Tips for insuring the show goes on, despite a smaller cast of characters

Among the small to mid-sized nonprofits and ministry organizations to which I offer consulting services, staffing adjustments (down-sizing, right-sizing, and plain old lay-offs) are more the rule than the exception. The North American nonprofit sector is no stranger to getting by on less. But these days less is edging toward subsistence, with budgets and personnel close to the breaking point.

I wish I could say that the days of cuts are past, but I can’t – at least not with complete certainty. Even if organizational leaders (boards, CEOs, and senior staff) begin doing what it takes to move from surviving to thriving, there can be more pruning required in the short-term.

So, what’s a leadership team to do when the show must go on but with a smaller cast of characters to cover all the roles?

“Create a plan.”

That’s what Madeline Niebauer, founder and CEO of vChief, advises in an article posted to the Bridgespan Group’s blog. Niebauer writes with employee-initiated leave-taking in mind, but it’s not much of a stretch to apply her ideas to staffing situations where the shoe is on the other (AKA your) foot.

You’ll want to give Niebauer’s blog a read. Until you get there, here are a few take-aways.

PLACES EVERYONE! SOMEONE?

Capture knowledge before it walks out the door. To the guilt-ridden supervisor or CEO it can feel like pouring salt on wounds to ask employees whose jobs have been eliminated to share what they know with the survivors. However, a bad situation becomes even worse when knowledge critical to smooth organizational functioning is allowed to walk out the door. So ask you must.

Niebauer suggests assigning “other employees to shadow the departing employees as they complete day-to-day work. This will help ensure you are documenting duties, as well as any unique knowledge the employee has developed of which others might not be aware.”

Prioritize key tasks and eliminate others. Wherever I go, staff talk (complain) about the stress of trying to do two or three jobs and feeling like they’re failing at them all. Concepts of call and Christian vocation can carry staff in faith-based nonprofits further than in some other organizations, but even here, there’s a line not worth crossing – for the sake of the mission and for the good of the employee base.

Niebauer challenges CEOs to “determine which of the departing employees’ tasks are mission critical to your organization and which ones can be put on hold. Compare these tasks of greatest importance with the other priorities and responsibilities of your team.”

Work with the existing team, some of whom may be dealing with survivor’s guilt. Although relieved to still have their jobs, it’s tough to watch friends and professional colleagues deal with forced departures. There will also be questions about what downsizing is going to mean for continuing staff, including the prospect of more work for the same (or less) pay. And of course, there’s worry about who will be the next to go.

Niebauer encourages you to “be honest with other employees about what kind of impact [the downsizing] will have on your organization—and on their workload. Now might also be a good time to reconfigure your existing team. Are there individuals you might want to test out with a new role? Make sure existing staff feel supported, not overwhelmed. Help them prioritize work as needed.”

Manage your relationship with the departing employee(s), including (or especially) through the stages of grieving that come with losing a job. Cry with those who cry. Show empathy. Accept anger as a reasonable response. If ever there is a time to love your neighbor as yourself, this is it.

Niebauer urges you to “keep the lines of professional communication open—this person may one day return to the organization and/or become a good source of leads for other opportunities.”

There’s little joy in paring staff and trimming programs, but “with a careful balance of clear communication, mindful delegation,” courage, and God with you, the show can go on even with a smaller cast of characters.

For more on managing work-place expectations, see:

Beware “iceberg beliefs” that can sink your organization

When life flows on in endless work

Get more done by doing less

 

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