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One of my favorite kinds of community conversations to have is with someone who is making great things happen, but who isn’t necessarily high profile in their work. They lead, guide, advise, nudge and help in powerful ways, but their names don’t always make the traditional “community leader” lists.
That’s why I wanted to talk with Lauralee Hites, the Senior Organization Consultant and Principal Owner of Stratavize Consulting. I kept seeing her name go by as someone leading, advising and guiding a number of organizations in our area as they try to figure out their own roles in making Richmond and Wayne County a better place. (You may also recognize her from guest hosting IN Focus on WCTV, leading a workshop or input session you attended, or guest writing on a local blog.) We covered a lot, including what a strategy consultant actually does, how it works to name the real reasons a business or organization might be stuck even if it’s hard for them to hear it, and what it can look like to finally find “our place” in the world.
I hope you enjoy the conversation. If you find it interesting or useful, please share!
The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.
Chris Hardie: I have the sense that you are involved in lots of different, good things happening in our community right now. And I know that you probably tend to work behind the scenes a bit and we’re going to get into what those things might be and how you do your work. But first in case someone doesn’t know you, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your background with living and working in Wayne County and what that journey has been for you.
Lauralee Hites: Sure. So I do have a funny story to tell, just how I got into the position, and then I can share a little bit about living in Wayne County and moving all over the place. But, years and years ago, it was 2002 and I was a mortgage loan officer for a big bank. This realtor came in and they had a referral for me. I said, “What did you do before you were a realtor?” He said, “I was a consultant.” And I said, “Well, what’s a consultant?” And he said, “I have a go in. I fixed companies. I turn them around and I travel all over the country, helping manufacturing predominantly, make their organization better.” And I’m in my early 20s at this time, Chris.
Lauralee: “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, tell me all about that.” And for 45 minutes, he shared all of the stories of working at a consulting firm. I remember he got up and he left and I stood up and told the two people that I worked with that I was going to be a consultant. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get there, but by God I wanted that job. I wanted to help companies turn around and I wanted to fly all over the place. That really became my journey, my career journey. And it really stuck with me for years. I didn’t know when he left exactly what it meant. Right? I just knew that I wanted to travel and I wanted to turn around companies. And so it took me about 18 months, to get into a consulting role.
Lauralee: I feel so lucky because it’s taken me to the East Coast and to the West Coast and back a couple of times and down to Nashville. It’s been a wonderful experience and I feel called to do this work. What’s really interesting is that I had a chance to tell the realtor that started me on this journey-
Chris: Oh neat.
Lauralee: Yeah. A couple of years ago, about three or four months before he passed away. And so I just thought, you don’t always get to tell people who inspire you to do the work that you do. I wanted to make sure that I had a chance to tell him that. And so yeah, that’s how I ended up becoming a consultant.
Chris: That’s a really neat, full circle. Yeah. As you say, you don’t often get to tell people who’ve had some parts. To know that that was a moment that was pivotal and then to be able to thank someone for it. Wow. That’s great.
Lauralee: Yeah. And I think it’s important, right? That we do tell people. Because we may have no idea the impact we make on people every day, we really don’t good or bad. And so I think it’s important that when somebody has made an impression or really moved you in a certain way, that they get to hear about that at some point. It didn’t play out for years. Right? I mean, I couldn’t have gone to him and month 15 when I didn’t even have the job and say, “Hey, you really inspired me.” It was a look back on my career over 15, almost 20 years of seeing my progression and realizing where it started. And so yeah, that job took me. I did a lot of different things in corporate America. And I moved away from Wayne County where I was born and raised and I was bound and determined to move as far away as I could get.
Lauralee: I moved to Washington D.C. where I got a whole lot of traffic, sitting on the beltway and I’m watching or looking around at six lanes of traffic thinking, “Oh my gosh, there is so much traffic here.” And so, I moved back. I had some family things and I had to move back. And so I was just equally as determined. Several years later, I took another consulting gig and I moved to the West Coast and I ended up having to move back. The third time I decided, “Nope, I’m moving again. I am going to leave Wayne County.” And so I packed up in 2014 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. A year later I came back and I came to this point, Chris, that I said, “I think that the universe or God wants me to be in Wayne County. And so if that’s where I’m going to be ongoing to make an impact. I’m going to be what I expect to see in other communities. I want to participate in my community. I want to love my community, because this is where I am.”
Lauralee: I expected to see that in other places. When I went to D.C., I wanted to be in this big city. Then I went to Seattle and to be in this big city and down to Nashville where there was tons of people moving. At the end of the day, I wasn’t part of anything where here I’m actually part of something because it’s smaller and I’ve learned to embrace that. And that took time.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean, you mentioned traffic and you mentioned kind of being anonymous in a bigger place. I mean, do you think living in other places was important to help you get to a healthier perspective on what it means to be sort of fully engaged in Wayne County? Do you think people can get, if someone’s feeling that way right now and they lived here all their lives, do you think they can get that perspective without going to another city to live for a while? Or was that a really key part of it for you?
Lauralee: That’s a great question. Would I have come to appreciate it without moving? And I think the answer is possibly no, and not that I want people listening to feel that they have to leave.
Lauralee: It was my experience. And given my age at the time and my desire to climb the corporate ladder and my desire to feel like I’ve accomplished something by not living here. That gave me the perspective to look back and see the value of being here. And so maybe as a listener, you can begin to change your perspective through someone else’s story, not necessarily having to move and experience it. Because the reality is when I left, I found out how big a city really is and how hard it is to make an impact. I found out how expensive it is. I found out that it’s hard to participate in a meaningful way and see the impact, right? And living in a smaller community. You can do that.
Lauralee: I don’t know if you would’ve asked me this 15 years ago, I would have been determined to leave. There was no way that you’re going to convince me that Wayne County is the place to be. Until I left and then realized, that this is a great community and we have many assets and amenities that bigger cities have that we’re lucky to have here, like RSO, like the Civic Theatre, both of those things are a really big deal for a community of this size. I wouldn’t have appreciated that before. And so I feel now with that experience, I look at Wayne County in a different light. Does that make sense?
Chris: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s true for a lot of people, as you said, Wayne County, it has this strange gravity that can bring people back to it. As much as I’ve talked to people who want to get away, I’ve talked to just as many, or if not more people who come back and have found a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of understanding themselves better because the landscapes are more accessible, the way that things change over time. Maybe we can just wrap our heads around it a little bit more than if we’re living in a place that is so fast-moving, so complicated, so massive that we can’t really figure out where we sit in it.
Chris: So, just understanding that sense of who we are and the difference we can make in the world does seem easier, more accessible, in a place like Wayne County. And as you named, I think there are some things that are pretty special about this place that make that even more possible. I want to come back to what consulting is. Because now you’ve been doing it and want to ask if your understanding of it has evolved. I mean, you now lead a firm that you’ve founded to do this kind of work. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lauralee: Sure. So, I’ll tell you a quick story. I remember I was 30 years old and I lived South of Centerville and I called my mother and I had a complete meltdown on September 21st at about 9:00 AM in the morning, because that was my 30th birthday. I had not opened my own consulting firm.
Lauralee: I was a failure. How could I have not started my own firm? What was wrong with me? I remember my mother saying, “If you think 30 is old, you have no idea.” And so she said, “Your father didn’t start his own business until he was 46 years old.” And that gave me a lot of perspective and I kind of calmed down. I’m so glad that I did not start my firm at 30 years old. I did not have the experience. I did not have the knowledge I had not really worked on some difficult projects, to really bring the experience that I have to my clients today.
Lauralee: So I think it was a godsend that I did not. That I “failed” which I didn’t really, but in my mind, the story I was telling myself is, “How could you not have done this? This is all you wanted for the last…” Whatever that would have been, five or six years. And, “How could you have not done this?” And so I stayed in corporate America until a few years ago, and I finally went out on my own. I had met somebody, we clicked and had several clients and I was enjoying the work. And ultimately I felt like it was time to give this a try. I get up every day. I’m so glad that I did that. I decided as they say, put my own shingle out.
Lauralee: I did it at the right time with the right amount of experience that I can provide the best service to my clients. I would not have been able to do that, had I not gone through, almost 20 years of being in corporate America. Well, it was almost exactly 20 years. Wow. Starting my career in a mortgage origination through the time that I left and was working in compliance projects and strategy. I had just done so many things in my corporate career that it was like, imagine if you have a tool belt on, right? And you just keep collecting tools and you keep going through, as you make these transitions, you keep adding one more tool. Now I have a saw, now I have a hammer. Now I have a screwdriver. Now I have this and that.
Lauralee: That was basically what I was doing. And I was very thoughtful and very intentional about every career move I made in my corporate life. I wanted to ensure that I was becoming as well-rounded as I possibly could. Then I didn’t just seek, say a management role because it paid more money, but instead, maybe I was looking for a communication role so that I could figure out how you manage strategic communication. Maybe instead of going for a management role, I would move over and work in project management, so I can figure out how to move the technology project along. And so I was really thoughtful, to ensure that I had as much and as diverse of experience that I could get, before I opened up my firm. I always knew in the back of my mind that I would, I just didn’t know when it was. It happened very organically. Yeah, and I don’t regret it and I love what I do, and I feel very lucky to get to do it.
Chris: It sounds so wonderful to come into that clarity at the right time, in the right place for the right people and to get to do what you love. That’s really great. So the firm is Stratavize Consulting and you are the Senior Organization Consultant and Principal Owner. People can obviously go to stratavize.com to learn more about it, and I’ll link to it on the website. But if you could give us the so-called elevator speech about what it is that you do, what kinds of services you offer and maybe also tell us a little bit about the profile of a typical kind of organization that might benefit from your services. What do they look like?
Lauralee: So I guess if I had to summarize, we just help companies re-imagine their culture, their strategy, their leadership team and how their team members engage with one another. So I think of it like a three-legged stool. You have to have a strategic direction and a strategy is not a strategic plan with all these tactics in it. A true strategy is positioning and how am I positioned against my competitors? So if I’ve seen one strategic plan that comes to me and a client says, “This is my strategy.” And it’s just a bunch of tactics. It’s not a real strategy. It’s not a value proposition and positioning, and I can have the strategy, which is really the direction of my organization and how I will decisions going forward. But if I don’t have high quality leaders or I have a dysfunctional team, I can have the best strategy in the world, we’re never going to execute.
Lauralee: I can have great leadership, but dysfunctional team members that aren’t clear on the direction, because I lack strategy, we’re never going to get anywhere. If we have great leaders and great strategy, but our team members are not engaged, they don’t know their role, it’s still not going to get anywhere. And so to me, I looked at it like, I enjoy strategic positioning the most, but in order to be successful, we have to work on the people side. The reality is the most of my clients that come to me, the challenge typically is team members. It’s the people side, it’s people working together, people communicating people, getting through a difficult time with each other. The people understanding their role, creating a toxic culture.
Lauralee: I mean, at the end of the day, that’s what the majority of the work that I do is, is the people aspect. But they come to me thinking that they have a marketing problem, or they have a strategy problem, or they have a process problem or they have technology… They haven’t digitized their process, but once you scratch below the surface and all of those things might be possible, right? They may need a new strategy. They may need to realign their customer experience.
Lauralee: They may need a culture transformation, but once you get in there, nine times out of 10, we have a people problem at the root of it. And then you have to work at the root level and really bring that out.
Chris: And so that’s what I would say predominantly do. I can imagine that in some scenarios that, that could lead to what might be very awkward conversations. I wonder, I mean, if someone’s come to you thinking they just have a marketing problem and you’re sitting in front of them saying, “Hey, you have a challenge with leadership.” Or, “You have a challenge with culture or toxic personalities.” How do people take that? How do those conversations tend to go?
Lauralee: You would be surprised most of the time they know it, the senior leader… I tend to work at the C-suite level. So I really work either with nonprofits, collective impact coalitions with community development work or on the profit, the for-profit side. The ideal organizations tend to have at least 50 employees up to a 10 to 15,000. And then once they get bigger than that, they’re too big for me. They often know it. Leadership will recognize or come to terms. The challenge is, are they willing to make the change? And it’s difficult. If change was easy, Chris, I would be very thin and would never eat the Brookside chocolates that are sitting on my desk right now. Right? And so, the hard part is the transformation and not going back to doing what we’ve always done. Right? And recognizing what we’ve always done is not going to get us where we need to go or want to go.
Lauralee: That takes repetition. That takes methodology to say, “You know what? This is the direction that we’re headed. How do we change every part of our organization?” And that’s starting with, how do we host our, or how do we connect with our employees? Do we coach one-on-one? Are we meeting them weekly? Are we meeting them monthly? What does their performance plan look like? That’s at the very beginning, right? So if we are trying to move in a different direction, we have to go all the way down to the employee level, to the very first line employee and have a conversation with them. It’s got to be on a regular basis. Just that change alone is difficult to make.
Lauralee: If you’ve not been meeting with their employees or managers have not connected one-on-one, that it seems very small. It’s got a huge impact. It completely changes the culture of the organization, just by the manager, interacting in a meaningful coaching way with an employee. It’s that level of change that organizations have to move through. Not including all the really big, the difficult change, right? Going digital is a very difficult change. If we’ve been paper-based for a long time, that’s huge. I’m talking about just the manager one-on-one connection, just changing. That’s hard. Change is hard and so it’s not easy work. It’s really not. And then when you move from just for-profit, let’s hop over to the community development side. Now, you’re engaging with people that don’t work in your organization. So talk about difficult change.
Lauralee: It’s hard when you’re at for-profit and we’re all working for the same company and there’s 250 of us. Well, now you’ve got, if you’re in a collective impact and you’re working with 30 different organizations, none of which work for you. You’ve got to move them through the change process and it takes patience and intentionality and purposeful conversation and very thoughtful tactics that are better rooted in change management and rooted in systems change methodology. And you have to be conscious and aware of it. It’s not easy work.
Chris: Yeah. Well, and I know that you are not a personal life coach, but what you’re talking about, I mean, it sounds like it really touches people at a personal level, right? Because if they come to work and they are someone who struggles with conflict, or if their communication style doesn’t match the communication style of their manager. I mean, you’re starting to get into some things that can really touch all aspects of their life, not just their life at work or for an organization. And I wonder, as you work with some of these models and methodologies, I mean, do you find that people are experiencing improvements or shifts at just that really personal level that can make a difference in the rest of their lives too?
Lauralee: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it does make a difference. We started this conversation saying, when somebody impacts your life, we should go and tell them. It matters. Well, if you think about every day, whoever you work with and whoever I work with, we’re making an impact on them every single day, good or bad. And so they carry that home, whether we acknowledge that or not, they do. I often share because I can share it’s a personal story. It’s not a client story. I often share my husband as a great example. So my husband has worked in manufacturing most of his career and I worked in corporate America. And so if you think about, we went two separate paths in life, right? In corporate America, I received a lot of support, I had mentors along the way. I had cheerleaders. I had individual development plans. I had performance improvement plans. Every year we received money for professional development, whether it was going to conferences, attending a class, going to a workshop. There was money stacked against us to improve and make us better. And we constantly got great feedback.
Lauralee: I was so lucky in my corporate career to work for wonderful managers. I can only think of one, in all the years that I worked there, that I had just one that was not great to work for. I was very, very young when I worked with her. My husband, on the other hand, though, as I’m going one direction, he’s going another. He didn’t have a coach. He never had a mentor. He didn’t get positive feedback. He never felt that he mattered. Nobody invested him. He did not get any training. And so years ago, he goes to this other company that he works for now and he brings in this individual development plan and he throws it on my desk. And he’s like, “What is this?” I looked down, I’m like, “This is an individual development plan. They care about you. They want you to get better.”
Lauralee: I promise you Chris, that in the time that my husband has worked at that other company where he got a better manager who genuinely cared about him, would send him text messages saying, “Hey, I appreciate that. You’re on my team. You matter to me. Thank you.” It changed not just his professional life, but his life at home. I think that’s the message or at least what I take with me in the work that I do, is that we are touching people’s lives at work. And they carry that home in their heart and in their mind, they carry it home. That’s a big responsibility. Though I say, “Yeah. I work in strategy and I work in leadership and I work in team.” But the individual, it’s this underscoring message that we’ve got to be good to people. And we have to know that we are impacting them in the way that we interact with them. And that should matter to all of us. And that’s how we do better work together.
Chris: Yeah. I can imagine that some organizations take longer than others to come around to that understanding. I wonder, if an organization does come to you and like you said, they’re all ready to dive into the tactics of a marketing plan and you’re starting to see that they need something at the bigger picture, whether you’re working on core values or mission or long-term goals or culture. In my experience, people can get pretty uncomfortable when you start talking about the patients that will be required to go through that process. When you start to talk about the budget, that might be required for that to figure out that true strategy. So if people are getting impatient or worrying about budget, what do you tell them about how to think about that? If they’re kind of chomping at the bit to get going with their marketing tactics.
Lauralee: Well, actually, I just had this conversation relatively recently. I talked to a client about the investment that they’ve made in our work. I said, “I’ve been doing this a long time, both internally and externally. And I can tell you that you spent a lot of money and having me and my team here, but if these changes do not occur, you have wasted that money. And when I leave long after I’m gone, you will sit back and reflect and say, wow, I wrote them a check and nothing changed. And that’s because you didn’t make those, the difficult changes that, that need to happen in order for you to grow the way that you want to.”
Lauralee: We can produce the best positioning. And it was great positioning, right? It was something they could take to market and really set themselves apart from their competitors. But if we don’t fix the dysfunction that happens behind the scenes, it’s not going to matter. And so we have to break that down, especially if I have clients that it’s just not in their budget to spend long periods of time with me or my team in their office, working with their managers, with their direct reports. So one-on-one, sitting in on one-on-ones. Working with the managers on how to better coach and how to better communicate and then working with employees and all of the things that you have to do to really increase engagement. If they don’t have the budget, I feel obligated to sit them down and walk them through the things that they can do on their own. I give them just simple plans. Like maybe here’s an employee engagement plan. That’s got five different things that you can do to improve the conversation you’re having with your employees.
Lauralee: So maybe we communicate more, maybe you have a team meeting, maybe you’re observing your managers with their direct reports. Maybe you sit in and just observe. I can leave them with some takeaways. I try to make it fit for every budget, but the clients that have the budget, and we can begin with the root of the problem, which could be, team this function, the teams are not aligned to the strategy. Employees are not happy. I would prefer that we begin the work there and that we fix the team problem before we work into the strategy problem or the strategy. Because again, if we pick great positioning and you can’t execute it if you have dysfunction within the organization. I’ll give you a great example. So part of strategic positioning, you only have a couple of different ways. You can go price. That’d be like the Walmart. I will be no matter what price. None of my clients are going to go with the price. That’s not how we lead. Right?
Lauralee: You can lead through innovation or product design. You can lead through customer experience. So let’s use the customer experience, for example, if that’s my way to go to market. Let’s look at Chick-fil-A, okay. Chick-fil-A sells deep fried chicken, Chris, little chicken bits. That’s it.
Lauralee: There’s nothing special, right? Tell me the last time that you drove by a Chick-fil-A, unless it was on a Sunday, or they were closed in the evening when there wasn’t a line, right. They’re always [inaudible 00:28:09] for deep fried chicken and French fries or waffle fries. Right? But they went to market saying, we’re going to have a very limited menu, and we’re going to give the best service we can. They created the split line that we see a lot of McDonald’s has now. They created the, where we will put people out at the front. We will have this. It’s my pleasure. Right? Okay. So, if your positioning is we’re going to have the best customer experience possible, then you have a dysfunctional team behind the scenes where customer experience is not at the center of the work that they do. And they can’t really execute on it. Then you’ve spent all this money going to market with this great strategy that you can’t implement behind the scenes, because your people aren’t ready.
Lauralee: And so that’s the work that we just keep going back and having the conversation over and over and working at the people level and why it’s so important. Does that make sense?
Chris: Absolutely. And maybe as a way of transitioning to talking about the work you do in our area, I know your services are not limited to our geographical area, but you do a lot of work in Wayne County. Sometimes I worry or I wonder about the Midwest aesthetic when it comes to politeness and how that affects our ability to tackle hard problems. And a lot of what you’ve been describing is you in a room across from someone having a hard, potentially a hard conversation, telling them things that might be hard to hear about their organization or about where they’re at, even if they know it internally, somewhere in the back of their heads. You are someone who can can say those things directly and clearly and professionally. But I imagine that the Midwest politeness sometimes doesn’t allow for that or maybe a barrier to people hearing that message or encountering it in a way that they can run with it.
Chris: So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it’s like, if any of that is true, that’s just my theory. But what it’s like to do that kind of consulting in our area to work with an organization, to tell them something that might be uncomfortable and how they respond when everyone’s trying to keep everything sort of forward-looking and positive, maybe to a fault.
Lauralee: I like how you started it with the Midwest, being just nice. And I actually get a lot of compliments that we are nice people and that’s great and having worked on both coasts. At one time I was assigned to New York city in the five boroughs. I was often told, “You’re like the nicest Midwestern girl.” I always took that as a compliment. And so I’m happy, I’m glad that we are nice. We can be nice and polite and still be candid. Here’s the thing. There’s a great book, I think it’s actually called Candid Conversations, and I’m looking at my bookshelf while I’m saying this. But in it, it gives a great example of this person that could not bring themselves to tell this under-performer that he was underperforming.
Lauralee: They kept beating around the bush. They kept trying to be nice about it. And eventually, they just couldn’t take it anymore. He continued to underperform, but they really couldn’t say what they really wanted to say. And basically, “Chris, you’re letting me down. You are late. I can’t accept it. I can’t have you being late.” Whatever the issues were. And so she sits him down to basically let him go. They go to lunch and she said, “I’m sorry. I just have to let you go.” And his response was, “Why did you wait until now to tell me I wasn’t doing a good job?” So, being nice and avoiding the conversation who does it really help? Because we just get more and more and more frustrated by not having that conversation and not being transparent.
Lauralee: I have done it. I am guilty too. I have had people that I just absolutely wanted to avoid the confrontation to say, “You’re really letting me down. The work is subpar.” Whatever it is. But if we don’t, we’ve done them a disservice and we’ve done ourselves a disservice. I just had a conversation with a person earlier this week about something similar to this. And I said, “The times that I’ve grown the most in my life is when somebody told me something very difficult that I didn’t want to hear in the beginning, but I’m so glad that I did.” I’ll give you a really quick story. In that years ago, I was up in Chicago. I remember it was like yesterday. I was at the very beginning of my training and facilitation career, my manager sitting in the back observing. We finish and I’m thinking, I’m the best trainer in the world, Chris? “I’m a rockstar. There’s no way you are not impressed with my training abilities.” I’m still really new in my career. Right?
Lauralee: We called it the blue card for years because… And I adored this person. He pulled out two blue cards out of his pocket and he sits down and he said, “Okay, let’s talk about… Tell me what you think.” And of course, I’m very, I would say arrogant and overconfident. I’m like, “Oh, I think I was great. I love how I engage with this person.” Whatever, whatever. And then he looks down at the blue cards and he said, “Here are the things that I observed and what I want you to do better.” I remember thinking, “What? Are we even in the same room? Wait a minute. You can’t do that to me. You have to give me one compliment. It’s one compliment, one area of opportunity, one compliment, one area of opportunity.”
Lauralee: He just started laughing. Because, it was a difficult conversation. He’s like, “I’m not saying you’re bad. I’m saying, here are the things that you’ve got to do better. If you want to get where you want to go, these are the things that I expect. This is what great facilitators do. And you’re not just a trainer. You want to be a facilitator.” Right? And those, it was hard. It was hard to hear. But I grew because of that conversation.
Lauralee: For years, he would say, “I’m going to blue card you, Lauralee.” This internal joke. But it was really my opportunity to force myself to be better. The best coaches in the world for the very best athletes, they tell them when they’re not doing something right. And they tell them with love and caring and not at a meanness because they genuinely want them to get better. I think as leaders, that’s the way we’ve got to look at it.
Chris: Yeah. I think if there are people in leadership roles that are worried about maintaining a culture of respect, which I think often goes hand-in-hand with that Midwestern politeness, that we value respect and we value respectful behavior. If someone’s worried that I’m making a comment or offering an idea for improvement might be seen as disrespectful, maybe we can flip that on its head and say that by challenging the status quo, by saying, “Here’s an idea that might be hard to hear, but I think it’s going to help us in the long run.” That actually could be seen as a sign of respect as well. It’s, “I’m going to tell you something you might not want to hear, but I care about you enough and I care about your work and the end result enough to respect you enough to say this out loud.” I think that could maybe help folks who are wrestling with that, that dynamic.
Lauralee: I love how you phrase that. This idea that’s hard to hear, but I think will help us in the long run. I just love that phrasing. Just in itself, it’s not feedback or criticism, but it’s this idea that may be hard to hear. I really like that. So as a listener that might be, write that quote down. I think it’s a great way to start the conversation. Chris, not to hang on this particular topic.
Chris: Oh, yeah.
Lauralee: Because if we talk about just community development and positioning, but I think today where we are as a country and a nation, I’ve been working with clients more this year about the conflict in their teams. Because they’re bringing things to work from a political standpoint and from social media, and they’re carrying more in their hearts on top of navigating COVID and maybe having to work from home and then having their children. And there’s so much happening outside of our professional lives, but that are coming to work. Right? Imagine having this backpack and when I walk into work, that backpack might’ve been really light before COVID, but now, my husband has been sick and that rock gets added, and then my children can’t go to school. So now I have two more rocks in my backpack. And now I’m conflicted or I’m hurt by what I see on social media. I put that in my backpack and there’s one more rock. And so by the time I get to work, my backpack is very heavy and it can’t help, but come out.
Lauralee: I think this is a time and I don’t want to say more than ever because, we often as human beings only think about history within our own context. But if we look over true history, right? This is just a blip in the radar, when we think of all the other things that have come before us that were really difficult times. All the way back to the Roman times. There’s always been difficult times and always had conflict and disease and other things. It just happens to be happening for all of us right now with social media on top of it. Right? And so I think that that as leaders, whether it’s at a community level or at a nonprofit level or within our organization, or even if we’re individual contributors, I think we have to be aware of what is happening around us and how more empathy and more understanding and more tolerance than what we may have had in the years before.
Lauralee: This conflict is occurring. I have people saying, “I don’t want to work for this manager because their values don’t align with mine politically.” I think as a country, we have got to work through that and we have to figure out how we’re going to have conversations where it’s okay, that we disagree and that I’m not going to ask for a transfer to go work for somebody else because our political beliefs don’t align.
Lauralee: It’s very interesting the conversations I’m having this year.
Chris: Yeah. I can imagine that. Another piece that I heard as you’re talking is, sometimes people get really impatient with talk and with conversation and maybe, again, coupled with our Midwestern culture, I think sometimes there’s an impatience for action. And it’s like, if we’re just sitting around talking, nothing’s really happening, right? I want action. I want to see results. You can see that attitude sometimes, in how an organization has set up or even in how people react to the idea of working on strategy. I know if we see in the local paper, such and such organization is engaging in a strategic planning process or a government entity is going to be engaging in a plan process.
Chris: You see people kind of roll their eyes at that, or they get impatient about it. They worry about the money that’s being spent on it. I wanted to ask you about that tension between giving people a sense of progress, both in the kind of organizational level work that you do, and also more collective impact, community-wide work. How do we think about that tension between the desire to see change, to see progress, to see something happening that we can feel like we’re a part of. And then also on the other side, allowing enough time and enough space for those really crucial conversations and that really important planning and that really, kind of a central big picture cultural, long-term thinking. How do you think about that when you’re, when you’re doing that kind of work?
Lauralee: That is a great question. And there is definitely a balance. It is different for collective impact or a city government than say for an organization. So where conflict will occur is often when for-profit business leaders are participating, which they should in collective impact, sitting on boards, working with community development. The conflict comes from the lens in which they look through, right? And so if I’m with an organization and I’m the CEO and I’m running a 5,000 people organization, and I want to see something happen, I can make that happen, right? I am where the buck stops with me. And if I want to see change, I want to see investment, I can motivate that team to do that. Right? I can make the investment, I can buy the technology. I can do reorg and move people around. I can do a lot of things to influence the speed of change.
Lauralee: Because it falls on me when you go to the collective impact and community development side, and you bring that lens, it’s often very frustrating because it doesn’t happen that way in community development, right? So you have a whole layer of relationship building that has to occur, understanding the role responsibility of different organizations, how the funding is going to happen, how you decide which project you move forward with. And if I’m again, a for-profit senior leader, a CEO, and I’m sitting on this committee, they often get very frustrated, “Well, why isn’t this happening? We’ve talked about this? Why isn’t it happening?”
Lauralee: Well, they don’t face, often don’t face the same constraints that an organization that’s trying to make this happen, this change, whatever it is. We don’t face the same constraints, right? Resource constraint, starting. That’s usually the first thing, right? As a for-profit CEO, I can move my resources around to free up and get new resources. When I’m sitting on a committee it’s very difficult to realign resources. You have a lot of conflicting or competing priorities. So when you say that frustration, I think the first thing that whoever is frustrated can take time to self-reflect and say, “What’s the lens in which I bring?” If they come from a for-profit background, I think they’ve got to have some awareness to say, “The way that I see it and the way it operates within my world may not work in the community development side.” I think that’s what we see with the strategic plan or the conflict, why is the city… I’m not picking on any one particular city, there’s many complaints that have happened over the last couple of years, both in our County and surrounding the County.
Chris: Yeah. So any city plan.
Lauralee: It’s frustrating to say, well, why isn’t those things moving along? And they take time, they take investment, they take approval from council members and other members of the community. You have competing priorities and funds get moved around. And so it is frustrating. I think we have to look at, from a community side, the strategic plan is a roadmap, right? It’s the roadmap of where we’re going. If I’m a community leader, and I want to want to show progress, we have to talk about the progress in connection with the strategic plan. What happens is they disconnect those two things. They say, “We did, I’m going to make something up. We have just completed the pocket park and renovated a beautiful bridge and walkway to get to the pocket park, giving this pocket park, giving this community, this neighborhood more access.”
Lauralee: They say it out of context or out of alignment to the strategic plan. Instead of saying, “In our strategic plan, we talked about the importance of giving access to our community members, to places in which that they can exercise and be in nature. And blah, blah, blah. And out of that, we invested in the pocket park, that’s located on blah, blah, blah. And now that community, we are fulfilling our strategic plan by doing that. And this community now has access.” Right? And so the communication then connects these two ideas that we did the strategic plan. This is our roadmap, and we fulfilled this one small piece, and this is why it’s important.
Lauralee: I see over and over and over again, that the communications that communities do, do not, and for-profit, they do it too. They do not connect it back. And therefore you don’t remind people, as a leader, you may know that it was on the strategic plan, but as employees, community members, residents, council members, whomever, that’s not in our forefront, right?
Lauralee: We’re not thinking about that. You have to tell us, you have to intentionally remind people that the things you’re doing are on the roadmap, whether they’re small or big, link it back to that. Does that make sense to you?
Chris: It does. I mean, it really occurs to me that we’re struggling with that as a society sometimes where we have trouble seeing how our day-to-day decisions about what we’re going to do in our personal lives, our neighborhoods or cities, communities. We have trouble sometimes tying those back to what’s good and right for the long-term health of a community or a city or the nation or the world. If you’re in a facilitated workshop and someone’s getting bogged down talking about how many parking spaces there are between this street and that street, and you’re trying to bring them back up to the level of a five-year vision or something like that, then there’s a space for sort of calling that out and helping them through that. But in our day-to-day lives as individuals and sometimes in our work and organizations, we don’t always have those prompts.
Chris: So yeah, I wish there were more of that in the world where we had someone kind of sitting on our shoulders saying, “Hey, let’s think about this decision you’re making in the context of some bigger picture that goes beyond just you.” So if you know anything that could help us with that as a society, I think we’re listening.
Lauralee: I completely agree. I liked how you kind of, you took it just out of not just the community, but us as individuals and us at the bigger part, right? That we are future thinking and that we see this future vision of whatever that is. And the work that I’m doing today does matter. Right? And that’s everything from recycling to, I’m reading a book with my child, because I can envision later on that they will want to be avid readers. Because, being avid readers means they’re more likely to reach educational attainment. We live so much today in the here and now. I would say even in the 15 seconds as we get more and more technology, we’re very much about the here and now.
Lauralee: When you think about it from a leader’s perspective, they have to continue to remind people the direction that we’re going. Right? Think of it like a boat and the strategy is kind of the compass telling us and whatever that vision is. So we want Wayne County to be a vibrant community. That’s the sun, right? That’s the destination. We want to be a vibrant community. And what is the route that we need to take in using our compass, help us navigate there. We have to continue to remind the crew that, “Hey, this is where we’re going. And this is the route we have to take.” And every decision that we make goes back to that original discussion, right? This is the way… Remember we agreed to do it this way because of this. This is our destination. And too many times the communication, it happens out and it’s not from bad intentions.
Lauralee: People don’t get up and say, “I’m going to write this. I’m going to announce that we’re doing this second. Look, we’ll just make up this little park. We’re going to announce our pocket park because it was awesome. And they intentionally leave out the connection to the strategy. Because, they’re only thinking of the one thing. And so what we call insistent change there’s parts and a whole. As a consultant, I’m in the business of knowing the parts and the whole. And in community or in any industry, we often think about just our part, right? What is my part, if I’m in the parks department or I’m in the committee, or I’m in the group, whatever, that put together that little park, I’m thinking of the parts.
Lauralee: As leaders and as my role, I’ve got to look at the parts, but I have to look at the whole, and if I’m sitting and I’m the mayor of a city, or I’m in the County Council, or whatever leadership role in community development, if I’m an executive director of a nonprofit, I have to tell the story of the parts and how it fits to the whole. That’s how real systems change happens. You have to begin to work at the whole. You have to be able to thread together every piece of social complex problems, everything from income, poverty, racial discourse, all of those things, every piece of that. We have to take, not just the parts, but we have to add them to the whole.
Lauralee: That’s how real systems change happens. And it’s long and it’s arduous, and it can be very difficult and very complex, but we have to continue to champion, not just the parts, but the whole. And so as a listener, somebody who’s listened to this, they can think back in their own life and say, “Okay. Where are the parts? And how do I think about it at the whole?”
Lauralee: So let’s say for example, we’re thinking of weight loss. Because it’s something easily relatable, right? So a part is I should not be eating this Brookside chocolate. Great. The next part is exercise. The next part is meal planning. I have to look at those, not just in silos, but then as a whole. How do I put those things together in a meaningful way to achieve the weight loss, which my end goal is, I want to weigh whatever. That’s how you combined all those parts to build a larger system, to help me lose weight, which is my end goal. Does that make sense?
Chris: Yeah, it does. It does. So in thinking about Wayne County in particular, in the work that you’re doing, is there a unifying theme or question, or kind of idea, that drives your work forward or your passion for community improvement forward, that might be useful to the rest of us, to kind of hold up and look at as something that can help us when we’re bogged down in the details?
Lauralee: So, in community development, what we often see is nonprofits with absolute good intention. I want to make change. I want to do whatever I’m going to open up my own separate nonprofit, because I want to make this change within my own control. I think about as individually, how can we leverage other organizations that are already doing this work? So kind of a fun fact, we have a lot of nonprofits in Wayne County. We have, in some cases, what they would say is an imbalance. We have more nonprofits than we actually should have for the size of our community. And so if we look about community development, I would encourage all of us to think about how do we combine, partner, facilitate conversations, where we are aligning with others to do great things, instead of trying to spin off and do our own thing.
Lauralee: I see this a lot in… And it’s all again from good intentions. People don’t get up and want to open up another dog rescue because they have bad intentions, right?
Lauralee: They get up because they want to open up another dog rescue for good intentions. They see a gap. And so I would encourage all of us to think about our role in the community and say, “The things that I would like to do or see. The change that I would like to see occur, how does that fit into the larger vision of the County and the city? And then what are the organizations that are doing that work? And then how can I contribute in a meaningful way to move them further along, which ultimately will move whatever I’d like to see further along and help it fit into a bigger picture?” Instead of us trying to all do our own thing. Does that make sense?
Lauralee: Do you see that in the community? You’ve lived here forever? Do you see good intentions of opening up or creating another non-profit or we have competing nonprofits trying to accomplish the same thing?
Chris: Absolutely. I mean, I think as you say, it’s all from good intentions, but there’s duplication, there’s overlap, there’s fragmentation. People will invest time and energy in a project only to find out someone else has worked on that same project, that same goal. And wouldn’t it have been nice if they had collaborated. And so, I mean, if only to avoid that sense of disappointment, of like, “Oh, we might not have needed to spend that particular amount of money or that particular time. Because someone else, we could build on something someone else has done. But also yeah, from the perspective of, we have a generous community when it comes to philanthropy. We have people who want to be engaged in the life of the community when it comes to everything, from showing up to events, to volunteering, to giving their opinion or giving their perspective.
Chris: I think we have to be respectful and careful with that because, if we abuse it, if we tear it apart or spread it across too many different efforts or projects, we can lose some of that. But if we work together, as much as possible, and put aside any concerns about territorialism or who gets credit, then I think, amazing things can be possible with that. So, that really does resonate for me in my experience too.
I had one last question to ask you about, which is kayaking. You mentioned that you’re an avid kayaker. So I wanted to ask where’s some of the best kayaking you’ve done.
Lauralee: I did get to West Virginia. I did not kayak the Gauley. I’m not that skilled yet.
Chris: Okay. Yeah.
Lauralee: And so, I went to Ohiopyle in Pennsylvania and that was lovely, but I think we also have some great waterways Flatrock River is great, down South of Brookville. It’s funny how I came about to start this whole kayaking thing. I now have a really nice, a cool kayak that real kayakers use. And so, I kind of want all in and it happened because, I’ve never lived a very adventurous life. Chris, I am an absolute dork. I am an avid reader. I did not party. I’ve never smoked pot. I have literally never smoked pot. There’s like 20 people that can say that, I’m pretty sure. I’m that big of a nerd. Right? And so I never broke the rules. I just always get up and like, “What’s the right thing to do?” Don’t live adventurous, don’t scare your parents, any of that kind of thing.
Lauralee: And then my kids graduated and then my kids went off to college and all of a sudden it’s just me and my husband. And I’m like, “You know what, I’m going to do something adventurous. And I don’t think it’s smoking pot. I think it’s going to do something… I’m going to do something else.” And so I kind of picked this kayaking thing and I’ve almost drowned. I’ve had really scary moments, but I would not change it for the world. Now, I have pull practice. Matter of fact, it’s going to start again on Saturdays where, we get to practice flipping over and doing these things.
Lauralee: I found a community of people, and I wish we had a kayaking group actually in Central Indiana because I go to Indianapolis, but I found a community, a community of people where we all love this particular thing. It’s hard to make friends when you’re at my age. Right? And it’s really given me an opportunity to make new friends, meet new people, do something exciting and is thrilling at my level, which is pretty… I have a very low tolerance for thrill, but it meets it. So, it’s been wonderful.
Chris: Oh, that’s awesome.
Lauralee: Yeah. Thank you.
Chris: Lauralee Hites. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Thanks for all you do. We’ll hope to have a conversation again down the road.
Lauralee: All right. Thank you.
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