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By Scott D. Grayson, CAE – CEO, American Public Works Association

As a KCSAE Board member we are asked to write articles throughout the year. I was asked to write an article on Organizational Culture—which could not have come at a better time. Just about two years ago, I led discussions among APWA’s staff leadership team about organizational culture. I asked what culture do we want for our organization? More importantly, what does that even mean for an organization? Can leaders engineer, create or drive a culture, or does it need to emerge organically? There are two schools of thought. Organizational culture experts are split--so too were our staff. Some said we need a culture of respect and ethics. Others said that is a given. Some said we need a collaborative culture that allows us to achieve our vision statement, “Advancing the quality of life for all.”

For me I have always thought that associations or non-profits have had a bad reputation as being sleepy, slow moving, and bureaucratic. My perspective has always been that non-profit organizations are businesses like any other but have been given a designation by the Internal Revenue Service since they have a specific mission. Therefore, there is no reason they can’t be run like a for-profit business. For me, I wanted our organization to have a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. We continued this discussion right up until March 9th when COVID-19 hit.

During the week of March 9, 2020, we were planning to continue to address this at our staff leadership retreat. We had just moved into a new office for our Washington, D.C. staff and planned to host a Board meeting, an advocacy fly-in and a Capitol Hill reception at our new offices when the World Health Organization declared a world pandemic. The Board met and left DC in a hurry to get home as more news emerged about the pandemic. The staff leadership team stayed in D.C. until Friday, March 13th. Instead of holding our retreat we set up an emergency operations center in our new office to address a variety of issues as they emerged. During the next few days, we realized that this was not going to be like anything else we had ever experienced. We had no frame of reference of how to react or address each of these issues.

On Thursday, March 12th the Governor of Ohio issued an executive emergency order banning all gatherings of more than 100 people. We were scheduled to hold our North American Snow Conference and Expo with nearly 3,000 people in Cleveland, OH. It was difficult for us to wrap our heads around this. What were we going to do? We would be violating state law if we proceeded with the Conference. We called an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors and explained that we will need to cancel this conference. We had never canceled a conference in the 84-year history of our organization. The staff leadership team met in the Board room of our brand-new office in D.C. and jumped into action. We created a command center and divvied up responsibilities. Such responsibilities included developing a communications strategy to the membership, conference registrants, exhibitors, and vendors. We created an emergency action list that each of the directors communicated to their staff. All 60 staff had a role to play in dealing with this unprecedented cancellation.

As we were working in the Board room, we had CNN on the screen and watched now former President Trump speaking about the outbreak and what it meant. At that point, we decided that there were too many unknowns. We had also met with a government official the previous day who told us, “This is a pandemic like we have never seen, and we have no way of stopping it. Many people are going to get COVID-19 and our only hope is to slow the spread so that we don’t overwhelm the hospitals in the U.S. People are going to have stay home.” We then began a discussion about remote work. We put a plan in place targeting Wednesday, March 18, 2020, as the day that people would begin to work from home. Prior to this we had a few staff that worked remotely one day a week. So, this was going to be very different for most people.

We spent Monday and Tuesday of that week ensuring that everyone had the software and hardware needed to perform their various tasks and jobs from home. We discussed issues of managing remote work. We held daily leadership team meetings for the first two weeks and weekly check-in staff meetings to make sure everyone had what they needed to do their job. We launched a staff online chat where people with questions or concerns could constantly seek input or advice. Staff from different departments at all levels jumped in to respond with what they knew to assist other staff.

This collaboration and camaraderie were very different than what I had seen in the past. Prior to this, we had been working on breaking down silos among departments. All of a sudden there was actually more cross departmental interaction than we had ever seen. We continued to meet every week as a staff, and I said my number one priority is your health and safety we will not bring you back to the office until we know it is safe. I explained my second priority was to try to keep everyone employed if possible. It was important to be honest and state what we knew and what we didn’t know. We already had to cancel one major conference and were expecting to cancel our biggest conference of the year for huge revenue losses. Would we lose members who work for state and local government? Would our advertisers stop purchasing ads? Would all our sources of revenue dry up? We were determined to not let any of that happen but so much was out of our control. All we could do was create a framework and a strategy from which we would address each new issue as it arose.

We continued our weekly check-in staff meetings then went to every other week and then once a month. At those staff meetings I asked that each staff person share with the rest of the group what role they played in the organization as well as what role they played in fulfilling our strategic plan. Since we were meeting via a zoom-like platform, as people presented, the rest of the group posted messages in the chat. At first, I thought people weren’t paying attention. What I found was something entirely different. People were posting messages about how great the person was who was speaking—posting messages such as: “You rock,” “You are the best at your job,” “I wouldn’t be able to do my job without you,” You are always there when I need you,” “You are so creative and talented,” and “If it weren’t for you, we would never have been able to launch virtual conferences.” These compliments went on and on every week.

Additionally, everyone had to move out of the mode of doing things the way they always had done them in the past. They took risks and tried new things because we had to. There was no choice if we wanted to weather the economic storm caused by the pandemic. We held three virtual conferences with virtual exhibits. We generated unanticipated non-dues revenue. We limited the loss of members by a continuous outreach program. We were able to cut expenses and did not end up having to lay off any staff during this past year. We also successfully sought PPP loans which helped as well.

The culture that we thought we had to define ended up defining itself. I believe our staff thrived in this last year and will continue to do so. Having said that it is very easy to slip back into old habits, business processes and modes of work. We are all going to try to be intentional in continuing the positive new habits and business processes while retaining a culture of collaboration, camaraderie, entrepreneurship, and innovation as we move out of the pandemic era. I think we now know what our culture is.

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