Why I’m stepping back as Executive Director and why that’s good for Dogwood Initiative

When I was offered the job as the Executive Director of what is now Dogwood Initiative, the Board told me they wanted to build an organization that worked specifically on forest policy issues. I thought it was a great idea. As a forestry lawyer, I loved debating the merits of area versus volume-based tenures and evergreen clauses. Unfortunately, hardly anyone else did.

A lot has changed in the 16 years since then, both at Dogwood Initiative and for me personally.

I’ve become a father to a dynamic, courageous little girl who survived being born four months prematurely, spending 110 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I too survived a serious health scare and a year of debilitating treatments. I lost some loved ones. But in the process of sorting through the grief and losses, I learned two things. One, that it is through the struggle that our most important learning happens; and two, that finding, investing in and honouring your tribe is what matters most – however you define your tribe.

Dogwood has also struggled and learned a lot over these past 16 years. The forest tenure focus never took off, and Dogwood barely survived some near-death experiences as we moved beyond forest policy to the core issue of who controls the land. We lost some great people along the way. But by evolving – figuring out what works and discarding what’s ineffective – Dogwood finally found its feet.

We succeeded because we slowly found our tribe. First, some incredibly tenacious, creative and largely unheralded staff like Matt Takach, Celine Trojand and Maggie Gilbert. Later we were joined by great volunteer organizers like Terry Dance Bennink, Montana Burgess, Dan Mesec, Merle Kindred, Bryan Jacobs, Carol Crabtree, Jay Baker-French and literally hundreds more.

This deceptively simple recipe of great staff and extraordinary volunteers has produced massive growth. I remember back in 2007 at our first public No Tankers event when eight people showed up. Half of them were hecklers sent by former Conservative minister Gary Lunn’s office. Months later I remember with pride the day we entered our 1,500th new supporter into the database. Now I almost can’t believe we’re approaching 300,000 strong – and Enbridge is about to be gone once and for all.

In just a few short years Dogwood Initiative’s organizing department has grown from an afterthought tacked onto our outreach program to the founding pillar of the organization and the driver of our political power. Now we have dynamic volunteer teams organizing on-the-ground in half the riding in B.C.

Historically at Dogwood, organisational restructuring has lagged the need for change. The truth is, when you experiment with new approaches it’s often hard to predict the structure needed to make your ideas flourish. Dogwood Initiative has been successful in predicting political trends well before they unfold in the real world. We’re pretty good at seeing what’s on the other side of the mountain, but we’ve been less skilled at anticipating the organizational changes needed to capitalize on emerging trends.

Building a solar-powered all-terrain vehicle capable of conquering steep alpine cliffs is hard. We set ambitious goals to slog through often difficult terrain. Unsurprisingly, our prototypes frequently get stuck. We often have to spin our tires before regaining traction and continuing our ascent. Now it’s time to get our vehicle tuned up for another steep climb ahead.

As I told Terry’s South Island team a year or so ago, the only thing I knew about Dogwood Initiative’s future organizational chart in 2016 is that it would look completely different from the 2014 version. I told them it was our job together to figure out what needed to change.

That’s a big part of what we’ve been doing over the last year or so. The process was slowed down by my illness, which put me at a remove from day-to-day operations at Dogwood. But I did my best to listen hard, especially at our election debrief.

I saw and heard four main things:

  1. Our tribe has grown and diversified and our internal decision-making structure needs to reflect that evolution;

  2. There is a perception that too much authority rests with me, and this is hindering attempts to redistribute power locally;

  3. There’s an excess of male energy in our leadership; and

  4. The existing organizational structure was creating unnecessary bottlenecks and information silos.

I have spent the last couple months pondering these challenges and discussing our options. Now, in consultation with our senior team leads and newly promoted staff, we are making eight significant changes:

  1. I am relinquishing my role as Executive Director and taking on a new role as “Strategy Director”.

  2. We’re creating a new Executive Team of five Directors, which will take over the previous responsibilities of Executive Director for day-to-day operations and longer-term strategic decisions at Dogwood Initiative.

  3. We are reorganizing the core functions of the organization into two streams: Organizing and Communications.

  4. What used to be under Campaigns will be merged into Communications, hopefully reducing the tension, silos and bottlenecks that previously existed.

  5. Kai will become the Director of Communications and part of the Executive Team.

  6. Laura is our new Director of Organizing, taking over for Celine who is moving on to new challenges after seven years at Dogwood. Laura will also join the new Executive Team.

  7. Alisha will be promoted into a newly created role: Director of Human Resources. She will join the Executive Team.

  8. To encourage cross-pollination, each staff member will be asked to devote part of their time to a secondary responsibility on another internal team. The details of this will need to be worked out in the New Year, but for example a member of the organizing department, led by Laura, might participate in a Major Donors Fundraising Team, led by Don. Or while I work on my primary duties as Director of Strategy, I might participate in the newly formed Data/Analytics/Testing team reporting to Maggie. More to come on this soon.

Dogwood Initiative has accomplished great things over the past few years. Sometimes our previous structure impeded rather than supercharged these efforts. To continue to move from Good to Great we need to periodically reboot ourselves. This is one of those times.

Here’s how things will be different:

The changes to the “who” and “how” at Dogwood are significant:

  • I will be delegating my executive power to a newly formed Executive Team.

  • Together the Executive Team will make the key strategic decisions for Dogwood. We will strive for consensus but if needed this structure allows us to make a decision by majority vote.

  • Under the new structure no one person has the power to drive through a decision. They will need buy-in from minimum three members of the Executive Team.

  • But with power comes responsibility – Executive Team members will no longer be responsible only for their programs, they will also be responsible for all aspects of Dogwood.

  • Together the
    Executive team will also be accountable to five distinct constituencies that might not always be pulling in the same direction: Dogwood’s supporters, field teams, external partners, the public, and our board.

These changes are happening immediately under the authority delegated to me by Dogwood Initiative’s Board. After consulting widely and getting unanimous buy-in from senior staff, I am moving quickly because we all believe these changes need time to settle in before we decide on our next big campaign in the spring.

Not everything will be changing. The legal reality is that Dogwood’s Board is ultimately responsible and will need to sign off on these structural changes at their next full meeting in the spring. Until then I remain accountable to the board, although I will continue to delegate some of that responsibility to Matt.

In the meantime consider this interim structure an experiment. Collectively, the senior management believes it’s a clear and practical response to the sticking points created by our growth. We hope this experiment will succeed and the Board will decide to carry these changes forward. Of course, new challenges will arise and adjustments will have to be made.

What’s important is that Dogwood will continue to break new ground, reinvigorate democracy and connect people to points of power on key issues affecting the future of their communities.

As the person who has used much of my life force for 16 years pushing and pulling to try to position Dogwood Initiative for greatness, I have to admit these changes are scary. Change is often hard. Our brains are hardwired to establish patterns and habits and that is a good thing. It allows our brains to spend most of their energy on difficult new tasks, while the habitual stuff hums along on autopilot behind the scenes.

But for an organization like Dogwood, habits or established patterns can be dangerous; they undermine authenticity and allow us to lose track of the connections that are essential to our success. These changes are intended to shake things up, reboot our collective brains and build new synapses that help us grow our tribe.

For me personally there are many parts of the Executive Director job that I don’t rejoice over – and that frankly I’m not great at. What’s that old saying? “Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.” I am relieved the Executive Director responsibilities will now be shared. Four other executive team members will now carry the weight, and it will be liberating to share those burdens.

What I like is strategizing, figuring out how to solve problems, identifying trends and finding innovative ways to move the chess pieces around the board. I hope to do more of that in my new role, starting on January 4th.

Now that the big changes have been made there is a lot of work to do restructuring teams and accountability mechanisms. Shaping Functional Teams to carry out the key duties of the organization – and figuring out how best to cross-pollinate between these teams – hopefully will expand our reach and break down silos. It will also better take advantage of the diverse skills of our staff and volunteers. Some long-time staff will be taking on new responsibilities.

Most of all we have to be realistic, but ambitious, in deciding the next steps in our continuous journey from “Good to Great.” Now that criteria have been set and campaign ideas are coming in, we need to dive deep into our next five-year planning process and choose a trail-blazing new campaign (or campaigns).

I’m proud because Dogwood Initiative is closer than ever to our mountaintop goal of British Columbians taking back their power. But we’re not there yet.  I’m confident that these changes – clarifying roles and redistributing decision-making power more broadly – are essential to our future success.

The one thing I can guarantee is that these changes won’t solve all our problems. New unanticipated issues will arise, unexpected gaps or bottlenecks will occur. But remember, when that time inevitably comes, it’s through the struggle that our most important learning happens.

The ultimate test is whether these changes streamline and improve our ability to find, invest in and honour our tribe. I’m betting they do, and if I’m right nothing can stop us.

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