I began a new journey in May of 2016, tracing two long arcs in my life:
- Climbing all 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall (1219m), what is called “peak-bagging” by local climbers. I’m describing, in words and images, the ascent of each of these peaks – mostly done solo, but sometimes with a friend or two;
- Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
So far, I’ve described climbing 27 of those 48 mountains in New Hampshire. Last time I described some aspects of my time as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had moved sectors – from the international development field where I had been working since joining the Peace Corps in 1984, to focus now on human rights advocacy. I joined UUSC in early 2005.
This shift felt right. The world had changed – at least on average, for majority populations, basic human development had advanced substantially in the twenty years I had been overseas. The challenge for social justice now was to address injustice, inequality, and human rights – and not just overseas! In fact, in those Bush years, my own country seemed to be on a dangerous, wrong track. Since the mission of UUSC was to support activism to advance and protect human rights, I made the move!
Last time, I mentioned that one of the challenges of working at UUSC was managing relations with the staff union. I learned a lot from that experience, so I will write about that here, below. But first:
I climbed Mt Willey, the 28th of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-footers, on the Fourth of July, 2017, driving up from Durham that morning. My plan was to drive to Crawford Notch, get to the top of Willey, and stay the night at the nearby Dry River Campground. Then I would get an early start on 5 July 2017, drive across from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch and down to Lincoln, get a sandwich to-go, and then drive east from Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway to climb Owl’s Head. Owl’s Head is one of the longer, and (supposedly) less scenic climbs of the 48 4000-footers, but it’s on the 4000-footer list – I thought getting an early start, by staying overnight at Dry River after climbing Willey, would make the second day of this trip a bit easier. But things didn’t work out quite the way I had planned!
I had intended to climb Mt Willey the previous year: my very first climb in this new journey was meant to take me up Mt Tom, Mt Field, and Mt Willey, back in May of 2016. Loyal readers will recall that I was unprepared, back in May 2016, for the packed ice I found on the trail once I got up to elevation, and I only made it up Mt Tom and Mt Field. Who knew that there would be ice that late in the spring?! In fact, I fell going down from Mt Field, and injured my shoulder, which I would reinjure after climbing South Carter, as I have described.
So Mt Willey had been pending for over a year.
I left Durham at 8:45am, and made good time up Rt 16, stopping only in Ossipee to grab a sandwich for lunch and a coffee to-go at “Aroma Joe’s.” Traffic wasn’t too bad for a Fourth of July…. at least not until I arrived at Bartlett, not too far from Crawford Notch State Park: it was 11am, and Rt 302 was closed for a parade!
Once the parade had finished, I was on my way again, and arrived at the trailhead – the parking lot for historic Willey House – at about 11:45am. Normally it takes about 2 hours to get from Durham, but this day it took an hour longer than usual due to the parade in Bartlett.
As I prepared to start walking, changing into my boots and assembling everything into my backpack … I realized that I had forgotten a very important piece of equipment: I didn’t have my backpack. This was very frustrating, because even if I could improvise and manage to get to the top of Mt Willey, the long Owl’s Head climb I had planned for the next day would certainly not be feasible without carrying equipment and water, etc. Very frustrating indeed.
So I improvised for the day, using a stuff-sack to carry lunch, water, and my first-aid kit, and started the hike, grumbling about my forgetfulness. How could I forget something so important?! I would think about what to do tomorrow when I got back down…
Still, it was a very pleasant day, mostly sunny and cool, very few insects on the path. And fewer people than I had feared there would be, this being a major holiday. As I went, my mood lifted and I stopped kicking myself so much. I vowed to prepare a checklist that will prevent this kind of mistake in the future!
Walking up Kedron Flume Trail from Willey House was steadily uphill, crossing the railway line at about 0.4 miles. Just before that I passed an old box culvert.
From the railway crossing it’s steeply up to Kedron Flume at 1 mile, a picturesque waterfall:
Soon Kedron Flume joins Ethan Pond Trail, which is part of the famous Appalachian trail here. I arrived at that junction at about 12:30pm.
I continued on Ethan Pond Trail, and began to hear the train whistling in the distance down below me. I think it’s a tourist train these days, so it would be busy on a holiday like today.
About 15 minutes later, at 12:43pm, I arrived at the junction of Willey Range Trail and Ethan Pond Trail, and took Willey Range towards the summit of Mt Willey. After a short, fairly-flat section, Willey Range Trail becomes rough and steep, with several flights of steep wooden staircases.
Views across Crawford Notch started appearing as I climbed:
I stopped for lunch at 1:15pm, at a very beautiful spot, but well short of the summit of Mt Willey. Still going up steeply. It was a bit surprising how few people I had seen so far, just a handful, on such a major holiday. And it was becoming even more sunny, so my mood was lifting – it was a beautiful day!
Just before 2pm I passed an outlook, near the top of Mt Willey, with a spectacular view across Crawford Notch. Several peaks I’ve climbed on this journey were clearly visible, as were some I was yet to climb: Mt Webster, Mt Jackson, Mt Pierce, Mt Eisenhower and, in the distance, Mt Washington. To the east, I thought I could see the Wildcat / Carter Range. I didn’t stay at the outlook for long, because a couple with a young daughter arrived and space was limited. I took a few pictures:
I got to the top just after the outlook, just after 2pm – a wooded summit with a cairn but no views.
From there I turned around and retraced my steps on this very nice, clear day, taking photos and a few videos as I went. The descent was pleasant, especially when compared with the climb up!
I arrived back at the junction with the Ethan Pond Trail at 3pm, rejoining the Appalachian Trail. Ten minutes later I reached Kedron Flume Trail, and took a left to return the 1.3 miles to the parking lot.
At 3:25pm I was back at Kedron Flume:
and I arrived back at the railway crossing at 3:43pm, finishing up the hike at 3:53pm, at Willey House.
It was a very nice walk, marred only by my beating myself up over having forgotten my backpack. And I could have done with a little longer spell at the outlook at the top, but it was good to give the family with the little girl the opportunity to enjoy that view. I will have plenty of chances.
I stayed the night of 4 July 2017 at Dry River Campground: it was much posher than Dolly Copp, where I’ve stayed on two earlier overnights in Pinkham Notch as I climbed these 4000-footers:
Not only was there a platform for my tent, but hot (!) showers and toilets and laundry facilities! Luxury! I decided not to attempt Owl’s Head without my backpack – it’s a very long hike, so I thought it would be better to carry more equipment, water, food, etc., in case of unforeseen eventualities. So I decided I would go up Cannon Mountain, a shorter climb in Franconia Notch, which would be more suitable, shorter, and much more predictable. And Cannon is still a 4000-footer.
More on my climb of Cannon Mountain to come, the next posting in this series!
I enjoyed my time at UUSC. We worked hard and achieved a lot together during those years, and I learned a lot, about managing a domestic NGO, about campaigning, activism, collective action, and power, and about the social justice landscape in the United States. I extended my range, my toolbox, from development into human rights and social justice campaigning and activism. This would serve me well in the coming years, in future roles…
In this blog post I want to describe a little bit about one of the challenges I faced at UUSC: managing relations with the staff bargaining unit. The difficulty resided, I think, in three areas: our idealistic approach to working with the union, at least at the beginning; my own inexperience in union relations, at least initially; and the tension between the organization’s commitment to economic justice and our (management’s) obligation to manage the agency pragmatically. Navigating across principle and pragmatism was especially complex when it came to working with our staff union.
When I joined UUSC, I felt quite able to lead and manage international nonprofits: I had grown up with the sector, and developed myself professionally as our nonprofit organizations grew and professionalized. I had served in a wide range of roles (local, country, regional, and international) across the world, working in line management at all those levels, and in staff roles as well. So when I started as Executive Director in Cambridge, I was able to offer UUSC a useful range of capabilities: general management expertise, especially across cultures, experience developing and implementing programmatic and business systems and procedures, and an empowering leadership style. That’s really why UUSC had hired me – I could take the organization to the next level, internally, letting Charlie Clements (UUSC’s President and CEO) focus on the external side where he was so gifted. I was a safe pair of hands, competent in areas where Charlie and the board felt UUSC could use some attention.
And, for my part, it was exciting to play a leading role in an organisation that was pushing back against US-sponsored torture, working to advance the human right to water, responding in partnership with groups particularly harmed by humanitarian disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) because of their ethnicity, campaigning to stop the atrocities happening in Darfur, advancing a living wage, and pushing to expand labor rights.
But although I had been managing staff for two decades, I did not have much experience working in a unionized environment. (Yes, there had been a union for the staff in Plan Viet Nam, but that was mostly just a social club, a mockery of the concept of a union.) This meant that, at least at first, I relied on guidance from Charlie and Maxine Hart (our HR Director), who had been managing relations with the union before I joined. And when it came time to renegotiate UUSC’s collective-bargaining agreement with the staff union, I would also learn a lot from Phil Schneider, who provided excellent legal support during weeks of tense negotiations. More on that below!
The situation was complicated. Charlie’s predecessor had not worked out, and the staff union had played a key role in her departure. While this may have been for the best, it was a dangerous precedent: Bargaining-Unit leadership felt that they had rescued the agency by forcing out a President and CEO. I think that this led to union leadership sometimes acting as if they, not Charlie, the board of trustees or I, were in charge of UUSC, they were the real stewards of the spirit of the place.
In retrospect, a decision that had been made a year before, with the best intentions, was making things worse. When Charlie had returned to UUSC as President and CEO, having worked in a program role in the 1980’s, he had established two senior teams:
- The “Management Team,” comprising Charlie and the Department Directors, plus me once I was on-board. Chairing of MT meetings was meant to rotate around all members, and meetings were scheduled for the first and third Wednesdays of each month;
- The “Leadership Team,” which, in addition to the members of the management team, also included the three union shop-stewards. Charlie chaired LT meetings, which were scheduled for the fourth Wednesday of each month.
Charlie sometimes described the Leadership Team as comprising both the “selected” and “elected” leadership of UUSC. His intention was positive and generous: since UUSC was dedicated to labor rights, we would “walk the talk” and open things up to the union, being inclusive and transparent.
But after attending a few meetings of each team, it felt like things weren’t working out as we had hoped. Bargaining Unit representatives on the LT almost never proposed agenda items for discussion, instead seeming to prefer to be reactive and passive. It really felt like LT meetings were just being used by Union members to monitor UUSC’s management. Since they viewed themselves as the real “stewards” of the place, having ousted Charlie’s predecessor, they were going to keep a careful eye on us.
To address this, I prepared “charters” for each group, trying to clarify accountabilities; here is a version of the charters from October of 2006: Team Charters – 25 October 2006.
Looking at the charters today, over ten years later, they seem quite clear: the Management Team managed the organization:
while the Leadership Team provided a space for problem-solving, reflection, and input:
But it wasn’t working out that way – Bargaining Unit members on the Leadership Team weren’t providing input, they were just gathering information about management. As this dynamic continued, I began to feel that we (management) had created a monster.
And members of the Management Team were becoming conflict averse, as tensions grew over time.
- A particular staff member in one Department was not performing. I worked with the Director of that Department to devise a progressive-discipline process – this was something that I knew a lot about, from my time with Plan International. Plan had very well-developed processes for staff management and development, which we had pilot tested back when I was a junior staff member in Tuluá, Colombia. My experience was that, if we provided clear feedback and, when the time came, agreed a plan of corrective action, the under-performing staff member would probably improve. If not, most of the time, when the time came, the staff member would recognize that he or she needed to move on and the separation would be relatively smooth and uncontested.
In this case, however, the Department Director really did not want to work through progressive discipline, was very averse to taking that kind of action, having lived through the departure of the previous CEO and seeing the power of the staff union. The Director even suggested on several occasions that, since I had experience, I should take over management of that particular staff member and manage the disciplinary process myself! But I felt that managing staff performance was a skill that all Directors needed to build, so I kept coaching the Director.
(UUSC had become very conflict averse. In fact, the only example of a formal warning being given to anybody, ever, at UUSC that anybody could recall was when I had forced one to be given quite early in my tenure. I had decided to get a feel for how things were being managed by reviewing all staff expense reports, something that I planned to drop once I felt comfortable with the levels of control being exercised. But I soon saw a troubling example, where a staff member had used a UUSC credit card to pay for personal travel. The employee’s Director, who had not discovered the situation, accepted the staff-member’s explanation that the whole situation was a mistake. “So do I,” I told the Director, “that’s why we won’t dismiss them! But we must provide written warning, and you should do it, not me.” The warning was given, but grudgingly, because of how unprecedented this kind of action was. Later, this employee would angrily vow that they would have me dismissed, in a very public area of our office, apologizing after I confronted them about that particular threat. Clearly staff felt that they really ran the place!)
But things weren’t getting any better with this particular situation, with this underperforming staff member. The Department Director was deeply resistant to taking formal action, or even putting a plan of corrective action in place. And the employee was going from under-performing to not performing at all. In a sense, I couldn’t blame the employee, because we (management) were not taking any action even though it was clear that things weren’t going well. Probably we put the employee under a lot of unnecessary stress by prolonging the ambiguous situation.
I met with the external union representative (“business agent”) fairly regularly. She was smart and pragmatic, and I think we had a good relationship. One time she brought up the employee that we were having such trouble with, and told me, confidentially, that if we fired them the union wouldn’t take any action.
But we wanted to follow progressive-discipline procedures that I had put in place, were unwilling to be seen as being unfair by simply firing the employee (even though the Union was in agreement with that!) and so it was a muddle. By the time I left UUSC to start up UUSC Just Democracy, the staff member was still in place, still underperforming;
- I dismissed a “confidential” staff member for sharing sensitive and confidential salary information with the union during contract negotiations. The staff member, whose position was not eligible to be part of the bargaining unit, admitted having given union leaders that information, despite clearly understanding that it was forbidden. And the employee refused to provide assurances that this wouldn’t happen again.
I looked to see if there might be a position for the person in the near future that would be inside the bargaining unit, thus being able to stay as an employee, but there no suitable vacancies foreseen. So, after giving them a second opportunity to commit to not sharing confidential information outside management, and hearing (again) a refusal, I dismissed the employee.
The organization exploded with anger and righteous indignation. How dare I fire this person! Believe it or not, staff began wearing black armbands and putting up protest banners. The reaction was beyond what we had expected, what I had expected.
(I think that the cause of the extreme reaction was that the staff was completely unused to management taking that kind of strong action and, to make matters worse, I hadn’t consulted with the bargaining unit; which never occurred to me, remember, this employee was not a member of the union!)
In the end, we agreed to mediate the situation, and (of course, since I had worked closely with legal counsel all along) UUSC prevailed on the terms we had offered the staff member initially. But, as I have described elsewhere, the very fact that we took this extra step, and sought external mediation, entirely defused the internal situation. In other words, the internal atmosphere inside UUSC immediately and significantly improved right after the mediation!
Years later, I became fascinated with how much things improved after the mediation. After all, management prevailed, and the employee I had dismissed was not reinstated (as had been demanded). I would write a paper on this as part of my pursuit of a masters degree in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
As I concluded in that paper, I think that the fact that management took this extra step, using a “neutral,” demonstrated the “justice” of our actions. If we had realized that at the time, perhaps we could have pushed through into a new era of management-union relations. Who knows?
- Finally, contract negotiations! Bargaining Unit contracts, at least in UUSC in those days, lasted three years, and then the two sides would renegotiate another three years. Those who had been around for previous renegotiations often spoke about them with a deep degree of “gallows humor,” as if they were deeply traumatized. “Just wait,” people would warn me.
This time, in 2006, it would be my turn. My partners were Maxine Hart, our HR Director, and Phil Schneider, a veteran of many similar negotiations, both with UUSC and beyond. This was his field, and he was very good at it.
Nonetheless, it was every bit as unpleasant as I had been warned. By then, the external “business agent” from the union had changed, and the new representative was much less straightforward then the previous one. And our counterparts on staff, the UUSC bargaining-unit negotiating team, behaved appallingly – openly hostile, petulant, and unreasonable from the very beginning right to the end, in August 2006, when we agreed a three-year contract.
Why was this happening? What was going on? Was it just that management was simply not doing its job?
Several times in this blog series I’ve reflected on the complexities of culture inside NGOs. The idealistic nature of our missions, and the passion of our people, leads to great motivation and commitment, but also, often, to overly emotional internal dynamics. We strongly associate our own self-images with our work, which is dangerous!
And it can be easy to be trapped by the realities of managing an organization in the real world when you’ve committed to noble ideals.
This was happening to us at UUSC, in a big way. Our commitment to economic justice was real, and honest, but it got in the way when we had to take strong action inside the organization. It made us too careful about taking actions that should have been uncontroversial – like giving that staff member a warning, or dismissing an employee that was leaking confidential information.
And at an even higher level, our “mission” statement seemed to empower our staff to “confront unjust power structures” (management?!) on anything they judged to be “oppressive”:
The creation of the Strategic Plan, as I described last time, was quite good and in general the result was solid. But there was one statement that further complicated management’s relations with the UUSC union. In the section on “Organizational Development Goals and Strategies,” we made a commitment that:
“UUSC will create a work environment in which all staff can develop professionally, progress in their careers, and maximize their contributions to achieving the mission of the organization. Central to achieving this goal will be building upon the constructive and productive working relationship between the bargaining unit (UNITE HERE!, Human Rights Local 2661) and management…
… We will review our internal work processes to ensure that they are as inclusive and participatory as possible – for example, decentralizing decision-making wherever possible and prudent, carrying out continuous improvement efforts led by staff involved in work processes, etc. A component of this review will include a periodic power analysis.”
This was good, and proper – except perhaps for that last reference to “a periodic power analysis” – not sure about that one! But it added to the challenge of navigating between principle and pragmatism.
UUSC’s bargaining unit had succeeded in dismissing the previous CEO, and this led to roles becoming confused and to management being too cautious. For good, idealistic reasons, we had established internal mechanisms by which management shared power with the union, further confusing roles and raising tension. And we were perhaps somewhat “boxed-in” by our noble programmatic commitment to economic justice, to labor organizing and activism against “oppression.”
We had created a monster, and our desire not to appear hypocritical about economic justice was blocking action to clarify roles internally. We were trapped between principle and pragmatism.
In the years since leaving UUSC, I’ve thought about what I would do differently, looking back. Would I navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism any differently?
For me, today, it boils down to being clearer and tougher, and deepening self-awareness and non-attachment. Because there is no contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.
- In the first instance, above, I should simply instructed the Department Director to correct, or dismiss, the under-performing employee. If, despite coaching, the Director couldn’t do this, I should have resorted to progressive discipline with the Director also! And I certainly should have taken the opportunity given to me by the union “business agent” to dismiss that employee;
- In the case of credit-card abuse, I was absolutely right to force the Department Director to issue a formal warning. And when the employee threatened me I should have issued a second warning;
- When staff started wearing black arm-bands after I dismissed the confidential employee, I was right to push forward towards mediation;
- And when the union team behaved inappropriately, I should have suspended contract negotiations.
In future situations, these reflections would serve me well. I would be clearer and tougher, while still acting from foundational principles of social justice internally.
That’s easy to say, but hard to do. So perhaps the most valuable outcome of my years of working with UUSC’s Bargaining Unit is that I have taken the time to build my competencies in two key areas, include two very useful tools in my personal toolbox that, for me, are key to navigating principle and pragmatism.
- Firstly, as I mentioned above, I’ve taken the time to pursue advanced studies of dispute resolution. This has given me a range of capabilities to manage conflict, tools that would have enabled me to deal constructively with the tensions that rose in key moments as I worked with UUSC’s Union, and move past those challenges to deal with the issues at hand.
- Secondly, navigating principle and pragmatism in the kinds of situations I’ve described here often brings intense emotional flooding and threats to self image. Even using the tools of dispute resolution and conflict management, it’s not always possible to manage these kinds of situations successfully because of the physiological reality that comes from the cognitive dissonance between principle and pragmatism inside NGOs like UUSC.
But the chances of success, for me, are improved dramatically as I deepen my sense of humility and self-awareness, of mindfullness and equanimity, of engaged non-attachment. So I recommitted myself to my practice of meditation, the best way I know to build those particular skills and characteristics.
To repeat for emphasis, my biggest lesson learned from those years of working with the UUSC Bargaining Unit was that there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.
And, for me, the way to successfully navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism is to learn how to manage conflict while developing a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, mindfulness and equanimity, and engaged non-attachment.
Last time I described in some detail how we had developed UUSC’s Strategic Plan. One of the commitments we made there was that we would “research the feasibility and usefulness of establishing a UUSC-related 501(c)4 structure.” In 2007, we decided to set up what became “UUSC Just Democracy,” allowing UUSC to expand our focus on social justice and human rights more into the political realm.
And, in 2008, I would move to head up “UUSC Just Democracy,” and spend the next year working mostly in New Hampshire as a pilot test of how we could influence the federal election process in favor of our priorities: ending the war in Iraq, and stopping climate change.
More on that next time!
Here are links to other blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998;
- South Hancock (18) – Plan’s Team in Viet Nam (1998-2002);
- Wildcat “D” Peak (19) – Plan’s Work in Viet Nam;
- Wildcat Mountain (20) – The Large Grants Implementation Unit in Viet Nam;
- Middle Carter (21) – Things Had Changed;
- South Carter (22) – CCF’s Organizational Capacity Assessment and Child Poverty Study;
- Mt Tecumseh (23) – Researching CCF’s New Program Approach;
- Mt Jackson (24) – The Bright Futures Program Approach;
- Mt Isolation (25) – Pilot Testing Bright Futures;
- Mt Lincoln (26) – Change, Strategy and Culture: Bright Futures 101;
- Mt Lafayette (27) – Collective Action for Human Rights;
- Mt Willey (28) – Navigating Principle and Pragmatism, Working With UUSC’s Bargaining Unit;
- Cannon Mountain (29) – UUSC Just Democracy;
- Carter Dome (30) – A (Failed) Merger In the INGO Sector (1997);
- Galehead Mountain (31) – What We Think About When We Think About A Great INGO Program;
- Mt Garfield (32) – Building Strong INGO Teams: Clarity, Trust, Inspiration.