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Holding the Tension

Bob Malsbary, a long-time friend of Evergreen Life Service and a current board member, is recounting Evergreen’s history. After a pause, he concludes, “I hope we don’t lose our contrarian streak.”

Formed in 1959, Evergreen is a large, sprawling enterprise, employing over 2,400 individuals. It serves over 1,300 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in eight states.

You’d think the last thing senior management would want is a bunch of contrarians running around. Contrarians disrupt; they are not predictable, they don’t follow procedures. Sounds like a senior manager’s worst nightmare, doesn’t it?

Order, strict procedures, efficiency, predictability. ‘These are what we need!’ the senior manager pleads.

But in Evergreen’s case, senior leadership says, ‘both.’

Needless to say, there is an inherent tension here. Establishing and maintaining tight controls, in order to produce effective results efficiently, on the one side, and in maintaining a contrariness that ensures the organization is on its toes, prepared to embrace new ways to produce even more effective and more efficient results on the other.

Cultivating and holding this tension is a key task for the leader of any organization.

Jim Kales, president and CEO of Aspire Chicago, is constantly holding this tension through what he calls ‘focus and innovation.’

“How, as a nonprofit,” he asks, “do you balance being really focused on what you’re good at, and also being open to new ideas and new ways of doing things?”

As far as focus, Jim frames this as ‘doing more with less.’

“We’re really focused on what are those key three or four areas we’re really going to scale and grow and become great at, and really change the world with those, and then within that, how do we be open to innovation and new ways of reaching clients, reaching donors, new ways of communicating. You need both.”

Click below to hear more of my conversation with Jim, and stay tuned for much more about how to preserve the core while stimulating progress.


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