Reflections from a “farewell tour”

32-greenfieldWith my retirement date rapidly approaching, I have been spending a good bit of time on a “farewell tour” of our stores, schools, and commercial services sites to thank our people for helping make the organization what it is today and to wish them well. I’m now two-thirds of the way through that tour, and listening to the stories and comments from many of our employees and students has been incredibly uplifting.

Many people have told me how thankful they are to Goodwill for having given them a second chance they never thought they would have. Countless employees and students have told me that Goodwill has changed their lives. A few examples:

  • A young man who dropped out of school to help support his siblings after their father died told me that without a high school diploma or even any high school credits, he had no future. He enrolled in one of our Excel Centers and is now about to graduate. He said, “I now have a future.”
  • A young woman in one of The Excel Centers told me she has severe autism and this spring will become the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
  • A mother of five convinced her daughter to enroll in an Excel Center. Shortly thereafter, two of her sons enrolled, and then the mom, who had dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and another family member enrolled. Three of the five have already graduated, and the mom and youngest son will graduate in May. She told me that at The Excel Center, “Everyone strives to treat everyone with respect – no matter who you are. We are pushed to become the best we can possibly be and to continuously look for ways to grow.”
  • A Goodwill retail store employee who is an alcoholic told me he had lost everything and no one would hire him – no one, that is, except Goodwill. We’ve employed him for five years, and he does a great job. He said, “Goodwill gave me a chance for a new life.” And he’s made the most of the opportunity.
  • Another employee told me that when she was hired by Goodwill she had no place to live, no car, no money, and no future. She is now an assistant store manager and is nearing completion of requirements for a bachelor’s degree in business. She definitely has a future.
  • An employee who has been with us one year had been a medical professional before he developed a disability that rendered him “unable to do what I had done before.” One of our store managers gave him a chance, and he told me he loves working for Goodwill. “Everyone is so nice and treats everyone else with respect.”

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The dedication of management personnel to our mission and the way they embody our culture has been evident in a variety of ways everywhere I’ve gone:

  • A store manager, when asked by her supervisor what she needed for her store, replied, “I don’t need anything for the store. What I want is something for our employees – a financial literacy course on site. Our employees need it, and they want it.”
  • A regional director took a personal interest in a store employee after she suffered a devastating personal experience. He saw to it that she got the help and support she needed to put her life back together, and she has since been promoted.

Finally, many of the staff in The Excel Centers, stores, and distribution centers have told me Goodwill is the best place they’ve ever worked.

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Organizational culture can be fragile. From my observations, ours is deep and ingrained at every level. It exemplifies what Goodwill is all about as we strive to provide opportunities, maximize positive impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate, and still maintain a financial position that enhances our long term viability. That’s not easy to do, but our people seem to always find a way.

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Our Corporate Social Responsibility as an Employer

The organization I lead now has over 3,200 employees, two-thirds of whom have limited options because of a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier. And while there are a lot of part time employees among those 3,200, nearly half of them are the primary source of income in their households. That places an enormous responsibility on those of us in leadership positions to run the organization really well so we can continue to provide a livelihood for all those people who are counting on us. And we don’t take that responsibility lightly.

What we do matters. If we’re not paying attention to what’s going on around us and we allow ourselves to be blindsided, it matters. If we become myopic, complacent, or arrogant; if we fail to take care of our customers; if we fail to recognize what our competition is doing or fail to see new competitors or new forms of competition that are emerging, it matters. If we don’t successfully adapt to changes in our environment – changes in technology, demographics, the legal or regulatory landscape, or the larger economy, it matters. Even worse, if we cut corners, act unethically or illegally, take actions that might benefit us in the short run, but that will eventually result in long term damage, it matters tremendously. How we go about our work matters just as much as the work itself. And all of these things matter to a lot of people who are likely to lose their jobs if those of us running the organization aren’t doing our jobs as well as we possibly can. And if we let that happen, we should and probably will lose our jobs, too.

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On the other hand, if we are paying attention to what’s going on around us; if we’re recognizing opportunities, trying new ways to grow our businesses and accomplish our mission; if we are operating according to high ethical standards; if we’re continuing to learn and adapt; if we’re being good stewards of our resources; and if we’re treating everyone with respect and providing the kind of workplace and culture that enables our people to grow, we’re likely to see our organization grow, evolve, and employ more people. Fortunately, that’s been our recent experience, as we’ve added over 1,000 jobs in central Indiana and increased our revenue by 55% in the last five years.

Of course, our experiences haven’t always been that positive, and no employer can guarantee that any job will last forever. Changes in our external environment are occurring at an incredible rate and require near constant adaptation. Along the way, some jobs disappear while others are created. Some people learn and adapt to changing circumstances and requirements, others don’t.

Our approach is to do the best job we can to grow the organization in a financially responsible manner while simultaneously increasing our mission-related impact. In addition, while recognizing that each of us is primarily responsible for continuing to learn all our lives, as an employer, we are often in a position to help our people learn and grow, improve their education, and earn credentials that enhance their future employment prospects. Then, if circumstances beyond the control of an individual result in the loss of a job, at least the person affected is likely to be better prepared for his/her next step than might have been the case otherwise.

In my opinion, when a company is operating in a manner that enhances the prospects it will be able to continue providing a livelihood for its employees, and when that company is doing all it can to help its employees learn and grow, it is exercising what might be considered its most important corporate social responsibility.

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Coming full circle

January 19, 2015 was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Edgar Helms, the founder of Goodwill. At the beginning of the 20th Century, he came up with an idea that included asking people to donate clothing and household items they no longer wanted. Helms wasn’t the first person to do that. But instead of just giving those goods to poor people, he put unemployed people to work collecting and repairing some of the goods, selling them to the public, and using the money to pay wages to the workers. He created jobs – a way for unemployed people to earn money, and the collection and sale of used goods was the means to that end. That basic idea still works over 100 years later and represents the financial backbone of our entire organization as well as a source of a lot of jobs – over 2,000 in central Indiana alone – for people who in many cases don’t have a lot of options.
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Helms believed that every human being has value, and he believed in giving people opportunities – a chance rather than charity – a hand up rather than a hand out. And those basic values are still just as important in Goodwill as they were over a hundred years ago.

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We do things differently today, to be sure. Over the course of our history, we’ve continued to learn and to adapt to the incredible changes that have taken place in the economy, demographics, technology, laws and regulations, competition, and American culture. I believe Helms would be amazed at how large Goodwill has become across this country. And I believe he would be particularly pleased to see how Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved – especially over the past decade – because of the way we are emphasizing whole person, often whole family approaches. Such approaches haven’t been all that common among Goodwills over the past half century. But that’s the approach Helms took in the early decades of Goodwill’s history. That first Goodwill, located in Boston, included a day nursery, a kindergarten, a fresh air camp and farm for city kids, a music school, and a night school that taught trades. Of course, they also offered employment services and jobs.

The other early Goodwills followed that lead and included a similar emphasis on helping families. For example, in the late 1930s, the small Goodwill organization in Indianapolis, working with other organizations in the community, offered a kindergarten, a prenatal clinic, a dental clinic for school children, a home-based health care program, a variety of classes for female heads of households, and a library with books mothers could borrow to read to their children.

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From my reading of the organization’s history, that approach began to change in the early 1940s as providing jobs became the primary or exclusive focus. For the next forty years, our principle role in the community could be paraphrased as helping people with various employment barriers prepare for, find, and keep jobs.

During the last decade, though, in response to some significant changes in our society and the inability of other approaches to solve a number of major social problems, we’re now moving back toward a much more whole person, often whole family approach much like that exhibited by Goodwills in the early part of the 20th Century. In a sense, we’re coming full circle.

Today, though, with current information and technology, along with other resources, we have the potential for much greater scale and lasting impact in the lives of people and the larger community.

From a personal standpoint, what we’re engaged in today is the most significant and exciting work in my 45-year career with Goodwill.

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The Magnificence of the Ordinary

(Note: This piece was first posted in December 2013).

While solutions to major social problems must be macro in scale, in the final analysis we must see results in the lives of individual people. As Peter Drucker reminded us, the purpose of any not-for-profit organization is to change lives.

As we offer opportunities to help others improve their lives, the changes can often be in ways that on the surface might seem unremarkable.  As we look deeper, though, we discover that often they are really much more.  Here are some brief sketches of a few people I’ve been fortunate to know during my career.

Cheryl dropped out of high school. She came to Goodwill, learned keyboard skills, got a GED, got a driver’s license, and got a job. A few years later she got married, then had a son.  She’s now been married for over 30 years, and their son has graduated from college.  Cheryl has worked nearly all her adult life.

Sounds pretty ordinary until you learn that Cheryl was born with no arms.  When you know this, you begin to realize that there is nothing ordinary about Cheryl’s life and that, in fact, what she has done with her life is truly magnificent.

Bobby worked at Goodwill. When he was 36 years old one of our staff helped him learn how to write his name and tell time.  For weeks, every time he would see me he would ask me if I knew what time it was. Then he would tell me. For most people, learning how to write your name and tell time are pretty ordinary accomplishments. For Bobby, though, they were magnificent achievements.

Steve was severely limited by cerebral palsy. He used a motorized wheelchair and communicated by using a keyboard with a voice synthesizer. He worked for several years on a contract Goodwill has to do janitorial work in a large federal building in Indianapolis. With a broom attached to his wheelchair, Steve swept 1-1/2 miles of corridors every day. He absolutely loved his job and his co-workers.

One day, Steve was in his motorized wheelchair crossing a street. While he was in a marked crosswalk, a car hit him, killing him instantly.

Many people would not have considered a person doing such an ordinary – and to some, a menial – task to be a success. But Steve exceeded everyone’s expectations – except possibly his own – and worked at a level many would never have thought possible. And he was happy doing it. For Steve, what to most people might have seemed so ordinary was truly magnificent.

When I started working for Goodwill, a member of our board of directors told me he thought Goodwill was amazing. The way he saw it, we took goods people no longer wanted and people no one else wanted to hire and combined them to create self-sustaining employment for a lot of people who otherwise would have been sitting at home surviving on public assistance. To him, ordinary household goods and ordinary people combined to produce something extraordinary and magnificent.

As we get caught up in the busyness of day-to-day work and life, it can be easy to take for granted a lot of what we as an organization and many of our people do so well day in and day out. Fortunately, though, when I see examples such as those I’ve mentioned and many others, I am reminded that much of what we tend to think of as pretty ordinary is much more than that. In fact, much of it is truly magnificent.

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Optimizing

I describe Goodwill’s overall objective in general terms as “Maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that enhances long term viability.” Of course, such a definition requires that we be able to define mission-related impact. And, despite the use of the word maximizing, the overall challenge is really one of optimizing.

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Many of our management challenges involve finding optimal solutions. For example, how much of our revenue should we spend on General and Administrative expenses (In the not-for-profit world, this is typically referred to as “overhead.”)? Some people believe not-for-profits should minimize G&A. In the long run, that is a recipe for ensuring less than optimal performance, as it results in inadequate value-added support of the high mission impact parts of the organization. Spend too much, though, and there could be legitimate questions about whether the organization is being a good steward of its resources. In this, as is in so many situations, one size does not fit all. Two very important factors in arriving at an optimal percentage are the size and complexity of the organization. In our large, very complex organization, somewhere around 10% of revenue seems to be close to optimal. While to some it might seem counterintuitive, a well-run smaller organization would likely have to spend a larger percentage of its revenue on G&A, as those expenses should not increase at the same rate as revenue.

Another example: One of Goodwill’s historic roles is to provide work for people whose options are limited by disability, criminal history, low education level, or other significant barrier. This is a very important part of our mission and one way we can add unique value in a community. Obviously, then, we want to provide as many jobs as possible for individuals who don’t have many options. However, because retail is the financial backbone of our entire organization, we must have a sufficient number of people with skills that enable us to be competitive and efficient. If we do not have enough people with barriers who have the necessary skills, we must hire others who can fill the gap. In recent years, filling approximately 2/3 of the jobs in donated goods/retail operations with people who have employment barriers has generally seemed to result in an optimal mix.

There’s another optimizing challenge embedded in that example, though, and that is the mix of full-time vs. part-time employees. We have quite a number of employees who for any of a variety of reasons are not able to work full time. However, if we have too few full-time employees, productivity can drop, and that will affect financial performance.

External factors can also have a powerful influence on optimization challenges. For example, the Affordable Care Act has resulted in a large increase in the number of employees who have signed up for coverage under our health plan. While we’re glad more of our employees now have health insurance, this has greatly increased our operating expenses – so much so that we might find it necessary to reprioritize and determine a new optimal mix of operations and services and/or full-time vs. part-time employees that will enable us to continue maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that’s good for long term viability.

Nothing is static. Conditions are constantly changing, and we must constantly adapt or suffer the consequences. Optimization issues are always before us, and we’re always striving to find the best balance point – at least until something else changes.

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Thanksgiving

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As this is my last Thanksgiving while serving as president of Goodwill in central Indiana, I am a bit more reflective than I usually am in the early days of what is typically the busiest time of year for me. And when I start thinking of all of the reasons I have to be thankful, the list just keeps growing.

Of course, all of us at Goodwill are grateful for the hundreds of thousands of people who donate goods, shop in our stores, give money, or hire our graduates. We’re grateful for those in many other organizations and units of government who work with us to make opportunities available to thousands of people who haven’t had a lot of opportunities. We’re grateful for the good business relationships we have with companies and other entities that enable us to provide jobs for people with significant disabilities or other barriers that limit their options.

We’re also grateful for those who take advantage of the opportunities we can offer – individuals who put forth much effort – sometimes overcoming major obstacles in the process – to improve their lives and the lives of their families.

I’m particularly grateful for our 3100 employees who do their work so well day in and day out and who work well with each other to help our organization have significant impact. And I’m grateful for the leadership, guidance, and support we have received over the years from boards of directors that have given us the freedom to try many different ways of growing our businesses and accomplishing our mission. And I’m especially grateful that those boards have also given us the freedom to fail at some of what we try and learn and grow from the experiences.

And, of course, it was a board of directors who took a chance and gave me the opportunity to be CEO of this organization when I was only 30 years old and had only three years experience in a management role. I’m grateful to them not only for that opportunity, but also for being patient with me as I made many mistakes trying to learn how to do my job reasonably well – most of the time, at least.

And now, after 40 years, I find myself even more grateful to have been in a position where I can honestly say I cannot recall a day in my entire career when I woke up in the morning wishing I didn’t have to go to work.

Of course, I have much more to be thankful for. I’m thankful for good health, friends, and family. I’m particularly thankful for my wife, who’s put up with me for nearly 35 years and willingly done so many things that have made my life easier and much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise. And I’m thankful for our two grown children, who are good citizens engaged in vocations where they work directly with many people who haven’t been dealt a good hand in life.

And on Thanksgiving Day and the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I’ll also be grateful for the wonderful desserts and other foods I seldom let my disgustingly disciplined self enjoy at other times of the year.

If I keep thinking about it, I’ll add more to my list of reasons to be thankful. But you get the idea. And if you haven’t already made your own list, I recommend you do so. It’s a good way to help bring a bit of perspective as we deal with the problems and hassles we frequently encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Millennials

A lot has been written about the generation known as Millennials – some positive, some less so. Of course, ascribing a particular set of characteristics to an entire generation of people is a bit absurd, given the enormous variability one can find in any large segment of the population at any point in time.

Nevertheless, what I see in many of today’s young people – i.e., many of the Millennials – is very encouraging. They give me hope.

We have a lot of people in their 20s and 30s working for us. They work in many parts of our organization – quite a few of them in our schools. They are typically bright, energetic, eager to learn, and excited about life. I enjoy talking with them.

I’ve also had several opportunities in recent months to speak on university campuses and interact with some incredibly bright, talented students. Most of those I’ve been fortunate to meet are interested in more than just getting into a career that will enable them to earn a good living. They’re also interested in helping make the world a better place. They want to make a difference.

I’m not just referring to liberal arts or social science majors either. Many of the students I’ve been meeting are majoring in business, engineering, or computer science. And some of the opportunities they are having on a number of university campuses today are helping them learn creative cross-disciplinary approaches designed to better prepare them to develop innovative approaches to help reduce some of the persistent social problems in our country and around the world.

One such program is being offered at my alma mater, Georgia Tech. It’s called Grand Challenges. Established in 2012, Grand Challenges each year accepts 110 entering freshmen and is open to students of any major. They live in the same dormitory for a year and learn how to work in multi-disciplinary teams, developing problem-solving skills to find possible solutions to real world problems. Students learn how to give and receive feedback, how to listen, argue, analyze, and persuade.

During the second semester, each team of students identifies a problem they want to tackle. Projects have dealt with a wide variety of food and water, energy, and health issues. One team last year worked on a project to benefit Goodwill of North Georgia. At the end of the semester, they can “pitch” their proposal for funding to continue working on their concept into their upperclassmen years.

A lot of my interest in Grand Challenges stems from what we’ve learned at Goodwill in central Indiana in recent years about how so many of our major social problems are interrelated. And yet, in our society we still tend to try to treat those problems in isolation one from another. Is it any wonder we’re not seeing better results? In our organization, though, we are now taking and further developing some truly holistic, often whole family approaches that we believe offer real potential for helping reduce generational poverty and some of the social problems that are associated with it.

So, for me, it’s encouraging to see universities offering opportunities for students to learn practical, multi-disciplinary approaches to solving societal problems. That, plus the contact I am privileged to have with a lot of young people who are similarly inclined, makes me optimistic about the future.

In my opinion, this generation of young people is going to have major positive impact in this country and many other places around the world. I look forward to seeing what they’re going to accomplish.

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