Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Training Social Changemakers: An Interview with Andre Carothers of the Rockwood Leadership Program

"These skills, which one sees in action around the country with certain key individuals who seem to be able to bridge gaps between organizations and issue areas, we can teach them. They are teachable. And I think teaching them is probably the most important thing we can do right now."
The Rockwood Leadership Program specializes in delivering the best practices and methodologies in leadership development to the nonprofit community. In my most recent interview for the Big Vision Podcast, I talked with Andre Carothers, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Rockwood Leadership Program about the Program's work, and nonprofit leadership trends. You can read a transcript of the interview below.

Andre Carothers: Hi, I am Andre Carothers, I am the Executive Director of the Rockwood Leadership Program. We are a national nonprofit that trains advocacy professionals, people working for nonprofits full-time, in the fine arts of collaboration, leadership, listening, speaking, conflict resolution, and collaboration across organizational boundaries. We teach all those skills and practices that one associates with getting a job done, and also in a political setting, joining forces with allies to generate a political goal that we are all looking for.

We have been doing this work for six years now, and we started with an open training for 20 friends of mine from Washington D.C., where I used to work, and one trainer. The training was so well received that we launched an organization in 2000, and since then have recruited and trained more than 1700 people.

We've got four programs going simultaneously, and we have a four-day workshop called The Art of Leadership. We have Fellowships in issue areas where we bring together leaders working on specific issues, such as media policy and justice, LGBT policy and justice, electoral reform and racial justice, and we convene them over a year or more, and build a learning community that serves their work. It has been a terrific run and we are growing rapidly.

I think the need that we are responding to with Rockwood is that people really want to learn how to get along professionally. They want to learn how to build strong partnerships with people, and we have got literally hundreds of thousands of small nonprofits, many of whom are trying to do the same thing. I think the key for us to create real social change is aligning groups and individuals in a common direction.

Britt Bravo: What are the skills and qualities a social change leader needs today, and how do they learn those skills from Rockwood?

AC: Statistics and studies show that the greatest source of project failure, I define project failure as any initiative that falls flat, is the lack of ability of the leader or leaders to align and inspire their team in a common direction. We often associate that leadership quality, the ability to create a team and attract and maintain very good people in an organization, as some sort of magic. You know, you are born a leader, or "they've just got what it takes," etc. It turns out, that most of these skills are teachable.

A lot of the curriculum that we have created over the last few years is drawn from programs in the private sector, senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies, and it's drawn from grassroots organizing traditions and, in some cases, from personal transformation and contemplative discipline.

We tried to create a new definition of leadership on the progressive end of the spectrum, one that focuses on people's humanity, connecting with people on a personal level, and being very focused on very specific goals and objectives. These skills, which one sees in action around the country with certain key individuals who seem to be able to bridge gaps between organizations and issue areas, we can teach them. They are teachable. And I think teaching them is probably the most important thing we can do right now.

BB: What is an example of a piece of Rockwood curriculum that would teach one of those skills?

AC: We have developed about 20 days of curriculum now, and we can mix and match those 20 days in a variety of ways. In the basic four-day workshop, which most of our alumni (roughly 1400 people around the country) have been through, the second afternoon and the second evening and the third morning, are devoted to a section we call Partnership.

Partnership is about, first of all, learning how you show up for other people. Everyone that comes to the workshop comes with what is called a 360 Degree Survey, which is filled out anonymously by 10 or more of their colleagues, and basically describes how you are showing up across 15 parameters of leadership: "This person communicates well with the mission and purpose of the organization internally and externally," "This person moves toward and resolves conflict in the workplace successfully." Fifteen questions like that form the basis of the 360. The fifth thing we do in our four-day workshop is we present people with the survey and we give them time to integrate the information and build a leadership development plan based on it.

In the same Partnership section of the training, we do conflict resolution skills, we do negotiation skills, we teach people how to look at an issue from the other person's perspective, and we teach people how to manage difficult conversations so that they can get the outcome they need out of them. The feedback has been very positive.

BB: You have been doing this work for about seven years now, how have the leaders who participate in the program, the challenges that they face, and the skills that they need changed over time?

AC: Well it is interesting, one of the graduates emailed us the other day and said, "I thought that leadership was about cranking out my agenda, and what Rockwood did for me was pull back the other seven veils of what is required for me to get my social change aspirations made real in the world."

I think what he meant by that is that if we are to win some of the policy issues we are challenged by currently here in the beginning of the 21st century, there needs to be a new way of organizing ourselves. That new way is based significantly on what used to be called "people skills", or "soft skills." And what I say when people say, "Soft skills?" I say, "Yes, the hardest stuff you can do is the soft skills."

I think a lot of people listening to this will know that when they are trying to produce a result, and the partnerships they have with the people around them are strong, and people are clear, and they know how to manage themselves and others, the results are better.

When we started, we were really the only organization of this kind. Part of my motivation for getting this going was that I did a survey of the various programs out there for progressive advocacy leaders. There was nothing that focused on personal leadership skills. There was nothing that drew together that interesting combination of high-level private sector management skills with some of the key traditions of community organizing and contemplative discipline, and produced it in a package that allowed busy social change leaders to come get a complete experience over the course of four days, and get back to work.

What I have noticed in the intervening seven years is that there has been a lot more interest in this. Other organizations are coming up and producing programs that are great. The conversation on the progressive side of the aisle is much more about how do we build teams, how do we collaborate, how do we bridge the gaps between gradations of issue focus, and background, race and ethnicity.

The interesting thing about progressive people is that they are very interested in getting all voices to the table, they are comfortable with nuance, and they understand the complexity of issues, and that is a wonderful platform for governance. The second you are uncomfortable with nuance, like simple answers, and prefer the one note over the many notes, then you probably are a conservative Republican. Governance from this perspective is wonderful. Organizing is tougher.

It turns out that those characteristics that we value so much on the progressive end of the spectrum make organizing complicated. It is slower, it is more complex, it requires what we sometimes call "three-dimensional thinking," the willingness to focus your energy on the right point at the right time, and then make sure that you leave nothing out in your pursuit of a goal.

The skills we teach really allow this type of three-dimensional thinking. They allow people to remain true to the progressive ideal, which is thoughtful, nuanced and inclusive, and also organized toward results. I think that is the game. That is the 21st century organizing game.

BB: There are a number of reports that suggest that a whole generation of nonprofit leaders will be retiring soon and there aren't enough new leaders to replace them; what do you think nonprofits need to do to attract and keep more nonprofit leaders?

AC: It is a perfect example of where one has to think three dimensionally. There are actually three or four things going on simultaneously in the generational change. One is that young people are more interested in humane and collaborative workplaces, and so there is a stylistic difference between the baby-boomer activist generation, I am not sure what letter we are up to, X or Y, and the demand that the workplace be thoughtful and collaborative, that voices get on the table, and that people work well together. It is different than it used to be.

Secondly, there are a lot of people who have devoted their lives to social change for whom there is no social safety net. There is no organized way to support them in their 60s and 70s, and also to glean, and harvest, and make good on the lessons that they learn. That's a whole other piece of this puzzle.

Finally, I think the terrain around us has changed. There is a very different sensibility among the younger folks around where we need to focus our energy. I think there is a natural collaborative bent in younger folks for whom issues that used to divide people are no longer on the table for them. I think there are subtle differences, but important differences. And again, what I am noticing is that if we provide all the people who are focusing on this challenge, the generational leadership challenge, the personal and collaborative leadership skills to tackle it, anything is possible.

BB: What is one of your favorite Rockwood success stories?

AC: What is most satisfying about this work is to get, which we do very often, this random email over the transom from someone saying, "By the way, I just want you to know I did your workshop two years ago and since then..." and they list the things that have happened. That's a steady drumbeat from alumni.

We also did a survey of 40 alumni, from the last three years, and asked them what they wanted from us next, and the response was 100%, which is interesting for a survey. Those of you who do surveys know that anything above 30% or 40% is a good response. Universally the people said that the Rockwood Leadership Program, whichever one they happened to be in, was a pivotal moment in their professional lives. It made a difference for them.

At the nitty-gritty end of the spectrum, there have been collaborations, there have been specific projects, there have been gains in policy arenas that people credit to Rockwood. And the way they do that is they say, "I built a team around me, they were trained, we had a project to do, and I honestly believe that because of the training we had, we were able to produce the result quickly, and more effectively than we otherwise would have."

Some of your listeners may have gone to the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, and the steering committee for the Social Forum in Atlanta were the leaders of, I think, less than 12 organizations, maybe 10 organizations. As the organizing took place over the years, about seven of those 10 leaders did the Rockwood training, and the Chair of the Board said that it made a huge difference in their ability to pull off the Forum, the fact that these people were trained. Stories like that are the ones that keep us coming in in the morning.

BB: What are Rockwood's future goals and challenges?

AC: Well the interesting thing now is to take advantage of the fact of having 1700 alumni. People talk about network effects. What is the minimum requirement for creating a self-sustaining community? The number varies widely, depending on what you are up to, but we honestly believe that 1700 alumni, and adding 300 per year, is the tipping point at which we can start to build a self-sustaining network.

What that will require from us, of course, is a sophisticated web platform. We are really interested in building that in 2008. We have, and these numbers are rough, 250 alumni in Seattle, 500 in the Bay Area, 200 in Los Angeles, 300 or 400 in Washington D.C., and another 300 or so in New York City, and then the rest scattered around the country in Denver and Vancouver. In Boston, we probably have a couple of hundred.

These numbers mean that if we provide the right incentives for people, they will start to organize each other. What I mean by that is that we are, for many people, the go-to group for moving organizational agendas forward: how do I lead my team, how do I create a process where we can get aligned in the right direction, how do I resolve a difference between me and the members in my coalition. Once laid onto the Web, in terms of downloads, conversations, and all of the technologies that are available now, we know, based on our surveys of our alumni, that they will start to use it. They will start to share skills with each other, they will search for alumni within 20 miles of their zip code, etc. and they will begin to build a community around performance and results that doesn't exist yet; that is the one of the many things we are very interested in in 2008.

BB: What is the path that brought you to this work?

AC: I got my first job in nonprofits in 1984 in Washington D.C., and I got hired fresh out of college and worked for Greenpeace. In 1984, Greenpeace was a $400,000 company in the US, and over the course of my 13 years there, grew to, at its peak, we grossed $90 million in donations in the United States.

That growth curve was very interesting for a progressive nonprofit. We saw a lot of people get hired. We saw a lot of projects get birthed. We grew very quickly, and as many of you obviously know, Greenpeace has been historically one of the most effective environmental organizations in history. What I really saw while I was there, and I had a strong interest in, was, how does this happen? How does the team get built that produces these results? What are the minimum obligations of leadership that can create the results that the donors and the public want from us? How do we deliver that in a very effective, manageable package that people will come to, go back Monday morning, and feel like they have benefited greatly?

That was my original motivation. Being a slow learner, it took me 15 years from thinking about it, to actually starting a nonprofit. We roughly launched in 2000, and since then have grown from one trainer to 10 trainers, our training team is half people of color, our Board of Directors are a terrific bunch of people, and we are doing 10 to 20 events each year, and graduating close to 300 people annually.

BB: If people who are listening would like to get involved with Rockwood, what should they do?

AC: They should visit our website which is www.rockwoodleadership.org, and there is a little widget on there that you can click, and get our newsletter and our training announcements. We have a Facebook group called Rockwood that people talk to. We have a subgroup on LinkedIn called Rockwood that alumni have tagged themselves. There are a lot of ways in, and we do trainings all over the country, sliding scale based on your organization's income, so that the financial barriers are not great. And of course, we love talking to people, so if there are questions, comments and emails, we try to get back to you as soon as possible.

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