Monday, June 1, 2009

Conference Workshop: Overcoming Internal Obstacles to Success, Part I

The third workshop I attended at the No Kill Conference 2009 was wonderful. It was packed full of useful approaches and advice for any shelter director trying to work toward No Kill. Segments were presented by seasoned, successful shelter directors who are well-versed in coming into shelters such as ours and turning things around within a year.

Susan Cosby was just hired as the CEO of the Pennsylvania SPCA--congrats, Susan, and what a boon to that community! Susanne Kogut has been running a successful No Kill shelter at the Charlottesville SPCA for years (one that also contracts for municipal sheltering services); Bonney Brown has made great strides in a community much like our own in terms of human population and animal intakes; the Nevada Humane Society is saving more than 90% of the dogs and more than 85% of the cats that enter the entire system; and Abagail Adams is the director at the Tompkins County SPCA, a longtime No Kill success story as well. (My only regret is that each presenter had so little time...)

So, how did they do it? What's the secret to their successes?

A huge part of what they all did was look inside and identify and tackle each and every internal obstacle to success. Many seasoned shelter directors don't do this important exercise because they are stuck in the old-guard sheltering rut of pointing fingers outside of their own organization and blaming all the killing on the irresponsible public alone. Then they circle the wagons on and on and staunchly defend even their most outdated practices, and nothing changes.

But, I ask: What industry has ever prospered or changed for the better that did not take a critical eye and look inward and closely at what parts of their own operations are in serious need of fixing or updating? How could any industry that has operated the same way for so many decades expect to get different results? Are all of the ideas and policies that are ingrained in old-fashioned sheltering based on sound ideas and data or simply part of the failed industry philosophy of "we do it this way because we've always done it this way"?

Susan Cosby on NOT Writing the Book Based on Worst-Case Scenarios

Shelters are very guilty of instituting knee-jerk, blanket, restrictive policies based on worst-case scenarios that either actually happened within the shelter or -- worse yet -- are part of the mythology/urban legend that is carried forward by animal-welfare people themselves and not based on any known facts or cases. Thankfully, some organizations are asking themselves tough questions or posing new ideas and then testing whether something new might work better.

A case in point is a recent study done by the ASPCA on a free adult cat adoptions program instituted at the Wisconsin Humane Society and other test shelters. Challenging the long-held humane notion that you have to charge an adoption fee in order for an adopter to value the life of a cat or dog, a complete study was done on this program to track--after the fact--how the adopted cats were faring in their new homes. Contrary to our humane urban myth, what the study overwhelmingly found was that those that adopted these free cats did not value their lives any less than those that adopted cats for a fee. All the cats adopted out went to good, responsible homes. (If you are interested in reading more about this study, see this link: ASPCA PRO.)

Although Susan Cosby didn't talk about this program in particular, what she did talk about reminded me of it. She pointed out that a shelter director with new ideas will not always be popular, especially when you are going against long-held myths held by animal lovers themselves.

However, in order to save lives, shelters must start trying new things ... maybe not all of them will be successful, but you learn and move on. When faced with working against the mantra of "it can't happen or work here" for whatever reason, a director has to be strong in his or her resolve to focus on lifesaving and not let themselves get derailed by worst-case scenarios or naysayers.

Instead, open yourself up to people in the community. Reach out for help and support using all means possible, including Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist! Challenge the myths with well-thought out programs and services, and then track the data for each to see why it was or was not successful.

Most importantly, never write or administer policies at your shelter based on worst-case scenarios. By doing so, you'll be so restrictive that you end up weeding out all the good people/good homes and supporters in order to avoid one possible bad thing that no one can see coming or that maybe no one could have stopped anyway.

There is no doubt that it is sad when you hear of an incident like one that happened in El Paso not too long ago -- where the soldier from Ft. Bliss beat and killed a puppy he and his family had adopted from Pet Guardian Angel -- and injured a second puppy. However, because this happened does not mean that this shelter should expect it to keep happening or blame themselves. Maybe they missed a red flag during the adoption process or not; if so, learn from it in a measured, logical way. All you can do is your best and not punish yourself and everyone else in the public for the actions of one sick man. It is very hard to identify who might be capable of such violence; we can't even determine that in human abuse.

No matter what the pressures from the outside after an incident like this, resist that urge to change all your policies and how you deal with the public based on cases such as these. You could end up killing more animals in the long run if you become restrictive and rude instead of open and welcoming. You can do both -- be open and welcoming and still administer adoption counseling that will ensure good matches and also reveal most red flags ... an adoption policy and process that best serves both the needs of people and the welfare of animals.

Susanne Kogut on Staff Obstacles

Most of these successful shelter directors had a similar message that is not going to be well-received by seasoned shelter staffers ... the fact that staff turnover is often necessary to make the changes needed to save more animal lives. Sadly, some of the negative attitudes are so institutionalized in staff that many will not be able to learn how to function successfully in a progressive shelter and many may put up huge roadblocks or be openly insolent.

When Kogut started her first shelter director job at the Charlottesville SPCA, she thought she'd be walking into a professional environment with a strong work ethic. She thought everyone who works at a shelter must be passionate about saving animals' lives. Why else would they work there? Her strategy was to get down and dirty with the staff and work side-by-side with them to earn their trust and respect.

The reality of what she encountered was that even after some time, she failed to gain respect. Most of the people on her staff were not excited about nor supportive of changes. They were not only sadly disinterested in saving animals' lives, they were much like a very dysfunctional family.

She quickly learned that she had to establish who was the boss. She looked and planned to the future, and she started to focus on the positive. She started engaging with staff in a different way. For one, she did not accept gossip and instituted a clean slate. She never allowed complaining unless it came with a suggested solution. She eliminated all of the negatives in the vocabulary used in the shelter as well.

Her key ingredients for surviving these trying times were faith and courage in herself and in her commitment to save lives. She maintained the positive attitude in the face of all obstacles, and she was willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions. She was confident and decisive and held people accountable, including herself. Yet, she was willing to make mistakes and learn from them. She employed constant innovation and determination, and that started to turn things around.

Her motto for running her shelter is a simple mantra of, "Have fun! Save Lives!!" She worked hard with her staff to finally get all the right people on the bus. Once on the bus, she worked quickly to ensure each person was on the right seat of the bus (that the roles they held matched their strengths and passions). She also got all the wrong people off the bus.

She recounted one day when she came into the shelter to find a whole room of cats had been moved and was missing. One staff person told her the cats had been taken back to be "euthanized" at the vet's request. Kogut chased the trail around and found the cats at the brink of death. When she questioned the vet, she found that her staffer had lied to her .. the vet did not order the deaths of the cats. Kogut ordered her staff to put the cats back where they were and got to the bottom of who was responsible for the decision and for giving her the run-around. Those individuals found at fault were held accountable; they were fired for making a decision that went against the shelter's new grain ... that of saving all the lives possible and only ending the lives of any animals deemed truly vicious after behavior assessments and those deemed irremediably suffering or with a poor health prognosis by the veterinarian.

In order to save lives, Kogut said, you have to shake things up. Look at your programs, policies and operations and make needed changes. Employ new ideas, and don't give up. Review programs constantly and keep evolving your policies as needed. Don't get stuck in a rut, especially not the negative rut of sheltering past.

Susanne suggested a book for managers that I have heard others mention often: Good to Great by Jim Collins. There is a social sector addition to this book that was completed later. I have started to read Good to Great, and it is fascinating. It is based on a decade-long study Collins and his fellow researchers did to see what sets companies apart -- those that excel and reach success and then stay up there in the great realm. They are few and far between, so they wanted to see how they made the leap from good to great and how they stayed there for years and years.

Kogut's last words were about the staff and expectations. The biggest part of change is letting go of the past. Anyone on a current shelter's staff that can do that can embrace the changes and move forward. Increase your adoptions and other lifesaving programs. Have fun at all times. At the same time, demand excellence from yourself and your staff. Be professional; be courteous; and be helpful. The rewards for these changes are immense.

Part II of this workshop conference summary will be next--Bonney Brown on overcoming obstacles with boards of directors and other shelter stakeholders and Abagail Adams on overcoming government obstacles.

1 comment:

Susanne said...

great job summarizing workshops. you will be ready to present my part next time. Good work Michele.