Tom Barry’s blog series, “OWNING the New Normal: Innovators Creating the Way Forward,” focuses on business leaders exploring the current and evolving business environment. The discussion will revolve around recognizing that leaders must innovate and pivot to “own” the future and move forward.
There is no greater opportunity to really be a leader than during a pandemic. COVID-19 has impacted nearly every industry, perhaps no more so than in the nonprofit world. For communities all over the country, the pandemic is more than just a health crisis; it is a social justice issue that sheds light on matters within already stressed and marginalized communities.
The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation is the official charity of the 2020 World Series Champions Los Angeles Dodgers. It is a standalone 501c(3) with a mission to improve homelessness, healthcare, education and social justice. I took a moment to sit down with Nichol Whiteman, CEO of the Foundation, and discuss how she has been an agile leader during these unprecedented times — and how the foundation has innovated to help communities thrive.
Adapting to Unprecedented Times
First, congrats to the Dodgers on winning the World Series! What a great achievement, particularly in light of the complexities that 2020 has brought.
NICHOL WHITEMAN: It is truly an exciting time for our Dodgers. We are incredibly proud of them.
TOM BARRY: Now to get down to business. 2020 has been quite a year; from the pandemic, to racial injustice to civil unrest it seemed never-ending. How has your organization been able to implement programs, despite these challenges?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: I have always said the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation is built for this moment in time. The reality is that this is why we really exist. We serve people in crisis, and unfortunately, a lot of youth and families are currently in crisis. What happens with the social injustice events and the pandemic is that the crisis becomes exacerbated. For those we serve, the need became even greater.
We have completely doubled down. When thinking about COVID-19, we immediately launched a fund. We needed to think about supplying basic necessities, addressing food insecurity and the homeless population we serve.
In instances like this, you tend to become a little bit more laser-focused. The pandemic is just one piece of it. We have found there is so much community need, and we have to put emphasis on the Black community. We are committed to the basic needs of these communities, mental health and all of the social justice elements layered on top of the pandemic.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: In times of crisis do not lose sight of the bigger picture.
Taking on the World
You could have sat paralyzed, but you did not. What did you do as a leader to get your team to be flexible, agile and reconcentrate?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: First and foremost, I had to have empathy for those that are on my team. It is easy to get lost in the relief efforts and social justice, but I had to make sure my team was okay and that we would be well equipped to support.
We promoted mentorship and professional development while simultaneously shifting to virtual programming online. We created space for employees to help innovate. We had detailed planning meetings early on and had to strategize together to get to work. The reality is, we are still in relief mode.
With regard to the team, I find that sometimes we all struggle. It is okay to be good one day and have a difficult time the next. It is not every day we wake up trying to take on the world, so having that empathy for each other is crucial. At the end of the day, our personal realities shape how we approach our work.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: If you do not prioritize and empathize with your employees, you cannot get the job done.
Thinking Outside the Box
What is the biggest challenge your organization faced through all of this?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: We are 100-percent fundraised, and a lot of this comes from the fans in the stadium during the games. We had to get creative around the fundraising aspect. We developed a fan cutout program as a substitute for fans in seats, held several auctions, got the players involved and launched COVID-19-relief programs that allowed the fans to have the opportunity to directly donate to their communities.
It is about being more efficient. We already operate on a slim budget, but what proved to be helpful were the ways we could tap into other cost savings. We had to roll up our sleeves and get strategic and inventive about how we could make up for what we would otherwise normally do in person.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: You can innovate your way to efficiencies.
Leadership is Reflected in the Team
TOM BARRY: What have you changed personally in your leadership style?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: I am a builder, a visionary — I have a strategic plan. But when a pandemic hits, you learn quickly that you have to throw that plan out the window and chart a new path.
I wanted to reflect on the programs we have and what we could learn from our previous experiences. Leading through a crisis has challenged me to be extremely flexible and hone in on my ability to adapt and pivot.
You also have to be mindful that you lead through action. You have to give people the space to grow. For my team to compliment me on taking the time to practice self-care with my family is huge. These are all things that I preach, but practicing that over the past several months has made me feel better about trying to find balance in my own life. And whether realized or not, the behavior of the leader has a direct impact on the team.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Be a mirror for how you want your team to perform.
Look for Silver Linings
TOM BARRY: It is easy to succumb to the hamster wheel during a pandemic and many are stuck trying to figure out navigating the new landscape. Do you have any silver linings?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: Being able to reach our youth and families while extending programing online has been tremendous. This whole process has informed the future of our work and how we will operate moving forward. Our team has had to be quick on their feet, and we have grown immensely in the past few months. Every individual has risen to the occasion. That will take people very far.
I have learned there is something about the virtual programming that even as we return to whatever the new normal is, there may be a hybrid option that could really be a force moving forward. Not everything needs to be in person, and maybe there is a mix of the two that will be our new reality. I do not think we will get back to where we were anytime soon, but I do not think we will continue to exist where we are either. Our reality is going to come somewhere in between.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Take lessons learned during a crisis to improve future practices.
TOM BARRY: How do you continue to maintain culture?
NICHOL WHITEMAN: I think we will continue to be challenged with being innovative and pushing forward with complex solutions — much more complex than we thought we would have had to deal with this year. We really have to think outside of the box.
We have been able to expand our mission, and we will continue to think of ways to be strategic. We know 2021 will look different, and we have to plan now for those various scenarios. Now is the time to keep pushing forward with doing things in an efficient, cost-effective manner.
From a social justice standpoint, we need to amplify the voices of Black leaders and communities. We are going to continue to do our work through a social justice lens. When you think that one in four children in Los Angeles are living in poverty, it really requires us to double down. We will be louder and more intentional in our work.
NEW NORMAL OBSERVATION: Complex is the new normal, but with complex situations come unique opportunities.
As COVID-19 continuously shapes the new business landscape, there are new skill sets being acquired and mindsets being shifted. Businesses in every industry have to be agile and nimble enough to successfully navigate today’s ongoing opportunities and challenges. If you have any questions, GHJ’s COVID-19 Response Team has an experienced team of consultants specializing in COVID-related laws and programs and can provide the tools your business needs to help it recover from this business disruption. We are here to assist organizations to succeed in these very challenging times.