake holders in the community. It’s something that clients and constituents can stand behind and that’s why I think it’s important as, especially the new leader, of an organization, it’s important for the staff to hear, “What do you want to accomplish? How do I fit in that vision? How do we work together to accomplish that vision?” And if there’s mixed messages or if you’re not being clear and you’re just being too generic, if you’re not providing the proper details of how you want to lead, not just what you want to accomplish, then I think that the organization especially a large organization will continue to operate in silos and will not work together in a common direction.
Sarah Durham: Hm, so, one vision. It actually reminds me of something that I’ve talked to other leaders about which is this idea that leader of an organization you have this role to play, you’re this figurehead and maybe when you go to work you put on the mantel of being the leader can feel a little bit like dressing up, but doing so allows you to express your vision the vision of the organization and play that role that’s galvanizing and unifying, do you see it that way?
Wayne Ho: Yeah, I think that it’s much like being a teacher or being a performer where I feel like you always have to be on and that doesn’t mean you can’t be vulnerable, that doesn’t mean that you can’t share your personality with your team, but it does mean is that you have to very conscious and intentional about how you are engaging with senior staff to the line staff of the organization. Someone who is a leadership coach to me once told me, “Think about the ideal qualities of a leader that you want to be. Now, make a list of every action and behavior that you do that carries out and fulfills that image of a leader and think of every action and behavior that you do that does not carry out that image of the leader and what you need to do then is maximize and do more of the good qualities and behaviors and minimize or completely cutout all the bad behaviors bad actions of that leader.”
Sarah Durham: It’s amazing. It sounds like a very conscious discipline for you. So, let’s talk about those three rules, that you call the three no’s, can you unpack those a little bit more for us?
Wayne Ho: Sure, so, the first rule is no titles and what I mean by that is, when we’re working with a senor team, everyone who is a part of CPC has their job descriptions, have their roles and responsibilities, but when we’re in this room and we’re talking about what is our strategic direction or we’re talking about some crisis that has hit the organization or if we’re talking about how do we deal with the Federal budget? It’s up to everyone as a leader of an organization to get together and strategize together and brain storm and that’s why I have the no titles rule, which is when we’re in this room, we’re all equal leaders of this organization, we can all weigh in from our perspectives on how to address and issue. And hat’s what the no titles rule is about, it’s trying to promote participatory leadership, it’s trying to promote open dialogue, it’s trying to promote opportunities for everyone to weigh in and have the opportunity to lead.
That I do think that is important though about the no titles rule is to make it clear that once a decision is made then it’s up to everyone to stand behind this decision, internally and externally and communicate it to their staff, communicate it to the client and communicate it to other stake holders.
Sarah Durham: Do you go into a meeting reminding your team this is a no titles meeting? How do you bring that to life and keep it top of mind, so people do it?
Wayne Ho: Sure, I think there’s times where, when the conversations flowing well and everyone is communicating well that I don’t need to bring it up but there’s other times when we’re having these conversation where questions a rise and I remind folks, “Remember, there’s no titles.” I want to hear from you, I want to hear from the CFO, I want to hear from a development director, I want to hear from the chief program officer about for example, a human resources issue that’s going on or a legal issue or a real estate issue that it’s no titles, it’s all weigh in.
Sarah Durham: So, your second rule is no surprises. How does that come to life at CPC?
Wayne Ho: So, no surprises, I think becomes very important when you are the leader of an organization and you want to make sure that you know all the good and the bad and you want to make sure you know all the perspectives of what’s going on and I think that the worst thing to ever happen is you come into a meeting and you find out that a funder that you’re trying to cultivate stop funding you because you weren’t successful at implementing the grant five years ago or you meet with a politician and the politician might not like something that you’ve done as an organization or you’re meeting with another partner organization and you’re trying to do a collaborative program together and you find out that there was a fail collaboration a few years ago.
So, especially as a new leader of an organization, you don’t want to be surprised and I think this rule works both ways. It’s not just for me as a CEO to make an informed decision, I think it’s also for senior staff all the way to line staff for them to know what’s going on in an ionization because it promotes buy in. So, for example, you don’t want to be the communication’s director and the first time you see the CEO on TV is the first time you know about it that there’s an interview going on or you happen to be the person running our senior center and the first time that you find out that you’re not going to get renewed for funding happens to come from an outside source as opposed to the leadership of the non-profit. So, I think that the no surprises rule works both ways that everyone needs to be up to speed on what’s going on in an organization.
Sarah Durham: So, it sounds like to me that the no surprise’s rule probably relies on two things, one is for people to actually do their homework to do some research or do some background, digging in before they take on an issue, but I think that the other and more significant thing that you’re talking about is proactive communications that to use your media example, if you’re on the air and I’m the communication’s director and I’m surprised to see you’re on the air, it’s because somebody hasn’t proactively communicated that to me and that’s the kind of thing that you’re asking your people to step up and take responsibility for. So, how do you do that? How do you cultivate a no surprises culture at CPC?
Wayne Ho: Too many times I think organizations wait to communicate when there’s a meting or when there’s a scheduled meeting with the leadership teams two weeks from now so, we’ll talk about that point. I think there has to be a lot of different communications among organizations and communicating in a way that people can receive the message. So, whether that’s via email, whether that’s via text messaging, whether that’s dropping into peoples office, picking up the phone, once again CPC has 4,000 employees, 33 locations, 50 programs, so we’re not all on the same space so, we need to make sure that we communicate regularly, and we all need to keep each other up to speed on what’s going on, and I think its just as important as to communicate well In scheduled meetings and settings as it is to communicate regularly and often and make it clear what the decision’s are going on or what information that people need to know before they start interacting with others.
Sarah Durham: And think about the channels and tools that are going to reach the most effectively. I’m curious how you implement a no surprise’s policy with your board, as things are going on, if there’s a crisis or even good news, do you have some ways that you like to keep your board up to speed and communicate with them?
Wayne Ho: Sure, so, my board chair, and I have biweekly phone calls so, I make sure that there’s an agenda, I send them any information before hand so, that she can review it and during these calls we have open conversations about what’s going on including things that are not going well or things that we really need to work on or an unexpected issue that arose that the board needs to know about or needs to weigh in on. It’s also during a lot of phone calls or emails take place between board members and myself. What I also try to do is, every one to two weeks, sending an email to the board to let them know what are some accomplishments or key activities or success that we had recently as well as surfacing what issues have arisen.
One thing that I have learned though is that it’s really up to the staff as you said to do the proactive analysis as well as coming up with recommendations and options on how to address the issue. So, I have learned that we do need to do our homework and present these options and recommendations to the board as opposed to saying, “Oh, this thing hit the fan and we need to address it.” As opposed to, “This hit the fan, here’s the background, here’s three options that we’re looking at. This is our recommendation.” And then we work with the board to figure it out on the best recommendation.
Sarah Durham: So, no surprise’s and here’s a path for it. So, your third rule is no drama. Which is a really great one I think of any organization, but tell us about what no drama means at CPC.
Wayne Ho: I remember what I heard that President Obama told his White house staff, no drama and that always resonated with me because there’s so much drama in the families that we serve and in the communities that we’re located in. There’s already a lot of drama with what’s going on politically, what goes on in a non-profit where we always need to raise funding to how do we measure our impacts to there is a lot pressures and community members coming to us for help and we might not have the expertise or capacity to do so. So, the drama rule for me is that because there’s so many forces and so much drama in the communities that we’re serving, that we a CPC, especially as a leadership team of the organization, let’s not have drama amongst ourselves.
Yes, we will always have strong personalities, yes some people are going to be closer to others, and yes, there’s always going to be conflicts and differences of opinions and disagreement, but let’s not have drama amongst ourselves and that’s something I always try to promote at CPC is that we are one team, we are moving in a common direction, you’re all leaders of this organization and just because you have disagreements or conflicts, does not mean that we should let that linger because we’re all here on behalf of the community, we’re all here on behalf of the organization and that’s why I encourage staff members who might be having disagreements between them before it become drama and others hear about it, let’s work one on one together and address these issues between us.
Sarah Durham: So, do you have any tips for people who are working or trying to create a no drama environment? And there’s a lot of drama, do you confront those people? How would you encourage somebody to manage something like that?
Wayne Ho: I think that the main thing I’ve learned is that I order to make sure that there’s no drama, is that you really need to build trust. So, spend a lot of time building community amongst the leadership team, So, that means spending time together in formal meetings, that also means that during peoples birthdays or people work anniversaries, let’s celebrate that together as a leadership team. Finding the opportunities to either have lunch together or finding opportunities to have happy hours together. I think that it’s important to build team amongst a leadership team. I think that the together way that I’ve learned to promote no drama is that I always tell staff and I’ve also told the board that we will always have honest, tough conversations. So, even if it might be hard to hear, we need to have tough conversations because it’s not about us, it’s about the community.
Sarah Durham: That’s awesome. I actually just finished listening to a really interesting interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a podcast called The Boss Files with CNN correspondent Poppy, I think it’s Poppy Harlow, and one of the thing that Justice Ginsburg talks about is when the justices are going in to sit or convening around something, they always begin every day by shaking each others hands. Everybody must shake hands, they always eat lunch together and then they regularly travel together and they create all kinds of contexts in which they have to hang out together, which you can imagine with the political spectrum on the bench, probably could be challenging, but she was talking about in this interview about how essentially the relationships become because of those personal threads. So, I think a lot of people don’t like what feels like forced socializing or forced play time with their colleagues , but it really has an entrancement benefit.
Wayne Ho: Yeah, I found that to be true too and I remember when I started moving up in a different organization that I worked at and then becoming an executive directorate, it was awkward for me to be the one say, “Oh, someone’s birthday. I gotta make sure I say something about their birthday.” Or someone is having a baby shower and I want to say something about them becoming a parent. I remember it was very awkward when I first started, but I got used to doing it and I’ve also gotten feedback that not only does it that employee that we’re acknowledging appreciate it, but everybody else starts seeing it as this is the type of culture that we want at the organization. That people are recognized, not just because they’re staff members carrying out their roles and responsibility, but they’re also people who have value unto themselves as a part of our team.
Sarah Durham: Yeah, and I think that as a leader that if you feel personally uncomfortable doing some of those things. Again, can you imagine it’s not you the individual, it’s you the person playing the leadership role, you kind of shift your perspective and it feels more normal.
Wayne Ho: Yeah and I think that’s a good way to look at it and something else that I do to try and build teams is that i actually do an ice breakers questions at the beginning of meetings. And there’s always a joke amongst the staff that I’ve been a part of which is, “Oh, you’re gonna make us do another ice breaker?” And half of them hate ice breakers, and the other half really likes ice breakers, but after I’ve transitioned out of organizations, the people that really hate ice breakers, have always told me, “I know I hated ice breakers, but it did help us become a team. I did learn a lot about individuals there and there’s team members that I never thought I’d be close with that I found that I had more in common with them.”
Sarah Durham: Awesome, well, Wayne, thank you so much for joining me today. It sounds like you’re running a very healthy internally communicating organization and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Wayne Ho: Thank you very much.