In Change Leadership, Change Management

I recently sat down with Elaine James, CEO of DABD, to discuss her remarkable journey of navigating change and leading her organisation through transformation. From her insights, it’s clear that embracing change is not just a necessity but a catalyst for growth and innovation.

Ok, let’s get started!

Thank you for joining me, Elaine. It’s fantastic to have you here on ‘a chat about change’! The work you do at DABD is incredibly valuable. Ensuring everyone has equitable access to opportunities in work, benefits, training, transport, and social activities, gives people an opportunity to create a better life and enables them to lead independent lives. I see DABD as helping to shape a more inclusive society, where everyone has the opportunity to grow and thrive, which is something that I feel passionate about too!

Can you share with us the journey that led you to your current role as CEO of DABD?

My journey began roughly a decade ago, when I was introduced to the charity sector and taken in by its potential to help people charter course in their life for what they really wanted to do. I started as a volunteer, and soon after transitioned into an employee role, eventually taking up the opportunity to step into the CEO position, seven years ago.

The CEO who was there, was nearing retirement and she asked me to take on her role. This transition was accompanied by a whirlwind of emotions – excitement, dread, panic, and anxiety – you know, the sort of emotions that hit you when you realise wow, this is a big responsibility. But, as you know, I’m always a cup half full person, so I thought I’d rise to the challenge and yeah, it’s been a challenge! This pivotal moment marked the beginning of a transformative journey, ultimately shaping me into the leader I am today.

What are some of the change challenges you have faced during your time as CEO?

One of the initial challenges I faced was how to maintain enthusiasm and support individuals in realising their goals and aspirations. I saw this as an opportunity to rise to the occasion, but it was undeniably daunting. I think this is around the time when I met you. We looked at change management training, and at setting up a transformation programme for the organisation.

This was around the time when the landscape of the charity sector was shifting. It was no longer solely reliant on volunteers but had transitioned into social businesses, requiring a balance between business operations and charitable ethos. This shift also introduced increased competition and the necessity to secure funding through competitive tendering, especially as grant funding was dwindling post-comprehensive spending reviews.

Despite these challenges, our priority was to ensure that our mission remained intact. We were committed to empowering vulnerable individuals to pursue their life goals through our charity’s support, without succumbing to external pressures that could lead to mission drift.

We maintained a clear purpose and vision of our objectives and direction, which was crucial in navigating through change. The change management training and transformation programme played a pivotal role in helping us identify the essential components of our organisation and how they fit together to keep us aligned with our mission.

Through this process, we developed a holistic understanding of our offerings, which we metaphorically represented as pieces of a puzzle forming our organisation – including education, skills and employment; transport; personal care; and clubs and group activities. This analogy helped crystallize our organisational structure and purpose, emphasising the interconnectedness of our various initiatives. We realised the importance of fostering collaboration and support between different business units, ensuring they supported each other’s efforts for the overall benefit of our community.

Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in breaking down silos within the organisation and how you worked towards collaboration among different departments?

Breaking down silos to work collaboratively was a significant challenge we encountered, this was a big behavioural shift for the organisation. Siloed working hindered our ability to adapt and compete effectively in the changing landscape of the charity sector so to address this, we embarked on a journey to encourage a cultural shift towards collaboration and interconnectedness.

We developed videos that depicted a range of different personas and scenarios, showcasing how different departments could work together seamlessly to address the needs of individuals. For example, in one scenario, a grandparent seeking benefits assistance ended up being referred to multiple departments within our organisation, highlighting the interconnected nature of our services. Through repeated exposure to these scenarios and emphasising the concept of “no wrong door,” we gradually embedded a mindset and culture of collaboration and mutual support among our staff.

However, achieving this level of integration and understanding took considerable time and effort, requiring ongoing education and reinforcement of our organisational model. While this approach has yielded positive results, including improved collaboration and service delivery, it also posed challenges in terms of growth and outward expansion, as resources were diverted towards internal restructuring and cultural alignment.

So, you’re in the midst of embedding this way of working and thinking and then of course COVID hits which completely changed the way that you operate, so what happened then?

Yes that’s correct, we were in the process of embedding an interconnected model of operation within the organisation when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, fundamentally altering our operational landscape. Our teams were used to frequent face-to-face interactions across the office and with the sudden imposition of lockdown measures, we were faced with the challenge of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our staff while continuing to deliver essential services.

We implemented a hybrid model where frontline teams remained operational while office-based staff rotated to ensure continued support. This approach aimed to maintain a balance between ensuring the safety of our frontline workers and providing essential support services to our clients. For example, our transport teams, although not actively operating, played a crucial role in ensuring the safe transportation of care workers to their destinations.

However, the financial implications of the pandemic were substantial, as the closure of face-to-face services by local authorities led to a significant reduction in revenue streams.  All together this took an emotional toll on our workforce, with many frontline workers experiencing fear and reluctance to return to work, stemming from various factors such as personal loss, uncertainty, and burnout.

We had a lot of challenges in rebuilding morale and engagement among our staff, as apprehension to return continued. Despite these challenges, we have maintained a hybrid working model, allowing flexibility for our teams to work both remotely and in-office, depending on their roles and responsibilities. This adaptive approach has enabled us to continue delivering our services effectively while prioritising the well-being and safety of our staff and clients.

How did you support your team in adapting to the rapid changes, particularly with the integration of new technologies and remote working?

Initially, the transition to remote work and the adoption of new technologies posed significant challenges for our team members. There was a steep learning curve, and many employees expressed frustration with the shift away from traditional work practices. However, we recognised the importance of providing comprehensive support during this period of adjustment.

One approach we employed was extensive IT training to familiarise staff with the new systems and tools. This involved a significant amount of handholding, as individuals grappled with issues such as navigating cloud-based systems and troubleshooting technical difficulties. Despite the initial resistance and teething problems, we persevered, emphasising the long-term benefits of embracing digitalisation and remote work.

Eliminating paper-based processes and the increased agility afforded by remote work eventually won over even the most reluctant employees. They began to appreciate the time-saving advantages and flexibility offered by these changes, marking a significant shift in mindset.

In terms of driving change, the transition to remote work needed a swift and decisive approach. We set clear deadlines for the adoption of new technologies, such as the removal of desktop computers from the office environment. While this approach initially caused panic and resistance among staff, it reinforced the message that there was no turning back. We provided reassurance and extra support throughout this process, ensuring that employees had the necessary tools and resources to succeed in the new work environment.

How did you determine the appropriate timing to implement the “burning bridges” strategy, considering the significant changes involved?

Making the decision to implement the “burning bridges” strategy required careful consideration and observation of the evolving work dynamics within our organisation. Initially, we provided ample time for employees to adapt to remote work and become accustomed to using laptops at home. This transition period allowed us to gauge the level of readiness among our staff and assess their dependence on traditional office setups.

Over time, it became evident that the majority of employees were opting to work remotely, with fewer individuals using the office.

As I sat in the office, surrounded by empty desks and unused equipment, it became clear that clinging to outdated work setups was no longer practical or necessary. Our office environment was a symbolic reminder of past practices rather than representing where we wanted to be.

We realised the time had come to be decisive and make this transition.  By removing all desktop computers from the office environment, we aimed to signal a clear ending of the way things were and a definitive shift towards embracing new ways of working. This decision was not made lightly but it was necessary for embedding the changes we needed. It was a strategic step towards aligning our practices with future organisational needs.

Ultimately, the “burning bridges” strategy was implemented as a means of reinforcing our commitment to change and signalling that there was no turning back to outdated work paradigms. Even though initially it caused some apprehension among some employees, it was a necessary step towards ushering in a new era for our organisation.

It seems like you’ve been actively involved in driving organisational transformation, with change being a constant part of your journey. Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for DABD in the coming years?

We need to continue to adapt and transform. This is integral to our journey at DABD. Looking forward, one of my primary aspirations is a significant transformation to rebrand and extend our reach across the country. Traditionally we have operated in a very local area, but in recent years that has changed, and our funding also now comes from different areas, so we need a more inclusive and versatile brand and organisational identity.

This exciting endeavour opens doors to new possibilities and reflects our commitment to evolving with the needs of our community.

Thanks Elaine, that’s a wrap!

Elaine, thank you for joining me! These conversations are incredibly insightful for the change community, especially regarding the pivotal role of change management in shaping careers.

Elaine’s journey underscores the transformative potential of embracing change. Her ability to confront challenges with resilience, adaptability, and a clear sense of purpose illustrates that while change can be nerve-wracking, it also serves as a catalyst for growth and innovation. As we navigate our own paths of change, let’s find inspiration in Elaine’s story and approach each obstacle as an opportunity for transformation.


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