Skip to content Skip to navigation

Building quality leadership

Hear from the experienced president and CEO of WHS/WARL, Lisa LaFontaine, on some of the challenges her team has faced, and what they’ve done to address them.

Proudly Supported by:

Merging two organizations (and a new leadership team) brings challenges, new opportunities and lessons learned

In the first quarter of 2016, the Washington Humane Society (WHS) and the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) merged two century-old organizations who now provide care and outreach for more than 60,000 animals a year in the nation’s capital. As a result, we are blending a leadership team and, in many ways, reinventing ourselves: expanding programs and services, developing a new culture and unrolling a new brand and identity. I’m happy to share with you this overview of our process, lessons learned and roadmap for moving forward; perhaps you’ll be inspired to try something new that might benefit your own leadership team.

Many people, including our staff, board members and volunteers, put personal concerns aside for the good of the mission and the community. A decade ago, our organizations had different missions and different philosophies. In fact, they were often adversarial to one another. But in recent years we had begun to collaborate, and in doing so had become increasingly similar in the programs and services we offered the animals and the people who care for them.

When we began the merger discussions, each organization brought to the table a discrete and thriving set of programs and services. We already knew that many areas of our work—adoptions, animal care, behavior assessments—overlapped. What we learned is that we both envisioned a common future for our community, and knew how we should meet those needs; our missions, which had come to focus upon the human-animal bond, were almost identical. Most importantly we were serving the same community, the same people, and often, the same animals.

Once merged, we focused on blending our operations and cultures while at the same time looking for added value to provide our stakeholders. We are striving to become even more focused on the community’s needs. Today, we are trying to step beyond the bounds of what we have done in the past and what is comfortable, and develop new approaches to serving animals and people.

One thing you will hear a lot in our hallways and conversations is that we want to “expand our tent.” We can’t properly solve the problems of communities with whom we have not been involved in a meaningful way. The District of Columbia is a city of distinct and vibrant neighborhoods, each with their own identities, challenges and opportunities. Engaging with volunteers, donors, adopters and other supporters in these neighborhoods will enable us find solutions together.

In addition to our community-based work, we are looking for ways to establish a progressively richer customer service experience. We want our customers’ experience with our staff and volunteers to be so positive that they are encouraged to continue to engage with us, and to include their friends, colleagues and family.

The merger has also highlighted our need to engage and celebrate our employees—to transcend lip service and do it in a truly meaningful way. We would not have this rich diversity of programs without competent staff. We want to keep them. While our merger impacted some of the most senior employees, we are proud to have preserved almost all of our jobs.

Our first joint strategic plan will have, as one of its overarching themes, a focus on the employee experience—development and growth opportunities, robust communications, content-based conversations and brainstorming, a coaching oriented performance management system, and project teams that bring diverse groups together.

To achieve these multi-faceted goals, we are fiercely focused upon building a quality leadership team. In the past few months together, we have established the following norms and values to guide us:

  • Constantly raise the bar for our own performance, and that of the team. We have been saying we are stronger together before we heard that phrase at the political conventions. There is a simultaneous commitment to being collaborative and setting high expectations.
  • Being accountable to one another. The leadership team has chosen to value holding one another accountable over harmony; we are not afraid of respectful, direct conversations.
  • Holding a focus on the success and results of the team and the organization rather than on individual goals and status. We know what our goals are, and have communicated clearly enough that everyone on that senior team has the same message about what organizational success is and what outcomes we want. 
  • Embracing a learning orientation to organizational and personal development. Our team knows it is okay to make mistakes—as long as they are not life or death missteps. People learn from success and from failure, and the important thing is to try new approaches.
  • Having a strong sense of commitment: clear, open discussions about potential outcomes lead to individual commitment, group buy-in, and a plan that everyone will stick with. Even if people might have a different perspective going into the discussion, once we come to a decision, everyone will support it. 
  • Embracing healthy conflict: Productive conflict is valued. Leadership team members understand that a thorough, honest sharing of perspectives is more effective and valuable than artificial harmony. At the same time we strive to be honest and vulnerable with one another.
  •  Although it isn’t necessarily sexy, we are data-driven. We feel an added responsibility toward collecting information. If we don’t have the right numbers, analytics and metrics, we can’t allocate our precious resources effectively.
  • At WHS/WARL—or #teamTBD, as our staff has christened us—we have two bottom lines: financial and lifesaving. We strive to be smart with our resources but ensure that every possible animal is being served and saved.

Originally, our senior leadership group met once a month, but recently they asked to meet every other week instead, and the connection and dialogue are invaluable. The goal of these meetings is to develop a team that has a sense of itself and the mission. The group understands its group norms and is now exploring how to best support one another and hold each other accountable.

Our senior staff meetings help bring up the kind of uncomfortable things you don’t necessarily want to talk about, but we all strive to keep in mind that it is within this discomfort that—oftentimes—real progress is made.

In the past few months, we have adopted a new form of performance management that’s more about coaching the staff than traditional performance evaluations. The coaching process involves three formal meetings within a six-week timespan followed by quarterly coaching conversations. Rather than using a numbers-based rating system, we ask our employees to kick off the process by writing down and presenting their successes and disappointments over the past year, followed by their aspirations for the next year and next decade.

After a thoughtful conversation, the coach works on performance feedback and employee development recommendations. These are presented in the second meeting, along with performance enhancing and career limiting feedback. In the final meeting, the individual staff members outline their development plans—experiential and formal training—for the next year. Each quarter, the supervisor (coach) and employee have a one-on-one, sixty-minute meeting to assess progress against goals. These coaching sessions align individual performance with organizational goals, and provide an opportunity for providing feedback, sharing information, and developing stronger relationships.

Additionally, I host “skip level” meetings with directors who report to my senior management team. These 90-minute meetings take place twice per year and provide an opportunity for mentoring, feedback, relaying of values and a chance to provide context for decisions and actions. It’s an opportunity for me to hear directly from staff without filters.

We recognize that we have a lot more work to do, but with strong leadership, we are confident we will make our community a better place for the animals—and the people who love and care for them.

Does your organization have a strong leadership team? Do you embrace “healthy conflict”? What is your organization’s bottom line? Let us know by commenting below!


About the Author

Lisa LaFontaine is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Rescue Alliance. When not advocating for the animal community at large, Lisa shares her life and home with her husband, Matt Kayhoe; Sazzy, their pit bull; cats Crystal, Gregory Xavier Pibb, and Harold; and an ever-rotating and always welcomed family of foster animals. She serves as Vice Chairman of the DC Board of Veterinary Examiners and is a proud member of SAWA (the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators).