In the early 90s, I had the great good fortune to be the Communications Director for the United States Sailing Association, governing body and logistics manager for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. I was simultaneously, and not surreptitiously, starting my own consulting firm and trained my replacement before transitioning from a salaried position to a consulting one. I supported the new Communications Director in a variety of capacities for a few years.
Olympic-sized Goings On
While I continued to support the various departments — all designed to foster sail training and competition, and help sailors of all ages find pathways to becoming Olympians if that was their dream — through communications outreach and co-editorship of the magazine American Sailor, I also had my new friend and colleague’s back. This Communications Director was a lightning rod for special projects which she took on unflinchingly and performed gainfully.
We worked together to manage the relocation of the offices, build the organization’s first web site and develop it out as an effective tool, and managed annual general meetings and trade show events nationwide. Surprisingly, those projects were easy compared to transitioning the staff from WordStar to Microsoft Word.
Back then, software manuals were always printed, had hundreds of pages, and lacked much of the organizational structure for easy search and reference of today’s digital how-to guides. I admit, they were daunting, but I thought they’d be welcomed as a critical resource.
Through natural attrition, many of the old-guard department heads had been replaced by young professionals. Our Executive Director at the time believed that not-for-profits were ideal settings for recent college graduates ready to learn the ways of the world of business and, having been a Navy captain, was no stranger to managing and nurturing newbies. Consequently, we were ‘elected’ to learning the new software fast and helping others get up to speed with it as quickly as possible.
Many of the senior directors buzzed our extensions many times a day, asking for help with their documents. They wanted our help, but they resented it. Moreover, they resented us encouraging them to find the answers in the manual before calling us in. After all, the reason we could help them is because we taught ourselves how to use the manuals and, subsequently, the software.
The resistance was strongly passively aggressive, and we had to really fight our rising irritation. In retrospect, our visceral reaction to the situation, fueled innovation. Inexperienced as we were, we recognized that we had to identify the cause(s) of resistance and overcome it/them. We set about recognizing that the resistance included fear of:
- losing control
- the unknown
- saying yes and regretting it
- relinquishing comfortable habits
- struggling and being embarrassed by that
- having more work through efficiencies, and
- even admitting mistakes that always happen during the learning process
Just Click “Okay”
We had to get them to trust. Trust that the reasons for changing word processing software were good — that they’d really prefer MSWord soon. Trust that they were more than capable of conquering the dreaded manual. Trust that only good would come from mastering this superior new tool. Trust that we respected them, their struggles were safe with us, and that their empowerment was at hand and applauded. We became leaders, and the ‘help sessions’ became collaborations.
While their initial resistance was unproductive and annoying, it taught us all about changing our own dogmas in order to improve our skills and capabilities. In the end, everyone embraced this new tool, and we better managed the many future changes we shared. Today, we are insightful transformational leaders who can get past resistance almost painlessly, almost every time.