Lessons Learned as an Organization Remodeler

Lessons Learned as an  Organization Remodeler

Part 1


Before I share with you the lessons I learned as an “Organization Remodeler,” I need to share with you my experiences so you will understand why I chose to call myself an “organization remodeler.”

 Early in my career, I made a decision to never accept a position that had been vacated by a great leader.  While it would be easier to manage an organization that had been finely tuned and was running like a well-oiled machine, I knew I would have always been compared to my predecessor and it would be very difficult to measure up to the high standards he or she had set.

When I was selected for my first supervisor position, I began reading everything I could find on leadership and management and I began seeking advice from people I knew who had been successful as supervisors, managers and leaders. I also made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I decided to use those mistakes as learning experiences. 

After I began to rise up through the ranks from front line supervisory to mid-manager positions, I made another decision that served me well in my career.  I decided that not only would I not accept a position vacated by a great leader/manager, but I would deliberately seek out positions in which the previous person in the position had been a terrible leader or manager and the unit, division or organization for which I was to be responsible was experiencing difficulties. That decision brought two results: (1)  Every time I accepted a new job, I had a tremendous challenge ahead of me, and (2) there was no way I could look bad. Anything I did would be an improvement over what my predecessor had done.

Shortly after making that second decision, I was offered a position as the director of a detention center from which there had been 37 escapes during the previous 12 months,  which had very little programming, and which room confinement was the primary tool for dealing with behavioral problems.

In addition, to dealing with the problems of the detention center, I was charged with establishing a residential program for status offenders a few miles from the detention center.

It was at that point that I realized I needed to not only learn as much about leading and managing people, but also about developing effective organizational structures that helped me more effectively address the needs of the organization.  The structure of the portion of the department for which I was responsible had to be remodeled to accommodate the adding of a different facility and additional programming.

Later I accepted a position in Montgomery County, Texas as “Director of Juvenile services.” I inherited a department  in which the previous director was a former sheriff and which was staffed with certified peace officers whose duties con-sisted of investigating crimes committed by or against youth. It functioned much like the youth division of every law enforcement agencies in the county. 

If, in the investigating of a crime, local law enforcement officials discovered either the perpetrator or the victim was a juvenile, the case was turned over to the juvenile department for investigation. 

The  former sheriff was the only one in the department who actually supervised offenders and supervision consisted of the juvenile reporting to the office once per month, filling out a form and answering questions such as, “Are you behaving yourself?” “Are you minding your parents?” “Are you going to school?” The department had no case management system and children who were detained were in cells in the adult jail which was located on the top two floors of the courthouse.

A little less than five and a half years later, with the detention facility fulfilling its functions and the “juvenile department” having been converted from a law enforcement agency to a probation agency, I applied for a position as Director of a much larger juvenile probation department which was experiencing problems.

During the first five and a half years I had been Director of Juvenile Services, the adult probation department had been under the leadership of three different  directors and the pos-ition was vacant again.

The judges offered to match the salary of the position for which I was applying if I would stay and run both the juvenile and adult probation departments. I accepted that challenge only to find out that there was a history of employee distrust of management that had to be resolved before employees would be willing to buy into what needed to be accomplished. While I eventually earned their confidence, it was not something that happened overnight.

Approximately five years later, the judges asked me to also assume responsibility for the county’s Pre-Trial Release Pro-gram, which I did.  

In addition to the merging of the three departments into a single organization, the adult and juvenile arenas were also adding new programs and establishing satellite offices to better serve the 1,077 square miles the county covered.

Eventually, I had responsibility for Juvenile Services (juvenile court intake, Juvenile detention, juvenile probation super-vision, a juvenile justice alternative school, and through a con-tract with the state,  we  also  assumed  responsibility  for supervision of juvenile parolees in our county), Adult Community Supervision (pre-trial supervision, court services, and probation supervision, offender employment Program) and Adult  Community  Corrections (a residential treatment facility with two different in-house treatment programs).

As the organization was repurposed, grew in size, merged with other organizations, began providing more diverse services, and increased its locations, the structure of the organization was “remodeled” a number of times. 

Lessons Learned

The reason I think of myself as an “organization remodeler” is that I had to redesign the organization nearly everywhere I have been employed. 

The lessons I learned as I remodeled organizations led me to the conclusion that the keys to having an effective organization are the development of:

The correct organizational design,
A clear and compelling vision and mission,
A well-coached team of talented and highly motivated individuals,
A culture based on effective communication, collaboration and shared values, and
A strategy for developing each of the above.

Organizational Design is Important – Organization Design is more than just drawing boxes on paper. Organizational design is a systematic process for establishing the principles and structures that guide an organization toward achieving its goals. 

Successful  organizational design consists of the following elements:

Strategy – A detailed plan of action or policy designed to achieve major or overall goals,
Structure – How people are organized hierarchically,
Systems – The processes for submitting departmental re-ports, rewarding employees, or allocating resources,
Processes – The methods and technologies people use to get their work done,
People – The type of talent that should be hired across departments in order to meet organizational goals, and
Culture – Communication, collaboration, values, and  managerial styles

Ineffective, nonexistent, or outdated organizational  structures often lead to:

Rigid silos caused by too much structure and not enough systems or cultural practices to counter-balance them,
A culture where people don’t feel empowered to take responsibility, resist doing tasks outside their job descriptions, or defer decision making for fear of stepping on someone else’s toes, and
Inefficient operations and redundancies caused by poorly designed systems.

One of the problems I have observed in most of the organizations in which I have worked is that administrators did not rethink and redesign their organization as the environment in which they worked changed.

The recent pandemic caused every organization to deliver their services in new ways.  Any administrator who assumes that when the pandemic is over that we can return to doing business as usual is deluding him or herself. We must apply what we learn from that experience.

Another problem I have observed is that many times when  administrators move from one organization to another, they try to transplant the structure from their former organization to their new organization.

That never works.  Each organization is unique. Organizations need to be designed to meet their unique circumstances, cultures, environment, needs and purpose.

Leaders who able to rethink and redesign their organization’s structure based upon the vision, mission, culture, and environment can see these high-level benefits.

Increased innovation supported by a holistically designed organizational structure, efficient resource allocation, and a culture of collaboration.
Increased efficiency and productivity thanks to customer-centric innovations combined with faster production cycles.
Happier and more engaged employees who thrive in a culture of collaboration and feel their efforts aren’t wasted on inefficient processes.
A clear vision and roadmap for the organization’s future, which is understood by everyone at every level of the organization.

In next  month’s column, we will explore how to develop:

Correct organizational designs,
Clear and compelling visions and missions,
Well coached teams of highly motivated individuals,
Cultures based on effective communication, collaboration and shared values, and
Strategies for developing each of the above.