To bring to life the concepts and ideas discussed in The Great Rethink series, we bring together experts in the field, who can offer first-hand experience and important insights on these topics. This Q&A focuses on how changing policies around the nature of “Workplace” are impacting hiring and retention. It features three leaders with decades of experience across multiple sectors of philanthropy:
Benita Hussain is an attorney and Chief External Affairs Officer at American Forests. She oversees marketing, philanthropy, and strategic partnerships on behalf of American Forests’ President CEO, including the organization’s strategies on its Tree Equity and 1t.org campaigns. Previously, Hussain was the director of the 10 Minute Walk, an award-winning $10 million campaign aimed at expanding green spaces in 300 cities, and is a former environmental policy advisor to Mayor Mike Bloomberg and to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, for whom she created another award-winning climate campaign Greenovate Boston.
Jake Logan is Vice President for Advancement at University of Texas at El Paso. He joined UTEP from Ball State University, where he served as Vice President for Advancement and President of the Ball State University Foundation. During his career in academic advancement, he has been part of comprehensive capital campaigns exceeding $1 billion at three large, public institutions — the University of Florida, the University of Oregon, and the University of Missouri.
Leslie Miller is Senior Vice President of Development at the Kennedy Center, overseeing fundraising operations for the Kennedy Center, National Symphony Orchestra, and Washington National Opera, in addition to special and gala events and volunteers. Previously she was Vice President of Individual Giving and Director of Special Events. Leslie took on the role of SVP as the Center closed out the $250 million dollar capital campaign for the REACH, guiding the development office through a post campaign-reorganization, record fundraising during COVID-19 closures and is leading the Center in adapting to new working norms.
It’s clear…that workplace flexibility is the future. – Leslie Miller
DH: To get us started, can you each share your views about where we are with respect to flexible workplace policies, and what impact it may be having on hiring, retention, and overall management?
BH: I see several key trends that I feel are now just embedded in the workplace landscape and may never be going away.
The first one is workplace flexibility. There’s been a realization that folks can be very productive, myself included, in a remote environment, where we can use technology not only to get a lot of work done but also to connect with each other. People want that type of flexibility in organizational management and in hiring. Almost every single candidate I talk to asks whether remote or hybrid work is an option.
The second thing is equity. People are resetting their priorities, and nobody wants to feel undervalued. We see that in negotiations around workplace flexibility, as well as salary, and in discussions around DEIA policies. The third issue is competition. Strong philanthropic and communication staff are hard to find; but they’re key to unlocking an enormous amount of donor wealth that’s flowing right now. So employers have to use whatever levers they can to recognize a candidate’s value, and to attract the best talent.
Those are really important changes I have seen as a leader, in terms of hiring, but also personally in my own job search in the last two years.
LM: It’s clear to me that workplace flexibility is the future, and I am very much in support of it. What I’ve found for us as an organization, as we look to hire, is that there’s absolutely no reason not to offer it.
We didn’t have a robust remote or hybrid work culture before the pandemic, so we really had a complete reversal on workplace flexibility. Quite frankly, it was a very pleasant surprise that we were able to get up and running so quickly, especially because we’re a performing arts venue – the nation’s cultural center – and a lot of our work as an organization has to be in-person. The whole idea is that you’re creating in-person experiences.
During the pandemic we learned that an artist performing on Zoom is fine if there’s no other option. But it’s not as satisfying, and it’s not the same relationship between artist and audience as you get in a live performance venue.
So as we return to live events, I’ve left it up to my team to tell me what they want to do in terms of workplace flexibility. And the reason I felt so open to taking cues from the team is that we were getting the work done—meeting and even exceeding our fundraising goals. We doubled down on the philosophy of flexibility because if you’re achieving the results you’re looking for, then to my mind that is success.
JL: I would agree that, philosophically, we are forever changed as an industry, and I’m not sure there’s any going back. I also think it’s a good thing and was long overdue for a number of reasons.
Having to work remotely because of Covid changed things in a profound way, most obviously around how we schedule ourselves and our work life. But it has also increased tremendously the amount of autonomy and trust that employers had to give their staff. And we’re hearing from our team that the additional freedom and autonomy is a real gift that helps them navigate whatever important things are going on in their world beyond their work life.
Also, while remote work may have its logistical challenges, the one thing I wouldn’t trade, is that it gave us a glimpse into each other’s lives as humans—not “co-workers” but as people. I was on a Zoom call with the president of the university one day and my son walked into my office playing a video game in his pajamas. Thankfully, she thought it was hilarious. We’ve had peoples’ cats walk in front of the screen, or the dog freak out because the UPS person rings the doorbell.
It gave us the opportunity to see that we’re all human first. And I think that empathy engenders a level of trust and openness. We’ve done everything we can to nurture that since we’ve been back in the office and I think it’s working. In the end, I think there are a lot of unintended but important benefits to this experiment with a flexible workplace.
…it would be a mistake to go right back to having everyone in the office, or any kind of one-size-fits-all policy, just because it’s easier. – Jake Logan
DH: We have heard the same sentiment from other leaders in philanthropy, who believe that flexible workplace policies need to be a permanent part of our work culture. Does that fit with your experience, and how has it impacted hiring?
LM: When people ask me about the work culture here I say that we always had a remote work policy in our handbook, but it wasn’t the culture. Now it has become the culture, and that allows us to think about candidates in a different way. We’re not putting the emphasis on being here all the time like we used to.
That makes some of these jobs more appealing to people who aren’t as deeply connected to the performing arts in terms of ‘living the arts lifestyle.’ If you are a theater kid, or did a vocal performance major in college, this is the kind of place you want to be all the time, and you want to see everything. But if you’re not as deeply entrenched in the culture of performance, you can still have a role here. It allows us to attract more points of view and think about how to welcome in people with different experience – it’s not a barrier anymore that you might think you’re not going to fit in with the culture of the office if you’re not on board with being here all the time.
BH: Two areas where I feel like I’m trying to be very intentional in working with our executive leadership team are inviting more diverse candidates and retaining talent that comes from different backgrounds. I’ve been trying to ensure that we use recruitment to reach out to the right communities and get the right candidates in place and keep them. Flexible workplace policies can be a big part of that, as they were for me personally.
Like a lot of people, I want to feel that the work I’m doing is delivering something valuable that I’m passionate about, that I’m not just a cog in a wheel. And I want to be around people that I like, even if I’m not in the office with them. So when I was looking for a new role I reached out to Jad Daley, our president and CEO, whom I have known for years. And we had a respectful, transparent conversation about my needs and what I valued in a new job. He knew where I was in my life, including my roots in New York City and that I did not want to move to DC. It was an important conversation given that this would be an executive-level position, and the culture of the place thrived on rapid-fire conversations in-person in the office, or even over a coffee in DC. But ultimately he didn’t want to lose access to strong talent and an opportunity to keep me on board.
DH: Jake you also started a new position during the pandemic, in a role where you had to build out an organization pretty much from scratch. What was that experience like?
JL: What was interesting to me about the pandemic, especially coming into an organization, is that every single one of us was living the same shared experience. It was a new and often frightening world where the annoyances of work were absolutely not top of mind.
Yes, all of us were trying to figure out how to use remote technology, rushing to get high-speed internet, etc. But we were all going through an experience, together, that was in some ways very traumatic. We’d see in real time when somebody would get sick and their lives were profoundly affected. We were just all in it together. And to some degree it was lightning in a bottle in the sense that we would certainly never create these conditions on our own, but it gave us a deeply personal basis from which to work.
Now the question is, how do you honor that and how do you keep it going? And I’m not sure we have the answer to that. But I know we care, and we try. For example, it would be a mistake to go right back to having everybody back in the office, or any kind of one-size-fits-all policy, just because it’s easier.
We have spent hours and hours as an executive leadership team trying to figure out how to do this. There were multiple times where we thought it would just be easier to bring everybody back to the office. But that’s not the right answer for our people and so we kept fighting through it. I think we’ve just honored our shared experience, and at this point our flexible workplace model doesn’t have anything to do at all with the pandemic; it’s just what our culture is. We all have real lives outside of the office and what I have always argued is that everybody needs to fill their cup in different ways.
DH: And that has affected the way you recruit and hire?
JL: Absolutely, for my executive leadership team, at this very moment, I have four Assistant Vice Presidents. Two of them are remote and two live here in Texas, and it’s working really well. There’s no way I would have considered such important positions as remote positions before. Which in hindsight looks a bit like a lack of creativity and imagination. But I also don’t think it would have been accepted among senior colleagues we work with across campus. I just don’t think that we as an industry, in higher ed, we were ready to make that transition. It would have stood out in the wrong ways if we tried to do it beforehand. But what the pandemic provided us was the necessity to innovate and be more creative.
So when I spent time assessing the structure, and started to get a better picture of where I wanted the organization to go, it became crystal clear to me that the most important hire I could make was somebody to run talent management – somebody who shared my vision for an outstanding organizational culture. I was tortured for some time trying to understand how I was going to fill this role. I remember thinking about a woman I’d worked with at the University of Missouri who would’ve been perfect. More than anyone else, I knew she would understand this vision of what I was trying to build. But she’s got a farm and a family and I knew she wasn’t moving anywhere.
Then it dawned on me, why does she need to move to El Paso? This is not a job that’s going to be interacting with deans and the university president, or attending events and gift announcements. So I hired her as a senior director, and instantaneously I needed even more of her. So I promoted her to an executive director, then promoted her again and now I have a full-time remote AVP who runs strategy, talent management and culture for the team, which includes recruiting, talent development, marketing & communications, and budget strategy.
In fact it worked so well that when I went to market for an Associate Vice President overseeing fundraising, I ended up hiring a candidate who lived in Virginia because he was, by far, the strongest candidate. He had the level of professionalism and experience to build that supportive, positive culture that I really wanted us to build here. So while there would be challenges with him not being able to be here physically, he was definitely the best choice for our team.
..we need to think broadly about how intersectional our work is, who can do that work, how it’s mission-driven, and how workplace flexibility can help give us access to candidates with the right strengths. – Benita Hussein
DH: It sounds like the issue of flexibility needs to be evaluated for each job and each candidate. Leslie is that your experience, and how does that impact one’s ability to manage and assure equity?
LM: What’s interesting at the moment, is that this is all an experiment. We’re trying this and assessing every six months, and we’ll adjust as we need to. There were a few people who asked for remote arrangements because they had to move for family reasons. So for me, part of the issue is retention.
But for other people it’s dependent on the nature of the work. I actually have five people on my team now who are 100% remote. And I don’t think I would have ever considered that before. But those are research positions, direct mail positions, all positions where there’s no business need for them to be here regularly. They come to The Kennedy Center quarterly and we meet when we need to. But we’ve made decisions based on the position and responsibility somebody has, making it clear that everybody isn’t necessarily going to have the same work arrangement and that’s okay.
But just as a practical matter, I don’t know that it is actually possible or even helpful to offer the same thing to everybody because everybody’s job is so different. What we do is focus on each department to make sure that each one is getting what they need to hire and retain the staff that will help them be successful.
And I think we’ve been successful because we don’t try to answer every specific question with a specific policy. If somebody needs to leave early for daycare, we don’t need a daycare policy. If somebody else is taking care of a parent, we don’t need an aging parent policy. I’ve invited everyone to come in and tell me what they need to be successful. Some people may not believe this can be successful because it seems overly simplified, but it’s working for us. So I’m not inclined to make it more complicated than it needs to be, and so far, this approach has allowed us to really change what in-person work is.
BH: I’d say that for my role as someone living in the New York City metro area, being in the Amtrak corridor is quite important. And that regional focus has been important in some of other our senior searches as well. For example, it was really tough for us to imagine having a Vice President of Communications who operated outside the East Coast news cycle, and outside our key markets in D.C and New York. On the other hand, most of our growth is in our development and marketing teams, which can be almost all hybrid or remote. And some of our programs are doing important equity work in local communities, which requires local resources on the ground.
We have two large initiatives focused on resilient forests, forest restoration, and wildfire management out West, and our work in California, specifically, requires dealing with the public agencies out West. We have another program focused on tree equity and the expansion of urban canopies in areas with the highest needs, in cities across the country. That work is critically dependent on our ability to build trusted relationships in communities where we’re working. Something I’ve worked on for my whole environmental career is build relationships so that people in local communities don’t feeling like we’re just parachuting in and creating these fly-by-night solutions to issues that are deeply ingrained in historical policies, particularly driven by issue of race.
So we have hired community engagement specialists and other folks who are not necessarily going to be sitting in DC. One of our hires sits in Detroit and is very much part of the local community. We’re had similar activities in Providence. Those are roles not suited to a national office, and so that’s where mission alignment and recruitment need to come together.
DH: So has an increase in workplace flexibility factored into your thinking about how you find and recruit strong talent?
BH: Honestly I think that workplace flexibility is just one part of a total rethink of so many issues in recruiting, and contributes to talent management in so many ways. For example, the pandemic reenergized peoples’ sense of purpose, and their desire to work in a place where they feel good about the mission. I have friends in corporate jobs asking for advice about how to move into environmental work, even though they have no experience and would be working for a fraction of the pay, just so they can feel like they’re going to work with a higher purpose. All of our job postings get an unmanageable number of applications, often folks who are overqualified.
It’s on us to figure out who’s the right match, and then add in the equity piece. We are increasingly recognizing that the work we do is intersectional—that is, environmental, health and climate impacts are related to social justice and many other types of advocacy and rights-based work. So now we want to see all those types of candidates. People who understand how to build movements and campaigns, and talk to different audiences. They do not need to have a firm understanding of climate science. They can learn that.
So I am trying to bring a different lens and say that we need to be thinking broadly about how intersectional our work is, who can do that work, how it’s mission-driven, and how workplace flexibility can help give us access to candidates with the right strengths.
LM: I would agree. What I’m seeing now is that we’re starting to get more candidates who have stepped out from another field. I’m sensing that there are more and more people who have decided they need a life change, as if they’re saying: “I’m coming to you because I don’t want to do that other thing anymore.” And I’m very excited about the possibilities of this new trend. It feels really good.
For my team, it’s really important to recognize that the people who are here, and those who come here, are choosing to be here. And we’re choosing to have them here. We’re all in this together and they want to be working in support of the mission of the Center. And we’re validating that choice by listening to what they want as far as remote work is concerned. We’re listening to what other pressures there are in their lives that we can be alleviating. And while we’re never going to find a way to make fundraising easy, we can take the pressure off a little bit in other ways. In small percentages, if we can do that, I think it increases people’s desire to be here, and everyone’s longevity.
As leaders, we need to invest in our teams. – Benita Hussein
DH: Has this shift in thinking about the potential of remote and hybrid work prompted any of you to look at or evaluate candidates in a different way?
LM: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t necessarily feel like I am looking at candidates in a different way. But now that workplace flexibility is our culture, it has forced us to focus on how to make that work, and it highlights something we’ve always had, which is a culture of collaboration.
At a fundamental level our culture is collaborative and non-competitive, because we have a number of different divisions that are all raising money via different vehicles, for different programs. We’re raising money for the symphony, for the opera, for the Kennedy Center. It all goes to one bottom line, and we have to avoid any conflict if somebody wants to talk to a donor about one project and somebody else wants to talk to them about another project. We work really hard to maintain a non-competitive team, which is something that my predecessor deeply believed in, and it’s something that I’ve worked really hard to maintain. So we’re measuring performance based not just on the funds people bring, but also on how people are working across the institution. There’s both bottom-line performance and how collaborative people are.
So for new hires, we do interview with an eye on collaborative work, asking very specific and pointed questions to get a lot of examples of that kind of effort. And as for metrics, everyone is so reliant on each other, it becomes clear very quickly if somebody’s not pulling their weight. We’re not overly focused on quantitative success measures, because it’s very clear if you’re working in a collaborative environment and you’re not collaborating.
JL: I don’t think that we can assess candidates’ ability for hybrid or remote work in any kind of direct way. Like Leslie, we believe that the character, skills and qualities that we’re looking for in people can serve as a proxy for whether or not we can trust someone to be effective in a hybrid or remote role. And right now, all local staff have the option of working remotely three days a week if they want to.
What we’re trying to create is a safe environment for people where they know they can take risks, and what I see is a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. So however we’re structuring the workplace, it seems that we’re attracting candidates who have this drive within them. Those are the people that I don’t even think twice about whether they’re going to perform in a remote work environment, because they’re just driven. These are the kinds of people you have to say, “Hey, remember to take your vacation.” So I’m not sure we have a specific thing we would assess to know whether they’re going to be successful. I think that comes out in the kind of people we’re looking to bring on as teammates.
But like Leslie, we do take the time and energy to ask questions that are designed to show us who the person really is, what they’re about, and what they value. These are hard questions. Anybody can tell a story with two supporting bullet points, so we don’t want to elicit those kinds of answers. We’re interested in challenges they have faced, or the best leader they’ve ever worked for and why. What’s been fascinating is how it allows us the opportunity to very quickly see who’s not going to be a fit for this culture of caring that we have and we’re so protective of.
BH: I haven’t put that workplace lens on candidates and we don’t specifically ask whether they can succeed in a remote or hybrid environment. When we’re interviewing them, I think there’s an assumption that they know how to manage their time and manage their experience. And most folks I’ve recruited so far in this current paradigm have been senior leaders, like vice presidents. And so my expectation is that they know how to manage themselves and their teams around this. But we’re about to embark on a series of new hires, and I don’t have a firm answer on whether or not we will be applying specific criteria to understand what makes someone successful in this environment.
But that question makes me want to backtrack to some of the ways we’ve been adapting our new flexible workplace, some of which started happening before I joined American Forests. We have an energetic leader, and most of the staff had always been in the DC office, which built a collaborative culture around informal brainstorming. There were constant conversations and popping in and out of offices. And when the shift happened, maintaining that kind of pace quickly led a level of burnout.
In such a collaborative culture people felt that they always had to be on call, and be able to hop on Zooms on short notice whenever they were available. So leadership decided to create policies and practices around Zoom meetings, like a standard 45-minute length, breaks between meetings, having an agenda for every meeting, and having somebody “own” the call. We did need some protocols to help people succeed in this new environment. We needed some safety valves to protect our human limitations and create boundaries so that we could stay healthy and productive.
…if somebody’s struggling with how to allow greater flexibility, I would ask them, ‘What are you really afraid of?’ – Leslie Miller
DH: I’d like to pick up on that last idea in that you’ve all mentioned culture quite a bit, but you’ve also all mentioned leadership. What’s the role of leadership in creating a flexible workplace policy that can help attract and retain talent?
BH: As leaders, we need to invest in our teams. At American Forests that means fully building out the skill sets that help our philanthropy and marketing teams deliver funding and integrate with the program teams. That’s critical. And when it comes to those skill sets, I look at those job descriptions and they read like laundry lists. These are specialists, and these kinds of jobs are just as technical as, say, a climate scientist.
So in a market where there is a lot of competition for talent, allowing for flexibility can help get the right leaders in place. In turn, those leaders can decide how best to build their own teams. With enough runway and resources they can build the right team to deliver results.
JL: At UTEP, our university president is allowing each VP to run her or his own business and make the decision on what to do with schedules, based on what works for their area. In so many ways, that decision was really freeing for us. And it opens up the question of what else we’re not thinking about. Before the pandemic, would I have thought of bringing in two AVPs to work remotely? No way. I can only imagine what other things that I’m missing that I would never consider, just because we’ve not run into that kind of necessity.
And I can’t say enough about Dr. Wilson’s leadership because the level of trust she puts in her VPs is so meaningful. The last thing I would ever do is let her down. I feel like I’m in a safe place where I can take smart risks and try things that maybe we wouldn’t otherwise try. It’s an environment where I thrive, so why not provide that same type of situation to the people that we are hiring? And guess what, it’s working, and it’s fun to watch.
LM: Our leadership understood right away that every division is different and that’s okay. Everyone isn’t getting hired in to do the same job, there are different pressure points, and there’s all kinds of ways that people find themselves working here. We’re not going to have the same policy across the board for everybody because it won’t fit.
I feel like I had clarity on this very early on and I wasn’t waiting for permission to implement flexibility in the workplace. The institution was very open to allowing each area at the Kennedy Center to organize themselves how they needed to be organized to be successful.
And if somebody’s struggling with how to allow greater flexibility, I would ask them, ‘What are you really afraid of?’ If you can identify what you think could go wrong, and why you started from that place, you can work backwards and figure out how to be less afraid and allow people more flexibility in their lives. And if you can’t quite name the fear, because you’re just nervous about it, I think it’s worth having a bit of faith and just jumping in. You can say, ‘We’re going to try this and see how it works.’
DH: This has been extremely helpful, and I hope very eye-opening for philanthropic organizations of all kinds. This new world of remote and hybrid work offers so many possibilities in terms of recruitment and empowerment. And modeling successful behaviors, showing how they can work, can open doors for others. We greatly appreciate your experience, honesty, and wisdom. Thanks for participating in The Great Rethink.
Curious to learn more? Read the next article in our series here.