A Connecticut Program Officer in the Communication Network’s Court
Guest Post: Elizabeth Krause
In earnest pursuit of the elusive sweet spot of program/communications integration, I attended We’re from the Program Department: We’re busy doing the work. Why should we care about talking about it? at the 2012 Communications Network Conference. The breakout session was facilitated with humor and openness by Kevin Corcoran and Suzanne Walsh, two senior program officers who “get it.”
Upon entering the room, participants were invited to anonymously text where they fell across the program/communications divide using www.polleverywhere.com, an instant audience feedback tool. I cannot wait to subject colleagues to this tool when I am home. Consider yourself warned, Connecticut.
It quickly became clear that the audience was dominated by communications folks with strong opinions about the topic at hand, which I suppose was to be expected. As such, the conversation was somewhat one sided. Through the poll results, I know there were a few program people in the room, but aside from the facilitators, only one program officer identified himself during the lively discussion.
I chose to use the session as an opportunity to practice level II listening – listening to understand. I enjoyed feeling like a fly on the wall. Typically, I would have piped in with program officer rebuttals and indictments. In fact, my former colleague, Ben Rodriguez, offered a program officer’s POV after the 2011 conference that reflected the ongoing conversation in the field and within the walls of the Connecticut Health Foundation.
Why did I hold back? Today I am a senior program officer. If you talk to me in two weeks, you will be talking to a green vice president of policy and communications. The Connecticut Health Foundation CEO is serious about aligning the staffing structure to support an era of integration as we enter into a new strategic plan. It is going to be great and we have work to do. In order to serve as a bridge, I need to deeply understand where my communications colleagues are coming from. I could not do this if I was participating at level I – listening to formulate my arguments.
The session contained a good amount of what I will call catharsis. By the way, in order to attend the Communications Network conference, I had to step down from serving as a panelist at the American Evaluation Association’s conference this month. The name of the panel: Foundation Program Officers: Heart and Ego-Driven Decision-making? Or Responsible Consumers of Strategic Learning and Evaluation? Do I detect a theme? But it is progress that we can have these conversations.
In order to move the discussion in a productive direction, the facilitators crowd sourced solutions. The ones that resonated most with me were:
- Practice empathy
- Understand each other’s jobs
- Invite each other to key meetings and conversations, formal and informal
- Build trust
- Cultivate a “we’re in this together, we share the foundation’s priorities” culture
- Get senior leadership behind you
When people have asked me how my transition into my new role is going, my answer has generally contained something about the challenges of having a foot in both program and communications worlds. I appreciated keynote speaker Sherman Alexie’s reframe – it’s easy to live in two worlds, we are all actually straddling 10,000 worlds. Let’s hold this perspective as program and communications rock each other’s worlds.
Elizabeth Krause is a senior program officer at Connecticut Health Foundation