Winds of change

By 2006 the overall Learning Exchange operation had settled into a comfortable groove. We had a coherent sense of purpose and a manageable set of programs that were aligned with UBC’s vision. That year, the lawyers that had been occupying the floor above the storefront moved out so we took over this space. This doubling of the available square footage gave the staff team more breathing room. Plus the upstairs office had a sundeck, a shower, a kitchen, and even a sauna which the lawyers had installed at a time when they used to go for long runs in the middle of their work days. The staff team was so excited to have this deluxe space we built wooden planters and benches and installed shrubs and perennials on the back deck, anticipating that we would enjoy eating our lunches there for many happy years.

Learning Exchange storefront

In an effort to solidify our organizational infrastructure, we wrote down the “rules of the game” that could be articulated and systematized the aspects of our work that could be made routine. For example, we fine-tuned the staff policy and procedure manual that was first drafted in 2004. We also continued to hold monthly staff development workshops, knowing that our current evolutionary phase required a staff team that was well-coordinated and efficient as well as creative.

Believing that the Learning Exchange was now a stable entity, and wanting to return to my vocation as a researcher, I moved into a tenure-track faculty position in UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. The idea was that I would spend 50% of my time overseeing the Learning Exchange and 50% of my time teaching graduate students and doing research. It was assumed that, as a faculty member, my ability to champion curricular Community Service Learning (CSL) within the university would be enhanced.

Even the departure of Martha Piper as UBC’s President in 2006 and the appointment of her successor, Stephen Toope, did not disturb my sense that the Learning Exchange was on solid ground. The transition from one leader to another can sometimes be accompanied by a shift in priorities. When Martha announced she was leaving, I feared the Learning Exchange, Community Service Learning (CSL) and community engagement generally might not be as high a priority for the next President. But I need not have worried. Stephen Toope was enthusiastic about the work of the Learning Exchange, even stating that it was one of the reasons he decided to come to UBC.

But people’s lives change

When Shayne Tryon was promoted to the position of Associate Director, realizing how essential he was to the success of the Learning Exchange, I asked him to give me lots of warning of any intention to leave his position. I assumed that since he was young and talented, he would eventually get restless. I occasionally raised the question with him and he always replied, “No, it’s not time yet.”

Margo and Shayne at UBC's Storm the Wall event
Margo and Shayne at UBC’s Storm the Wall event (photo copyright UBC)

But in late 2006, Shayne told me he was going to leave in the spring. He planned to move to eastern Canada and go to graduate school. I had known this moment was inevitable. I knew that I would miss Shayne terribly. He was an extremely creative and organized manager with a strong work ethic and boundless energy. He had become my closest colleague and ally. But I figured the operation was stable enough that it would not be unduly affected by his departure so I was not too worried. I believed some of the other staff were ready to move into more responsible positions, so I began considering a series of shifts that would fill the hole left by Shayne’s departure.

But then, over the next few months, one by one, other staff members signaled their intention to leave. Another person decided to go back to graduate school. One woman got pregnant. The partner of another staff member got a great job in another city, so they decided to move. Mostly, these departures were simply a function of people’s lives changing. When I started intentionally pursuing the strategy of recruiting young people for the organization I had been warned to expect high turnover. I had already seen that young employees tended not to stay for long, but the team had been able to accommodate the loss of one or two people at a time. But this number of departures was unprecedented.

The organizational chart for the Learning Exchange of May 2007 showed that by this time, only three staff members with any history with the operation, including me, were left. There were five very new staff members who had started work within the previous few months. Eleven positions were vacant. Some of these were new positions, a result of my attempt to adapt to the circumstances. For example, I created three manager-level positions to do what Shayne had been doing. This ratio of 3:1 was not only a function of Shayne’s energy and efficiency. A lot of what he did had become easy for him because of his long history with the organization and his strong network of relationships. New staff would not have these advantages.

At a staff meeting in the midst of this crisis, sitting with the seven other survivors around the big table in the storefront, I gave what I hoped was a pep talk. I described our situation as being like that of a sailing ship in the middle of a wild storm. I was the captain and they were the crew. I explained that ordinarily I held strong values about making decisions in a thoughtful and participatory way (I had to explain this because most of the people at the table did not know this or much of anything else about me). But, I explained, in this extraordinary situation, I felt I had to take a more directive approach.

We were going to have to take the sails down and put out the oars instead. We had to slow down. We had to concentrate on keeping the boat stable while we continued carefully on our journey, being alert to danger. We had to learn to work closely and effectively as a team. Everyone’s primary concern needed to be the welfare of the Learning Exchange as a whole, even if this meant putting the interests of a particular program or position aside temporarily. And if I gave an order, they had to obey it immediately. I declared, “If I say, ‘All hands on deck!’ this means you drop whatever you are doing and you come running. You do not say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll just finish cleaning up my cabin first.’ There is no point in having a tidy cabin if the boat goes down.” I said that I knew we would come through this storm stronger and better as an organization, that our work was too important to do otherwise, but we were all going to have to pull together. I was grateful that the two “old-timers” on the team reinforced this message. The new staff members looked like they had been shanghaied.

After the storm

debris on forest floorPeople who study social innovation often use what is called the adaptive cycle to describe phases in the life cycle of ecosystems and organizations. The “creative destruction” phase of the adaptive cycle is often explained using the example of a forest fire causing destruction that brings a new or regenerated ecosystem into being. What was happening at the Learning Exchange was not a forest fire. The destruction did not happen all at once. It was more like a blow-down resulting from of a series of very strong windstorms raging through the forest. The winds of change had turned my stabilizing ecosystem into a wrecked landscape. There was debris everywhere I looked. There were gaping holes in what had been a protective canopy. There were a few tender saplings standing, but they were frail and trembling, shrinking at any suggestion the wind might rise again.

My fantasies about being relieved of my routine administrative duties so I could focus on my new professorial role were blown away by these winds. I was sucked back into what had become a vortex of anxiety and uncertainty. Suddenly I needed to respond to questions that ranged from, “Does anyone know the password to this computer?” to “Does anyone know why we are doing this program?” It was like starting all over again. The major difference was that we were not a fledgling operation flying under the radar where the “error” part of trial and error learning would go unnoticed. There were established programs that needed to be run, donors who expected results, and lots of people watching, including a new President.

There were only two saving graces. First, this happened in the spring when the Trek Program was going into its planning and evaluation cycle, so students would not be beating down our door until the fall. Second, Dionne Pelan and Marisol Petersen were the other two staff members who remained, so they could keep the storefront programs going while I rebuilt the staff team.

For the organization, the staff departures in the spring of 2007 represented both a crisis and an opportunity. The opportunity was to recruit new blood. The crisis was the challenge of sustaining an organizational culture when so few people remained to articulate and embody the values and practices that had inspired the team.

For me, the loss of most of the people who had helped build the operation was devastating. Part of me wanted to jump ship. I could not imagine carrying on without my comrades. But I also could not imagine abandoning the Learning Exchange. I had invested so much of myself in its formation I was not prepared to risk its collapse.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Rebuilding the staff team.