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MT: Hello, everybody! Welcome to this interview with Sarai Johnson, who is so wonderful. She is the CEO of Lean Nonprofit and also an incredible human being. You would be lucky to know her. Sarai, I know you have a long and storied history with nonprofits. Would you like to tell people a little bit about why you are so wonderful?

SJ: Oh, yeah, I love talking about how wonderful I am. Thanks. Thanks for the opportunity. So I started Lean Nonprofit four years ago this very week. August 8 of 2014 is when I incorporated, so yay. Happy anniversary, Lean Nonprofit, you strange and mysterious beast. So I’ve worked with nonprofits and in nonprofits for about 15 years now, kind of off and on starting in my early twenties, and I love the sector. I really believe in what we are able to do. I think we have a really awesome opportunity to do a lot of good in the world and a lot of energy behind that, and I also find that we are often times challenged by that, because we get stuck in – let’s see. Overwork and a feeling like the work is never done and feeling like we never have enough, and that we can never serve enough people, that we’re never working hard enough.

We all kind of fall into these patterns of if it’s not workaholism – it probably is, though. If it’s not workaholism it’s probably martyrdom or burning out or things like that. So when I started my business, I originally really just intended to help people learn how to do program development and operate their cultures in a way that was more kind of waste efficient. So like eliminating waste and increasing their ability to get real mission results. But what I ended up talking about all the time was really cultural issues, turnover and the cultural scarcity that we have, or really kind of the culture of poverty that we perpetuate within the nonprofit sector. With you, Mazarine, on the side, talking about like bigger archetypal energies and things like that in the sectors.

So now I work with organizations in a couple different ways. But I largely focus on developing cultures of belonging and human centered change management. So helping people, managers and leaders, learn how to do change management, which we have to do all the time because everything is always changing. With people in mind, based on how people actually experience that. So that’s sort of my thing, and here I am.

MT: I am so impressed. I am so impressed because that really dovetails nicely with a few other sessions we’re going to be having at the leadership summit in September. One of those is called Decolonizing Our Nonprofits by Neesha Powell, and she’s going to be talking about how we can have more of an abundance mindset and also more of a people centered organizational culture that takes into account sort of systems of power that are preexisting built into our nonprofits that privilege white, het, cisgendered people instead of people who are different than that. So I’m really psyched to have you dovetail with her, as well as Daniel Hyman is going to be talking about creative problem solving from an organizational mindset. A mindset of abundance instead of lack. I feel like what you’re talking about really kind of dovetails nicely with that as well, in terms of helping shift our mindsets around overwork and overstress and martyrdom versus actually sitting back and being like, it’s going to be okay. You know what? The mission is always going to be there and we’re going to get the work we need to get done. We can’t do it all today, but we can prioritize.

But your session is not just about prioritization as such. I mean, what is Lead in Love really about?

SJ: Well, Lead in Love is secretly – don’t tell anybody, except for people listening to this. It’s secretly the third part of a three step process, that actually has a whole bunch of other steps underneath it. But I’ll just give you the basic gist. The first is called Leave in Love. It’s about how do we know when we need to change something in our lives or in our workplace? So recognizing what needs to be left behind, whether that’s a situation or a relationship or a job or whatever. In the case of leaders, what in our organization is no longer working and what can we let go of so that we can move into something else? So recognizing the process of how that works is a big piece of this.

Then the next is Living in Love, which is where we build the kind of thing that we actually want to move toward. So not only what do we need to leave behind, but now what do we want instead of that, and the process of building that in. Then Lead in Love is about embodying what it takes to continuously evolve into a better version of yourself as a human being so that you can lead other people who are also empowered to do the same thing. When I say empowered, that’s actually a word I don’t like that much because it feels really kind of paternalistic to me. So rather what I mean when I say that isn’t that you give someone the ability or the permission to be empowered now.

But rather that you give them the space and respect to use the power that they already have intrinsically as a human being, and that we respect that instead of trying to squelch that or instead of trying to control that, which is what traditional structures of management actually do. So that is kind of the heavy version of what I mean by leading in love.

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MT: I love that. So leading in love is trying to sort of understand that as the world changes faster and faster, and you and I have talked about how it really is changing faster and faster. We don’t have to struggle to keep up if we can keep embracing change. Like you said, change management in the beginning, and understanding what we don’t know is the tricky part. But one of the things I feel like you brought up was just sort of like what to leave behind, which I think is really important. Not just being like, oh, well, screw that grants management software. That sucked. You know? How would you leave in love something like a job or even firing someone? Like what does that look like?

SJ: Let’s tackle firing people.

MT: Okay, great.

SJ: I usually talk about it in leaving jobs. But people don’t always want me to talk about that.

MT: So firing someone in love.

SJ: Yeah. Well, part of it is recognizing earlier and being more in touch. So when I said the word embodied earlier, like embodying the kind of leader that you want to become or that you are becoming. I also mean that in a very literal way. So like learning to get in touch with what I call your three brains. So you have your head brain. We’re all very familiar with. It’s like the thing. Everyone is in love with brains, which of course you should be because they’re awesome and we’re really smart and that’s great. But what we end up doing is we cut ourselves off from our heart brains and our gut brains. We actually have a lot of neural connections in our heart as well as in our gut. They are kind of on their own in those spaces.

So it’s a way for us to also just start to reconnect into our body, because we do have embodied wisdom, two-thirds of which we’re usually just sort of leaving on the table. Because we’re really generally in western culture cut off from the neck down. So we have lots of really awesome ideas and we can think, think, think, and we can talk about those things and we can go do stuff. But we’re not always in touch with what’s really right in our heart and our gut. Also when our heart and our gut tell us things, because we’re cut off from that, we don’t believe them. So they might be like screaming at us.

They might be saying, this thing isn’t working. This person is not working out in this position. Or this process is never working right, so what’s going on? We might be like, oh, but I haven’t filled out the right paperwork for that. Or oh, we have all kinds of reasons. We can overcome all kinds of bodily signals with our head brains, because our head brains are very powerful and very bossy. So when I think about how to lead in love in the case of needing to help someone happily move on from a position, is to really first check in with like what isn’t working here? I think there are three things that generally work, don’t work or do work together in an organization. I kind of would draw those in a Venn diagram if I was more crafty. Actually I’ll just do it right now. But they’ll look backwards to you. They’re very bad circles. So let’s say this one up here is policy. So your own policies and procedures that you have within your organization. Then you’re going to have process as well, which usually flows from policy. Then you have people.

So are these people able to understand the policy and implement the process? Before you start to blame people for the problems that are happening in the organization, I think it’s really important first to look at where are we not working our processes? Are things falling down and people not aware of who’s supposed to be accountable for something? Or are there pieces that are missing from a process that are causing it to fall through the cracks? Then if that’s all working as it’s intended to, or if there are pieces missing from that, also let’s look at policy. What policies do we not have in place, or what could we put in place so that we could create better processes that then people can implement?

Once you create the kind of system around this to keep your policies and your procedures working well, your processes working well, then it’s time to say, okay. So if this person is not able to execute or if they’re not willing to follow policy, then we have more of a problem in our hands. It’s not just that this person isn’t equipped to do the work because we haven’t provided them with all that they need. It’s that there’s a misfit or that they are unhappy or maybe they are acting out. They may not know. One of the things that happens in our organizations too, is when something is not working out for somebody, we usually as humans – all of us do this. We have three choices that we can make. One, we can rise to the occasion and just be like, oh, this isn’t working for me anymore. I’ve outgrown this or it’s not a good fit or I need to do something else with my time and my life because this is feeling like a real drain to me, which is the hardest choice to make, honestly, because it requires us to be really, really courageous and kind of step into the unknown.

The other thing we could do is choose to pretend like we don’t notice it. Just sort of pretend like we can just kind of cut that part of ourselves off and just not listen to it. It’s one of the ways that we cut ourselves off from the neck down, right? So we’re like, I hate this. This is really hard and bad. But I’m not going to do anything. I’m just going to like hunker down and do my job and keep doing it. Or we can choose not to choose, and in choosing not to choose, we’re waiting for somebody else to make the choice for us. This is honestly, I think, where most people get when they are in a position where they are like waiting to see if their boss is going to fire them.

Or as a boss, as a leader, you might be waiting to see if they’re just going to quit because you can tell they’re unhappy. So like this is where we’re sort of getting into this like, how do we not only manage the organization to allow for people to be the most successful they could possibly be, but also how do we honor them when we find that things aren’t working? Like how do I check in with this person as a whole person and say, hey, this doesn’t seem to be working out for you. How can I help you get what you need? Or how can I help you transition out of here in a way that’s honoring to you and also to the organization so that we can all get what we need and move the mission forward?

MT: Wow, what a different mindset than just being like, hire slow and fire fast. Today’s your last day. Goodbye.

SJ: Well, I guess there’s a time for that sometimes. But I think that usually we just hop right to like, this person isn’t working out, when we don’t also look at our systems and structures in the organization to identify where are we not providing people with the opportunity to be successful? That’s our job as leaders. How do we provide opportunity for everyone here to be successful? If that isn’t happening, it’s not because these people aren’t good, you know? It’s because they don’t have the right pieces in place, and/or perhaps it’s not the right fit for them. But that doesn’t say that they are bad. But we like to make things like that. You know. We’re very – again, we love archetypes as people. Archetypes, for those of you who aren’t as woo-woo as me, are characters that we see recurring. Kind of these thematic characters in movies and in our lives.

So we like to pit good and evil. We’re always the good guy and other people are always the bad guy, which tragically I will tell you is not always true, because there are certain people that left under my tenure in my last job, that if I see them around town, my first impulse is to be like, I am so sorry. I failed you as a leader. So I am sure you probably hate me now and I am cool with that because I get it.

MT: Oh, man. So really embracing these shadow aspects of ourselves and understanding the archetypal nature of our reality that we’re probably going to respond in like one of three ways for example, to a particular challenge. Like okay, someone is calling me in for disciplinary action. I suck, or they suck, or poor me, and now I’m going to have to look for another job and it’s not my fault. You know? So that’s really interesting to me that like you could just come at it from like, it doesn’t seem like you’re happy here. But what could we do to either make it work or help you find something that’s more fulfilling to you?

SJ: Yeah, totally, and in a way, that truly does come from that authentic place of caring for people and doing it sooner rather than later. So like here’s the fire fast part of it. Don’t let that last for six months before you say anything. Identify it early and continue that conversation as much as it needs to be continued until the moment comes where you’re like, okay, I think we’ve reached our conclusion here. Now you’re going to do better or you’re going to go and it’s not because we’ve waited too long and now we have to like force you out, or do some other weird passive aggressive thing to get you to leave, or fire you in a blaze of glory and disrupt the entire culture, which isn’t good. It affects other people when parts of that body leave.

MT: It does. It makes people feel unsafe if suddenly someone is gone. It can affect their productivity as well. So whether or not you care about the human cost of just firing someone with no notice, it can make other people in your organization feel like maybe you’re not worth their loyalty if you give this person no notice and then you fire them.

SJ: Right, right.

MT: I love that. So part of leading in love is having more, I hear, respect for people that work for you.

SJ: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s about viewing all humans as their own unique autonomous selves that are offering their services to your organization. One of the challenges I think we do often have in nonprofits is that we view human labor as somehow this endless resource. Once we hire somebody, we’re like, oh cool. They can work at an event tonight and on the weekend and never take any comp time off or whatever. Like it’s just this idea that we can like pull from that on an unlimited basis. That is first of all, terribly wrong. It’s bad to do that to people. So there, I’m just going to draw my line in the sand.

Don’t exploit your workers, okay? There’s one great way to not be a terrible leader. But also it’s just not effective. It has its point where it will no longer work and it’s too bad that we do that to people, because we do end up burning them out. Then they leave our organizations and often times the whole entire sector, which is a tragedy for the sector. We need amazing, smart people who are willing to give up their time and effort for important causes.

MT: We do, and we do have a leadership crisis as Marc Pitman talked about last year in the Nonprofit Leadership Summit. It’s not just about boomers not retiring. It’s about people not wanting to go into the sector because of the wages that we pay and the way we treat our people. So that’s something we’re going to be really focusing on in the three days of the Nonprofit Leadership Summit online. It’s just like, well, how do we make a better work place? How do we treat people better? That’s what your session is going to be on, I hear, is more the nitty gritty of that.

SJ: Yeah, it is. I think it’s a lot about inner work, too. So working on ourselves and allowing ourselves the space and time we also need as autonomous human beings with limitations and with needs and with desires to also give ourselves the space to recognize, what do we even want and why are we here, and how can we continuously evolve? When do we know it’s time to move on for ourselves, as well?

MT: Yeah, those are deep questions and a lot of times it feels like the work is just not going to get done if we stop and ask them. So I’m really hoping that even though they are scary questions for some of us, because you don’t want to think about finding a new job or having to do something different. It’s just easier to stay here. I get it. You know, it’s something that could make your life way more fulfilling and interesting. There’s a big reward for going through that discomfort is what I’m hearing.

SJ: Yeah, there is. It’s funny because I often tell people when I’m talking about the kind of coaching I do or consulting I do, I’m like, it’s a little hard for me to make a really easy sales pitch because I’m selling somebody like, oh, are you suffering right now? Suffer a little more in a slightly different way. Then you’ll come through the other side and it will be better. [Laughter] That’s my fault. I’m selling the process and not the results.

MT: Right, because the result ultimately is a better workplace culture which leads to greater effectiveness, which leads to more money raised, which leads to hopefully achieving your mission in a more efficient way is what I’m hearing.

SJ: Yeah, absolutely, for sure. And with more joy. We don’t want to go to work every day like, ugh, here I am again at my desk and I hate my life. Like wouldn’t it be better to be able to go and enjoy what you’re doing and find some delight in that? That seems good. I like it.

MT: Gosh, I mean, imagine that just for a second. If you could have good relationships with all of your colleagues and you could just be like saying hi to people every day. You could be like, how can I support you? What if your boss had sat down with you in the first week of your job and said, whether it was the board chair or the ED, and said okay where do you really want to be in five years and how do I help you get there?

SJ: Yeah, and you know what that takes? It takes leaving behind fear, because a lot of those things that you’re describing and what I’m describing too is about us not being stuck in this sort of survival mode where it’s like, every person for themselves and I’m going to have to claw my way to the top and fight my way to the top and protect my power against someone else who’s a threat to that. That’s one of the other systems and structures that we have to confront in ourselves, and also in our cultures and our organizations as well. So yeah, there’s so much to that.

MT: Punishing systems and structures do not create trust, and that’s something that I talked about in my trust presentation. That’s something that I feel like you’re referencing again here. It’s that we’re not looking for these people who are doing right or rewarding small wins. We’re kind of doing the opposite. We’re punishing small mistakes and that can be detrimental to our productivity as well, because then we’re never going to make experiments or be entrepreneurial and say, how can I get more and more for my organization?

Actually, Sarai, I think you and I both share an interest in entrepreneurial nonprofits. We should talk about that again sometime.

SJ: We should talk about that again. Entrepreneurial nonprofits, indeed. Queue the cackling. [laughter]

MT: Well, we’re almost out of time for this interview. So I just want to say, Sarai, I’m so psyched for your session. I feel like it’s going to get at the core of some deep organizational issues that keep us from being the most productive and efficient and effective with our donor money that we can be, as well as really help hone how we can motivate our teams from love instead of fear.

Nonprofit Leadership Summit

Nonprofit leadership summit