Doing the Work in Your Place

April 2020

By Angela Romans


“I just moved to DC. Have any advice for a new DC resident?”

This is how so many of my conversations started in early 2020. For over 20 years in Providence, RI, my work was, for me, an invigorating combination of national and local – keeping one foot firmly rooted in place, and one in understanding and participating in the broader field.  The national always gave me big-picture perspective and broad networks, but the local kept me rooted, knowing that I was making an impact where I lived, that I had skin in this game of making change for the youth and communities at the center of this work.

Then I discovered AchieveMission, an organization working to transform the social sector across the country while sharing my commitment to working in place, and in the process of building a more solid base in DC. I joined the AchieveMission team in the summer while working from Providence. In December, to help strengthen this DC base, I took a leap to DC.

And what a leap!  I jumped into leading a project with the District of Columbia Public Library, one of our largest clients and an institution deeply rooted in the city’s culture and history. Because the project started with a broad set of interviews of staff across the library, I not only got to build relationships, but to feel more connected to this new place. When I asked library staff for advice about living in D.C., they asked me if I had my library card yet, and gave me a tour of my new local library. Those interviews of neighborhood library staff, many of whom grew up in the city and have seen it changed immensely, helped me better understand the deep, rich, and fraught nature of DC’s history.

While I’ve been supporting the library and other DC-based clients around issues of leadership, race equity, and talent, I have found myself “doing the work while doing the work.” This is the first time I’ve been new in a place in over two decades, and it has brought both excitement and intense disequilibrium. In Providence, people sought me out as an “expert” on the local education space. Now, I find myself in a space of deep learning, in partnership and connection with others, about place for the first time in a while.  What does it mean to admit to myself the loss that I feel at no longer being an expert on local resources, relationships, and history? How do I most constructively do the work in this place? And, in the midst of the upheaval of COVID-19, does it even matter?

Today, at this moment, I say, yes, it does. Connection, rootedness, and community are all vital in this incredibly difficult time. While “place” has a continually-shifting meaning in the middle of social distancing and an increasingly virtual world, I’m heartened to find that spring in DC still brings seedlings of learning. During happy hour at a local watering hole a couple months ago, a group of black women pulled me lovingly into their book club. We had our first virtual happy hour meeting earlier this week, and the connection felt so nourishing.  In work with new coaching clients in DC, all the meetings are now virtual, but people thankfully still have advice and insights to share with a new DC resident. So, in this unprecedented moment, while the big picture is changing dramatically by the hour, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue doing work I love and to explore new ways to ground the doing in my new place in a new reality. And the Cherry Blossom Festival will seem even sweeter next year.

Reflections on Jack Welch

March 2020

By Mike Markovits


I have been working as a partner at AchieveMission for the past 8 years, serving the non-profit sector. I love my work, my clients, and my colleagues. The work is meaningful, the relationships are significant, and the impact is important in helping to create more of the world that I want to see.

And, years before I came to AchieveMission, I worked at GE for 20 years. In recent weeks, memories of my time at GE have been flooding my brain as I have read stories published in response to the passing of Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO.

I joined GE in 1984, just a few years after Jack became the CEO and when he was establishing much of his vision and direction as a leader. As I wrote the previous sentence, I noticed that I referred to him as Jack (not Jack Welch, and not Welch). This is because, even as the CEO of what was arguably the greatest company on earth at that time, he was always just Jack. I met him for the first time in 1987 when he came to tour the factory where I was the Manager of Human Resources. I had my first substantive interaction with Jack when he came to visit the Manager Development Course in 1990, where I was part of a small group delivering a presentation on addressing diversity at GE. As my career progressed, I spent more and more time in meetings with Jack, listening to him speak, presenting to him, and absorbing his leadership lessons.

So, why am I telling you this?  Other than a bit of nostalgia for me, is there anything that we in the non-profit sector can learn from Jack Welch?

My answer is yes.  And here are my four leadership lessons from Jack Welch that apply across sectors:

  • Face reality and lead change
    • One phrase that I remember hearing over and over was to face reality squarely. This meant to me that we could neither sugarcoat facts nor bury our heads in the sand. This seems particularly relevant to me right now as we face all the challenges associated with COVID-19. Let’s look squarely at the reality of what we are facing and make appropriate adjustments in our lives and operating plans.
    • Leaders need to lead change – set the vision, communicate it, and show people how to get there.
    • One quote from Jack that pulls this all together: “How do you bring people into the change process? Start with reality. Get all the facts out. Give people the rationale for change, laying it out in the clearest, most dramatic terms. When everybody gets the same facts, they’ll generally come to the same conclusion.”
  • Know your values and act accordingly
    • For Jack, values were the “how” of operating. About five years after he became CEO, he began actively articulating the values to which he thought all leaders at GE should aspire. Those values ended up being printed on a wallet-size card – a card that still sits in my wallet 16 years after leaving the company.
    • We self-assessed against these values and we were given feedback on how our behavior was or was not consistent with the values.
    • And the values were challenging, sometimes conflicted with each other. This helped me learn that one primary challenge of leadership is managing value-based trade-offs.
  • Know and care about your staff. Use a personal touch.
    • I have often told the story of my first time going to GE corporate headquarters and presenting to Jack and his direct reports. I was waiting nervously outside the conference room when they called me in. As I entered, Jack immediately put his arm around me, and said: “Mike, great to see you again. How have you been?” as if we were good friends and he had been missing me. My nervousness immediately dissipated in the face of his warmth.
    • Friends from my GE days have been posting pictures of personal notes that they received from Jack, and I have a few of my own. It was always the highlight of the week or month to get a personal note from Jack— thanking me for this or that, encouraging me to continue in the direction that I was going. These notes were handwritten!
  • Devote as much time to leadership, in its broadest sense, as you do to everything else – program, fundraising, etc.
    • Jack was often quoted on his commitment to spending half of his time evaluating and allocating people and the other half of his time raising and allocating capital. In our leadership context, this means using half of your time to focus on feedback, performance management, succession planning, leadership and professional development, and everything else connected to supporting your organization’s people to do their best work.
    • When I was in charge of leadership and executive development for GE, Jack never missed an opportunity to come spend time with participants of those select development programs, and he would spend as much time asking questions to learn what people were thinking as he did responding to their questions.

I am proud of my years at GE, pleased with what I learned there about how to be an effective leader and grateful for having had Jack Welch as a role model. And, as with all role models, we need to take from them what works for us, what we believe makes sense and is right, and disregard the rest.

Connected as You Go

March 2020

By Mikaela Seligman


So, predictably on an early morning call with my mother today she admonished, “You’re not traveling are you?!?!?….I would be worried if you were getting on a plane or train or anything.”  I, of course, would be worried if she were, at 83 years old and with some ongoing health issues.

But the point is clearly a larger one.

Work and personal travel, gathering in groups larger than a couple family units, socially acceptable touches like handshakes and hugs are all in question. I had the first moments of encounter this week when we looked at each other about to hug in a typical greeting and just said, “Nah.”

At AchieveMission, we have been asking serious questions about how to keep each other and our families safe in an environment in which it is possibly the uncertainty itself that ultimately impacts our overall health and wellness the most. Stressful, anyone? We aren’t sure what data to use to make the right choices (or if we are actually getting the real story from authorities, but that is a whole other blog post). We don’t have any models of what the right choices are.  Perhaps one silver lining of all this is that the feelings and concerns of employees are being taken into serious account – in some cases, organizations that haven’t banned travel entirely are offering employees the chance to opt out if they aren’t comfortable.  That is something that folks often can’t do without some negative repercussions. Check off one in the column for employee voice.

But, there remain many other areas of real and present physical concern, including the possibility that the workplace as we know it transforms into lots of cells of people working in their homes, at least for a period of time.  At AchieveMission, we have a growing pod of us in DC and a longstanding tradition of virtual teaming with our other colleagues based in other cities, so this isn’t new for us.  And, over the years, we have learned some strategies to make virtual teaming work and work pretty darn well. Here are a few thoughts about leadership in this moment – less about the technical things you might do – like having working wifi and making sure you have a good video platform – and more about how to hold center, hold steady and lead in a moment like this:

  1. Listen to your peeps – As I mentioned earlier, people’s concerns about their well-being and that of their older immuno-compromised relatives and friends are top of mind right now. We have to be responsive to these and to fashion responses with a loose, tight fit. This starts with asking and listening to the people you serve, work with and love.
  2. Make decisions including all “data” but not reacting to any of it – We often teach that most of our view of “data” is way too limited. Hearing voices from your team is “data.” So, obviously, are all the things we are reading and learning through each other and media sources and the CDC. I used to have a boss who seemingly made policy based on the last person they talked to. Don’t do that. Take it all in. Talk to each other. Then respond. And, know that it may shift as data from all our sources does. Being agile is a good thing.
  3. Consider the herd your community – If there was ever a time to prioritize the needs of others, I would say this is it.  This is, from a public health perspective, not only about Covid-19, but the regular old flu.  It is the only reason I get a flu shot.  At a moment like this we need to think about the big everyone and not just our particular everyones. Consider the impact of your choices and org policies in this way.
  4. Be sure you get human connection and contact every day – This is just a rule of life. Keep doing it, however that looks as this pandemic unfolds. We know now more and more that having as many as 5 touchpoints with live humans early in the day makes a difference. We may have to find these in other ways in a more virtual environment, but keep prioritizing our connections, not our disconnection or fear.
  5. Protect those who may become victims of xenophobia – This morning my 7-year-old told us a friend of his said the Corona Virus started when a Chinese person ate a live bat. Um, no. And this is only one of the malicious stories that circulates in these moments, further othering ethnic or racial groups. (By the way, that particular story was apparently spread through an irresponsible Fox News host.) It is our responsibility to squash such stories and treat everyone with dignity and care.

I just learned the term “social distancing” this week. It may be something we need to do for a while. Conferences with no handshaking are now in vogue. I am no longer hugging as a greeting. But, we need to keep in mind that this social distancing is a necessary public health intervention and not a forever state.  Here is hoping this round of it is as short as possible and as long as necessary to stop this pandemic so we can all remain healthy of mind and of body. And, let’s get creative about how to be connected in our ways of leading throughout.

The Work We Need To Do

February 2020

By Mikaela Seligman


“We’re 7 white people talking about racial justice.”

Earlier this week at the Democratic debate, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg declared this obvious reality.  The fact that it was obvious didn’t make his words any less compelling. In fact, perhaps it was the very in-your-faceness of it, the reality that all of the candidates of color, those who may have even started the race strong, were no longer up on stage.  And, all of that reflecting a much larger, deeper historical American reality.

Just a few weeks earlier in the same town where the debate was hosted — Charleston, SC — AchieveMission completed a year-long cohort program, which we launched in partnership with CrossRoads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training, precisely because we knew that this system-shifting work isn’t done alone.  Along with five other participating nonprofits from across the United States enrolled in this cohort, AchieveMission focused on anti-racist, adaptive leadership development and succession planning – because the path to change the face and composition of our organizations is to focus on who is there now, how they are supported and enabled to lead, and the barriers that we may put, wittingly or unconsciously, in the way of their success, and that we need to remove – with, rather than for, them.

Reflecting on my time in Charleston in Early February, I am conscious that this place was once the largest slave port in the United States.  And now in 2020, we have seven white people on stage as presidential candidates 341 years later.  This is the data.  We have work to do.

At AchieveMission, we believe that this work IS necessary, and not only for people who experience the world as white.  White supremacy is hidden deep in the crevices of our society and flagrantly positioned in our systems, in our institutions, in the ways we are conditioned to believe and behave. We have work to do to uncover what is often both obvious yet unsaid, and to put it fully at the center of organizational change work.  And, if uncovering and talking about it – without taking action — is all we do, we too will have failed.  We will continue to be 7, 700, 7,000 white people talking about racial justice in ways that completely miss the mark, precisely because we are talking and not transforming. More precisely for the nonprofit sector, The Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead reports of 2006 and 2011 found that, in the US, people of color in ED/CEO roles remains under 20%.  More recently, in BoardSource’s 2015 Leading with Intent report of nonprofit board representation, 89 percent of respondents identified as white.

AchieveMission is committed to transforming the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. This is what drives our work. As a hallmark of this work and approach, we are proud to be part of and to be building an ecosystem of providers in partnership with The Kresge Foundation and Community Wealth Partners.  Check out this Foundation Review piece that went live this week – sharing more about what it takes to build a thriving ecosystem like this and, yes, transform our sector.