When grinding to a halt is the best way to move forward
Why our team took a three-day pause in the midst of a pandemic
In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she writes about a leader of a company who made the mistake of taking his team down a path that was going to end badly. A pitch they’d been working overtime on for weeks was for a client that didn’t mesh with their values and was causing the staff to experience burnout, frustration, and anxiety. Using some of the knowledge he learned from Brown on vulnerability and trust, he took a deep breath, paused the freight train and helped the team make a better decision on where to go next.
Luckily, our leaders at Resolve Philly also know when to make the same tough decision — one many teams may be making at this very moment as organizations grapple with their role in the civil unrest gripping the country.
I was brought on to the Resolve staff a little over a month ago as Project Operations Lead for the Equally Informed Philly project, our initiative to bridge the COVID-19 information divide in Philadelphia. (Stay tuned to this blog for upcoming posts on Equally Informed!) I was joining a staff of eight. Two days later another person was hired, and then another. Within a few more weeks we were a staff of 17, hustling to launch this giant, extremely important project while continuing the work we started in 2019. Oh, and there’s a pandemic going on.
As I was learning my role and learning about my co-workers through our daily Zoom calls, Slack, and our project management software, I felt like I was trying to connect many dots that must make a full picture, but I just couldn’t see it. As a project manager, my job is to look at the big picture, and then zero in on the details. But I kept getting frustrated, feeling like I was looking for Orion’s belt but all I really saw was a bunch of random stars. I thought it was just because I was new, but as I talked to more people it turned out almost everybody felt something similar.
Thankfully, we have someone on our staff who knows how to “read the temperature” of the room (or Zoom) and can sound the alarm when things seem to be off in sometimes an indescribable way. Becka Gorelick, our Operations and Events Manager, calls this superpower “pink collar” work. Through her temperature-taking and our discussions with each other, we approached our Co-Executive Directors Cassie Haynes and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky about underlying uneasiness among the staff and a solution for it: We needed to stop and take a breath.
There is power in being vulnerable.
Our organization doubled in size in one month, so it made sense for Resolve to be feeling some growing pains. It is crucial to recognize when a moment of pause is needed to center ourselves in our work and processes, and have a deeper understanding of what we’re all bringing to the table and hope to accomplish. Cassie and Jean liked the idea of this, so Becka and I (nervously) began planning a virtual retreat for the staff to get on the same page.
Our first task was to talk with each staff member individually about what would make the retreat valuable to them, and not everyone was all that thrilled with the idea. There was so much to do and so little time to do it.
But we also knew that the project management process that had worked well for the staff until the pandemic hit wasn’t working anymore. We needed to make a change in software that nobody wanted to change and teach the entire staff a new system (Asana), even though many staffers had literally just learned the old system (AirTable) within the last few weeks. That was going to be a challenge for sure.
Creating the Breath
After taking in the staff feedback, we structured the agenda around four main goals:
- To provide everyone a full scope of Resolve Philly, how the Equally Informed project fits into the Resolve mission, and how we all fit into that picture individually and as a team.
- To provide individual professional development so that every member of the staff felt supported, inspired and excited about their job.
- To create a new project management system within Asana, switch over to this new software, and by the end of the retreat ensure everyone felt very comfortable working within the new system.
- To take a collective breath, recharge on a personal level, and come back from the retreat feeling refreshed and ready to keep on pushing forward.
We broke out these goals into color-coded sections of an agenda to ensure we didn’t focus too much on one topic for too long, and to schedule in plenty of breaks and time off. Here is what our agenda looked like:
I have never planned, or been a part of, a virtual retreat before and so I wasn’t sure how ambitious we could be in the goal of making sure everyone felt connected, inspired, clear, and refreshed while staring at a computer screen for three days straight. But all I can say is my expectations were blown away. The retreat was far more impactful than I thought possible in a virtual setting and, while the planning was certainly a part of that, mostly it was due to every staff member showing up with their whole heart, ready to dive into whatever the day called for.
Each day, we all took time to address our goals by:
- Getting to know each other by asking ourselves questions like “What reminds you that life is beautiful?” and “If you were a liquid in a vessel, what would you be?”
- Asking questions of our Co-Executive Directors and answering questions within ourselves about where we wanted to make an impact within the company and also the world.
- Embracing Asana and staying engaged in improving upon the systems we created.
- And sharing ourselves, our goals, and our feelings with each other.
I have never physically met 90% of the people I work with on this team, yet I feel a bond with them that exceeds most of my previous work experiences. During “Final Thoughts” on Friday, we heard similar sentiments from just about everyone, ranging from an intern joking, “I’ll clean the toilets, whatever it takes!” to remain a member of the team, to those who had stated they’d rather just work than join a retreat saying, “I found so much personal value and I’m so glad I participated.”
In this time of crisis, when we at Resolve are trying to do our part to curb the spread of COVID-19 by sharing life-saving information, it was scary to stop everything for three days to work on ourselves as a team first. But we don’t shy away from the tough conversations in this team and, just like Brené Brown’s story of a leader who led their team in the right direction after a company pause, the Resolve team now feels stronger, more focused, and closer than ever.