A Conversation with Ene Underwood: Amalgamation in the Charitable Sector – Part 2

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Video Transcription

David Hutchinson:

So, how did you feel going through this process personally, and what advice would you have for other charity executives who may have to go through a similar transition?

Ene Underwood:

I knew that if amalgamation happened that I was going to be the CEO, that’s fairly unique.

So our situation here was my predecessor in Toronto had left the organization, and so as part of the search process, the Toronto board actually reached out to the neighboring affiliates and said, “We have a leadership transition here. Do you want to use this as an opportunity to revisit amalgamation?” So two of the neighbors, the ones that eventually merged said, “Yes,” and so they were actually at the table for the selection process because the notion was, “We’re not sure we’re going to amalgamate, but if we do, let’s use this as an opportunity to look for someone that we would want as our leader.”

Ene Underwood:

So for me coming in, I had something a lot of leaders don’t and that was, I had the certainty of knowing what job I would have at the end, if we amalgamated and if we did not amalgamate.

In my case, what did it feel like? I think I’d say number one, just a privilege to be part of the process.

There’s a real kind of curiosity that goes with these things and how will this unfold? It’s just a privilege to be part of that, to be meeting with people and understanding and being part of working together on what is it that we can create here. At the end of the day, people look to you to set the tone, to provide guidance, and while you’re doing all that through an amalgamation process, there’s also an organization to run.

That was true through amalgamation. Then after amalgamation, there’s bringing together the organizations and not just running the same organization, but now running a growing organization. So it’s pretty exhausting, so the usual things about finding a way to be balanced, to maintain perspective, to just stop and breathe is key and is something I continue to work on.

David Hutchinson:

It’s a tough thing anyways. That’s right. So when we think about amalgamation and we look at this in the broader Canadian context, so not just Habitat, but charities across Canada, we have 88,000 approximately today. Do you think that executive leaders and boards of directors should be considering amalgamation as an option?

Ene Underwood:

I think there are some people that jumped too quickly to, if we could just merge if we could just be bigger. The nature of our work and charities, it often comes down to a lot of local relationships, so the idea of staying connected locally is very important. I also believe depending on the charity and the mission, there’s such a thing as too small, there’s such a thing as too big. So Habitat for Humanity, the fact that we operate through multiple independently governed organizations is a very good way for us to deliver this mission. So every organization, I think, needs to reflect on what is their mission is, need to be very open-minded to the possibilities of what coming together could do, and need to kind of pay attention to, well, where are the boundaries? Where’s that sweet spot and how big is big enough?

And maybe the other thing that’s important to recognize is the answer today may not be the same answer three years from now. A key factor in that will be leadership, both at the board level and at the executive level, because that is a key component in creating the capacity for the organization to take advantage of the inherent opportunities of being bigger. There are always inherent losses that come from coming together, which also brings me back to why the mission is what has to matter most. At the end of the day, all of us that have been drawn into roles in charities, are here because of the mission.

So keeping focused on, okay, even though I’m losing things and it may not feel as comfortable as before, can I use this new way of being to further advance what brought me here in the first place?

David Hutchinson:

As you look back on the amalgamation process, what were some of the key learnings that you took away from it?

Ene Underwood:

At the end of the day, it’s the people side of these processes that requires the most attention. Second, that needs to be attenuated by a really firm focus on why are we doing this? People will feel anxious. People will doubt. One of my favourite articles is using the story of Moses leading his people through the Promised Land in analogies for business leadership, and one of the analogies is just, people will doubt. People will want to go back to Egypt because Egypt was comfortable, but there’s a real need for senior leaders to keep the focus on the Promised Land and keep the faith on yes, there’s anxiety, but we need to move forward. So that’s one of the reflections of pay attention to people, but also keep a focus on your definition of the Promised Land.

The other thing I’d say is, and also pay attention to your external stakeholders. We, in our case, actually didn’t pay enough attention to our neighbours, the other affiliates that were not part of this amalgamation, and so we picked up on some things later that we had to address. We had been so busy focusing on our internal stakeholders, including donors, including volunteers, but we hadn’t looked a bit farther afield, to who else might be concerned about this. So I think that would be another reflection. Then probably the other one is just pace and managing expectations.

We felt and still feel a great deal of urgency around demonstrating, particularly in the areas of Brampton, Caledon and York region, the benefits that come out of this, the accelerated growth. So that creates an inherent go fast, go fast, an urgency, but there’s a need to manage expectations around how fast can you go.

There are a lot of moving pieces with amalgamation and so you want to move fast, while not going so fast that you exhaust yourself as a leader or your team, your board, your donors, your volunteers. Find a pace that’s faster than before, but is manageable.

David Hutchinson:

Right, yeah. As you take a step back from the overall amalgamation of the three affiliates, what are some of the positive outcomes that you come away with?

Ene Underwood:

In 2013, which is a year discussion, started, eight families throughout this area became homeowners. 16 homes were underway. Those aren’t very big numbers. In the year that we are in now in 2015, less than a year and a few months into a merger, 29 families are becoming homeowners this year and we have 42 homes underway. The land that we have in the pipeline, the momentum we have now will cause close to 60 families to become homeowners two years from now. So the good news is, on impact, can we build more homes for more families by coming together? Absolutely. And we are, and that’s terrific, and it feels good for all of us that are here.

The second impact would be that I’ve really enjoyed seeing is just people getting new opportunities. We just had some announcements last week about people from our resource, a number of people that are moving on to an assistant manager position, a manager position and opportunity and procurement in a different place. These are opportunities that weren’t available before when we were smaller. So it’s just really exciting, seeing people get those opportunities and then bringing it back to, and I think I’d also say, the other thing that’s really fun to watch is because we have so much activity underway, our staff now have more and volunteers have more opportunity to experience the mission of Habitat in the form of groundbreakings and home dedications.

We are having groundbreaking and a new home dedication, it seems, every month or every two months. For Brampton Caledon, as an example, they had 6 in a 12 year history. So staff and these organizers now are coming and being part of this, and that’s exciting and invigorating. For me personally, what’s the impact on me personally, a ton of growth, and that’s a process that’s still underway. Again, I’ll come back to, what’s it been like for me, it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege of being challenged with questions that I haven’t answered before. I will be a better leader two years from now than I am today because I have the privilege of being in an organization that is growing, that is facing complex and yet exciting problems to solve.

David Hutchinson:

Right, yeah. Well, Ene, it’s been a privilege to have you on our show today, so thank you very much for that.

Ene Underwood:

Thank you very much.

David Hutchinson:

And thank you for the work of Habitat and your leadership in the charitable sector.

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