Wednesday Jul 26

EXCERPT FROM Nuts and Bolts: The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing By Wade Rathke, Publish by Social Policy Press, Available Fall 2017: Tips on Building and Managing an Organizing Staff

The truth is that people – for the most part – come to our work for two reasons, either because this is what they believe in or because they need a job. The ones that need a job but don’t believe are never going to be happy, nor is happiness waiting for the ones who are more committed to a certain life-style rather than to our work. Neither of those potential recruits, no matter how individually valuable they might seem, are going to make it over time. The people who need a job are solid prospects because they are rooted in our world and constituency, and many once involved in organizing in fact come to believe in the work, and therefore are invaluable. The ones who need a job and never believe in the work and culture, are going to be gone if they ever get a better offer, so we cannot expect otherwise. For everyone, fairness, a decent work environment, and basic support and encouragement can win a lifetime of work. The ones who come to us because they believe it the mission of the organization, our politics, our culture, the community they find here, and other “values” based reasons are also going to be able to stick, as long as the wages are fair and equitable and they are not abused or alienated in some way. These two sectors are both large, so we have to focus on what needs to be done to recruit and develop them permanently from either different orientations.

We manage one of these groups around ambition and realization and the other around competency, continuity, and standards. Yes, all of these are important regardless of the initial orientation of the individual, but we are looking here at emphasis, not exclusivity, and there is no substitute for good judgment and discernment in all of these areas. Ambition is a great and fierce motivator, particularly for staff drawn to the “cause” of the organization. These are people who have been trained and raised, sometimes from birth, to believe that they should be at the top of any heap, and they will fiercely want to succeed, if there’s any way possible for them to do so, in the organization. These are race horses that one has to teach to run and somehow keep them in the lanes so that they can make it to the end of the race.

Ambition is often the hand maiden of competition, and putting these two explosive pieces together so that the thrust propels the organization can be a tricky procedure either allowing fast progress or blowing up everything in its path. In a smaller organization with a narrow set of aspirations, these kinds of motivations are probably inappropriate. In organizations with the broad mission and aspiration of unions or community organizations like ACORN, I believe that you might as well recognize the existence of these potentially creative, yet centrifugal forces, and try to manage them to the benefit of the enterprise.

Our record is good at handling these kinds of explosive combinations for the most part. We have had limited experience over almost five decades with the common problem in business (and in some non-profits) where
individuals have begun competitive organizations. Running local unions within a larger international there is a constant encouragement for disloyalty and subterfuge in the increasing corporatization of large unions and there are political alliances which shift and can therefore strand organizers and leaders as the tides move in and out within such institutions. For the most part this has not been a terrible problem for us, but we have seen it and experienced the phenomena, and found little to recommend or respect in the way this works out. The move to make local unions mere shells of formality, rather than operating entities of large unions is the wider trend here, though I am not sure that it will be the final paradigm.

The plus side of managing along these lines built us a core and deep reserve of very talented, top flight people who could manage virtually anything anywhere, and we were – and are -- fortunate that they have yoked their futures to these organizations and our mission. Managing along these lines, one might reasonably ask, how I survived for all of these years? Good question! And, the answer is not measurably different than how anyone survives at the top of any large, aggressive combination.

First, it is always critical on the bottom line to correctly understand and maintain your base. I often joked, unsmilingly, that I am still a local group organizer, and the very large local group that I have had to grow and maintain constantly is the staff itself. To be a boss and manage people one has to always remember that you have to maintain significant consensual support among the people you supervise in order to be their boss. A fundamental error many supervisors make is not understanding that their ability to drive staff is based on the support of the staff, not simply their own brilliance, grueling work habits, personal charisma, or any number of other very temporary and tenuous things. All of these other assets are important and may help give you the respect and edge you need to operate, but to manage a staff you have to be able to drive the staff and without the clear or unspoken “consent of the governed” a revolution is as likely as a successful program. This is especially true in a non-profit, and absolutely true in a more poorly paid group of outfits like our own, because we do not have the business alternative of simply buying silence and support and throwing money at the problems. In such a culture an imperial or autocratic style might work for a limited amount of time, especially if you were also the rainmaker and were driving in the income that was greasing all of the wheels. New supervisors often make the first mistake of believing that they can actually tell someone what to do and get them to do it. Sure you can tell people anything, but they will do what they want to do until you can make them realize that anything other than what you are proposing is impossible, everything being equal.

Secondly, regardless of the first proposition, you also can never forget who your boss is, and though you need the support of the people you manage to succeed and get the work done, you do not work for them, and they cannot fire you, though they can try and sometimes succeed if you forget this rule. You have to communicate frankly and fully with your employers and make sure that on both easy decisions and hard calls that you have their support. In my case my bosses have always been boards of either elected leaders or others, so it is a matter of making sure they understand my job, can fairly evaluate my performance, and know clearly the boundaries between what they have to do and what they are paying me to do. If one makes a mistake with the first rule, doing well on this second rule can save you temporarily, and perhaps that will allow you enough time to fix the first problem and survive.

Thirdly, never make the mistake of believing that friendship is possible in a professional context on either side of this equation. You can neither show preference nor can you hope to be shown quarter based on friendship. This is different than loyalty or many other sustaining values that are work and performance tested. If it is personal, it will not help you and could hurt you, so be careful. Being a boss is not a thankless job, and if you believe in your work, the accomplishments of the organization will be your reward, but it is a hard job. Neither is this to say that you will not make deep, permanent, lifetime friends in the work especially among your organizing comrades – you will and I did – but staff management cannot be based on these issues and in fact it is important to steer a straight path around any perception of bias or preference.

Fourthly, flowing from the last rule, keep relationships clear and the structure uncluttered and transparent, so relationships have boundaries and therefore authority and responsibility are fully understood.

Fifthly, always avoid having to give orders and ultimatums or anything that puts authority to a test, at least until, and unless, you know that your authority will prevail and be unassailable. Suasion is a more powerful
administrative tool than stark power. The threat is always more dangerous than the delivery, and the more you get involved in situations where relationships are polarized, the more likely conflict will ensue, and no one ever wins all the time, so beware of being caught in this open ground.

Sixthly, always deal with individuals in private rather than in public whenever possible in order to allow embarrassment to be avoided and authority to be exercised without being complicated by an individual’s fear of losing face or honor.

Seventh, regardless of the sixth rule, always remember that the group is more important than the individual, and in a “public” or group setting you cannot necessarily protect people from themselves, because then it is your job to maintain the organization, not the individual, the culture and mission, and not the personal and its prerogatives. Protecting the individual may confuse the larger staff about what is permissible, appropriate, and even legitimate, and the individual has to fall before the collective interests.

Eighth, don’t manage based on trust. If you are going to be a the boss in a large organization, you have to be about the job, and as much as you like people and enjoy the work environment and community created, trust is a different and dangerous thing. Always better to ask, than it is to assume. Always be prepared for the worst, so that you can be pleased with the best. Create the collectivity around shared principles and commitments, which are then depersonalized, rather than allowing something like “trust” to be an operating value. Make the work speak for itself, rather than allow the person to speak through different values.

Ninth, always remember that you are expendable, no matter who you are, how long you have worked, or how well you have performed. To hold onto a job at the top you have to set the standard for value produced, and there is never a relaxation on such production. You can be thanked even while you are being fired or pushed out. If you want to stay on the job, learn to live without thanks and continue to be willing to push the envelope.

Tenth, learn to manage conflict and survive controversy calmly. You have to be able to take a punch without falling. Most punches are meant to hurt you, not kill you, so if you can take them and keep standing in the ring, you will heal, sometimes stronger, and fight again more favorably.

Eleventh, give people wide authority to do their jobs, so that your relationship to them is not defined in a boss/worker framework. Let people develop constructive relationships that mirror your own with their teams and responsibilities. This builds the organization, encourages loyalty, and creates innovation and learning.

Finally, if you are going to survive as the boss of a large organization, I think you have to always look at the next day as the time for your most important contribution. No matter what power you may exercise, the focus needs to be on the challenge and your ability to provide the leadership and skills to get where everyone agrees we need to be. The security in your vision and conviction in the necessity of your participation makes you part of the permanent furniture of the organization.

This is an excerpt from Nuts and Bolts: The ACORN Methodology of Organizing by Wade Rathke, available from Social Policy Press at in the Fall of 2017. Wade was the founder of ACORN and worked as Chief Organizer from 1970 to 2008, and continues as the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, a membership organization of low and moderate income families working in eighteen countries around the world.


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