I’d like to introduce you to a group of unsung heroes. While the pandemic was making kids cranky and parents crazy, members of the California IT in Education Association (CITE), were on the frontlines restoring order. They worked tirelessly, often putting their health at risk, to ensure that every child in grades K through 12 had the technology needed for remote learning.
CITE’s members support hardware, software, help desk, data, and Wi-Fi in schools. They provide training and install and maintain the technology infrastructure. Along with the internet of things, their jobs are growing to include clocks, bells, sprinklers, solar panels, and anything else that runs on bits and bytes.
The pandemic delivered swift and ongoing challenges. From door-to-door canvassing to identify households in need, to transforming school buses into WI-FI hubs; CITE’s members tackled each problem with innovation and persistence. Some even braved the pouring rain to distribute school lunches.
I learned this group’s amazing story from .orgSource consultant Sharon Rice. At a pivotal point in CITE’s development, Executive Director, Andrea Bennett, called on .orgSource to guide the organization toward a business strategy for growth.
A rebranding initiative in 2019 was the catalyst for significant change. “A new name and image created momentum,” Andrea recalls. “We wanted to keep that enthusiasm going. But we realized that we couldn’t move forward being a working board. Our primary focus had to be governing the organization. Sharon helped us make that transition.”
“One of the strengths of our board is that we are all professionals in the field. Hiring an executive director was an early step toward change. As a board member at the time, I was excited about the position. It presented an opportunity to expand my role. Instead of just helping people in my school district, I could support colleagues across the state.
“I didn’t have experience running an association. But the board hired me because they knew that I was dedicated to CITE and trusted that I would do whatever it took to become the best leader I could be.”
Align Leadership to Growth
“With Andrea in place, CITE began adding staff,” Sharon explains. “Andrea’s top priority was to help a hands-on board start turning administrative responsibilities over to those employees. We began our work by showing the board how they could align their leadership activities to CITE’s development.
Although CITE has been in existence since 1960, the rapid growth of technology has impacted the profession and the association,” Sharon observes. “Based on Andrea’s responses to our Association Life Cycle Analysis, CITE was entering a period of expansion. The group’s governance style needed to keep pace.
“Organizations, like people, have life cycles,” Sharon explains. “Each phase of that journey requires particular behaviors and structures for success. Just like kids need to achieve a certain level of socialization before they are ready to thrive in school, businesses need the right building blocks in place to grow.
“The Lifecycle Analysis is the product of a cross-section of maturity models for nonprofits and philanthropies. It helps boards to identify the new competencies they may need to enter an accelerated state of productivity or that a more mature group can cultivate to maintain peak performance.
“During a development retreat in February of 2020, the board discussed various governance models and how they could shift perspective to maximize CITE’s potential,” Sharon recalled. “We also explored their relationship with the staff and how it might evolve. To provide specific guidance, I attended the board meeting and presented an evaluation along with recommendations for how the group could lead more effectively.”
“Working with Sharon, we were able to create a governance plan that aligned perfectly with our life cycle stage,” Andrea noted. “We had a roadmap for how to advance the organization and prepare for the next phase of growth.”
Pivot When Necessary
“Then COVID-19 struck. Our members were immediately consumed by the crisis. We adjusted our expectations to what could be achieved despite the disruption. Exciting plans for continuing education programs were deferred. No one had the bandwidth to participate.
“Instead, we turned inward. Strengthening the regional groups that are a lifeline when our members need assistance, resources, and a shoulder to cry on was critical. Plus, like every other association, we had the additional task of learning to produce a virtual conference.”
“With a full plate, Andrea could have turned her attention away from board development,” Sharon notes. “But keeping her focus on CITE’s future, she began the important work of helping the board move from administration to governance.
“The accounting function, one significant focus area, was transferred from a volunteer treasurer to the staff and professional accountants. It sounds mundane, but streamlining financial reporting systems, like the chart of accounts and monthly statements, makes a big impact on operations,” Sharon observes. “Adding experts to the mix brings a new level of sophistication to analysis and planning.
“Along with other recommendations that the board embraced, they also agreed to initiate term limits. So fast forward to three years later, and today, I’m working with a group where 50 percent of the leaders are new,” Sharon notes. “CITE’s progress is genuinely exciting. I was gratified to suggest opportunities for advancing the association’s governance. But the board members did the hard work of creating change. It’s wonderful to see how their effort has paid off.”
Prepare for Growth
Sharon’s thoughts highlight an important point about working with consultants. We are always ready to help organizations take a leap. But success depends on the group. If they are unprepared or unwilling to jump, progress will be limited.
“The volunteers who were on the board in 2020 knew that change had to come,” Andrea advises. “We had gone through the rebranding and were ready to update policies and processes. But everyone had to give something up to achieve a better outcome. It was not always easy.”
“Assuming staff responsibility for the accounting meant that I had to learn the procedures plus how the software functions. There was also a bit of the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ syndrome to overcome for us all. With each innovation, I wanted to ensure that the board was comfortable so they could continue to deliberate at the highest level and would not be pulled into the weeds.
“And, of course, we were dealing with the stressors of COVID-19. Some staff members had family and housing arrangements that weren’t conducive to remote work. Keeping the morale high was an ongoing challenge.
“On the other hand, the opportunities far outweighed the difficulties. Our new governing model makes us work smarter. Sharon gave us a roadmap. I took the analysis that .orgSource did and a year later, I was able to show the board their progress in every focus area. Those extremely specific goals kept us on target.”
To continue the momentum, CITE invited Sharon back to facilitate the 2022 board strategic planning retreat. “The plan we are creating will get us into the next three or four years,” Andrea remarks. “We’ve identified points of arrival that will allow the staff to move forward in an accelerated way and keep the board at that governing level. We have a bright future and we’re excited to grow and evolve along with our members.”
When I asked Andrea what advice she has for new executive directors, she replied, “Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know to your board and your staff. Then, fill the skill gaps and seek help. There is plenty of expert support available.”
That’s smart guidance for any leader looking to put their members and their organization on track to a successful future. And, with Andrea’s support, CITE’s unsung heroes of the pandemic are rapidly gaining the higher profile they deserve.