Applying the Leadership Lessons of Casey’s Children and Family Fellowship

Posted September 30, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog applyingleadershiplessons 2015

Cather­ine Lester, Guest Blogger

The dri­ve towards improved results for kids and fam­i­lies can be hard, and the data are often dis­heart­en­ing. At the same time, the work is both noble and hope­ful. As tomorrow’s nom­i­na­tion dead­line nears for the next class of Casey Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Fel­lows, I was asked to share how my Fel­low­ship immer­sion in results-based lead­er­ship has shaped my work as I became direc­tor of Seattle’s Human Ser­vices Depart­ment this year.

Seat­tle is one of the nation’s fastest grow­ing cities, with an addi­tion­al 120,000 peo­ple antic­i­pat­ed to move to the city over the next 20 years. This is a city of tremen­dous resources and oppor­tu­ni­ty, and yet severe and per­sis­tent eco­nom­ic and racial dis­par­i­ties exist. In Seattle:

  • 13% of fam­i­lies with chil­dren live at or below the pover­ty line
  • One in four peo­ple of col­or live at or below pover­ty, while near­ly one in three chil­dren of col­or live in poverty
  • 50% to 62% of chil­dren of col­or grad­u­ate from high school on time, com­pared to 84% of white children
  • 9% of peo­ple of col­or are unem­ployed, com­pared with 5% of whites
  • One in three res­i­dents pay 30% or more of their income towards hous­ing expenses

Seat­tle May­or Edward B. Mur­ray has estab­lished a bold pub­lic pol­i­cy agen­da to make Seat­tle an afford­able and liv­able city, includ­ing the pas­sage of $15/​hour min­i­mum wage leg­is­la­tion and uni­ver­sal preschool. May­or Mur­ray is equal­ly com­mit­ted to ensur­ing that city gov­ern­ment is both results-dri­ven and per­for­mance based, and is clear­ly focused on address­ing disparities.

The Human Ser­vices Depart­ment invests $89 mil­lion annu­al­ly in the human ser­vices safe­ty net that sup­ports the great Seat­tle region. Over the last few years, we have been design­ing and test­ing an Out­comes Frame­work, based on the prin­ci­ples of Results-Based Account­abil­i­ty. This frame­work aligns with May­or Murray’s com­mit­ment to results and per­for­mance, and is help­ing the depart­ment begin to shift to a results cul­ture by using whole pop­u­la­tion data to inform a set of out­comes and indi­ca­tors that guide invest­ment decisions.

This trans­for­ma­tion has been a sig­nif­i­cant lift for the depart­ment and the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty. In reflect­ing on the jour­ney to date, there are five key points that I want to share as lessons to oth­ers engaged in this impor­tant of work.

First, lan­guage mat­ters. Cre­at­ing a shared lan­guage is so impor­tant and will make sure that your team is mov­ing in the same direc­tion. In our work at the Seat­tle Human Ser­vices Depart­ment, we start­ed by cre­at­ing com­mon def­i­n­i­tions and help­ing to estab­lish con­sis­ten­cy with how we were defin­ing terms like out­comes and indicators.

Sec­ond­ly, remem­ber to take the most strate­gic bite out of the ele­phant.” This work is so enor­mous and the enor­mi­ty can make it seem over­whelm­ing. Some­times this will cause peo­ple to want to con­tin­ue to engage in end­less talk and avoid mov­ing to action. Think­ing about what steps can make the great­est dif­fer­ence, and tak­ing on the work in chunks, is crit­i­cal to over­com­ing the obsta­cle of process paralysis.

Third, rec­og­nize that even pos­i­tive change means that peo­ple are being asked to lose some­thing. This reflec­tion was true for our department’s staff as much as for our com­mu­ni­ty part­ners. And as is often the case, the change did not become real until it direct­ly affect­ed an indi­vid­ual, either because their job duties were shift­ing or fund­ing was being real­lo­cat­ed. I spent many hours in con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple, help­ing them to grieve their old way of being and then sup­port­ing them to evolve as they began to take up new ways of doing their work.

Fourth is that focus­ing on racial dis­par­i­ties is crit­i­cal, but must be approached with care and patience. One chal­lenge is the lack of dis­ag­gre­gat­ed data, or poor data qual­i­ty that can give a false pic­ture about a par­tic­u­lar community’s well-being. Even in a pro­gres­sive city such as Seat­tle, the con­ver­sa­tion about how race mat­ters can be del­i­cate and awk­ward. Over­com­ing this calls for lead­ers through­out the com­mu­ni­ty to lift up the con­ver­sa­tion and for fun­ders to be coura­geous in fund­ing the things that cre­ate mea­sur­able results and address racial dis­par­i­ties, and not fund­ing the things that don’t.

Final­ly, the dri­ve to results can­not hap­pen if there is not also an inten­tion­al invest­ment in capac­i­ty. Increas­ing­ly, I have begun to talk about the neces­si­ty of invest­ing in the capac­i­ty of human ser­vices providers. Unless pub­lic and pri­vate fun­ders join togeth­er to invest in the capac­i­ty of the provider net­work, the aspi­ra­tions for a results cul­ture risk futil­i­ty. This invest­ment in capac­i­ty in need­ed in the areas of data, eval­u­a­tion and ana­lyt­ics; finan­cial infra­struc­ture; staffing, both in terms of bod­ies and cre­den­tials; and in the lead­er­ship of the exec­u­tives and boards entrust­ed to gov­ern these agencies.

In the Fel­low­ship, we learned one more les­son for focus­ing on results — how to per­son­al­ly stand by and sup­port each oth­er, and how to have faith in our­selves. And this sup­port is one of the great­est gifts of the Fel­low­ship. We col­lect­ed quotes that could inspire us dur­ing the most dif­fi­cult times. I will leave you with one from the great Mary McLeod Bethune, who said: Faith is the first fac­tor in a life devot­ed to ser­vice. With­out it, noth­ing is pos­si­ble. With it, noth­ing is impos­si­ble.”

Nom­i­na­tions for Casey’s Chil­dren and Fam­i­ly Fel­low­ship are due by 5 p.m. ET on Oct. 2, 2015. Can­di­dates must be nom­i­nat­ed before they can fill out appli­ca­tions, which are due by Oct. 9.

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