New people are critical for institutional renewal

Aiming for a five percent turnover in staff, volunteers or partners each year creates opportunities to challenge long-held assumptions, habits and processes.

As the scope of the 2008 financial crisis was becoming clear, Duke University’s provost made a rare appearance before the Divinity School faculty and staff to explain cost-cutting measures and to allay concerns. He explained that some positions were being eliminated through retirement incentives and that each vacancy would be reviewed before it could be filled.

Yet he also noted that new positions would be created in key areas. In his view, maintaining the health of the institution required that the faculty have a five percent annual turnover.

I expected the provost to talk about survival issues, including how I could keep my job. Instead he focused on the intersection of actions that supported short- and long-term institutional health.

Even more surprising was talk of turnover in faculty -- the group granted tenure. I thought of the faculty as a permanent structure -- sort of like Duke stone. His image was of a living system that if cut off from the flow of people -- in and out -- would soon be ill.

Working in rural churches I learned something similar about the value of the outsider.

The pastor recruited a couple of folks who had "married into" the community to work with me, the college student youth minister. These new people saw the situation with fresh eyes and were dedicated to living in that community. They were open to innovation and motivated to work.

The process of orienting new people creates an opportunity for “old-timers” to explain their long-held assumptions. As questions come up, habits come up and are re-examined. Gaps between vision and execution are highlighted.

The process is not always easy.

As someone who has only changed jobs three times in nearly 30 years, I confess that deciding to embrace new people requires interpretive charity. Their questioning of nearly every core activity is exhausting. I get defensive in explaining my pet projects. Reopening settled issues can waste tine.

Instead of giving into my impatience, I focus on evaluating the quality of my responses. Does my explanation still make sense to me? How can I turn the new person into a free consultant, helping me see the place anew, while not putting the new person in charge before he or she understands?

The provost's five percent goal is important.

Too much turnover at one time is chaos, and established practices provide stability and continuity. My rural pastor did not advocate only working with the outsiders. He wanted me to listen to and work with at least one new person to balance all the others who would explain the way things had “always” been done.

The idea of turnover seems more difficult to operationalize in a small organization. Five percent turnover in a staff of four means no one comes or goes for five years. How does that work?

I was president of a small ministry for 15 years, and we had small, long-serving staff. In the beginning, it was easy to bring in new blood because we were growing and needed to add staff. The good people we hired stayed -- 15 to 20 years. What happens when the staff is happy, effective and stable? Surely that is good too.

To achieve the five percent, we sought out projects that put our staff in close working relationships with other institutions. Some grew into long-term relationships. Along with making progress on our mission with basically the same resources, the partnerships gave us new colleagues and similar opportunities and challenges of hiring new people.

Every time we hire a new person, staff, volunteer or partner, I have to intentionally focus on the opportunity. What surprises, troubles or bores the new person? I can learn as much from the new person as he or she is learning from us.