What If Our Bottom Line Was People?

My partnership with the Greater Richmond Chamber on the Next Steps Program for displaced workers in the Richmond region came to a close just over a week ago, although I've had lunches, phone conversations and email exchanges since then with many of the 40+ participants. The program was designed outof a hallway chat that I had with Stephanie Kirksey, vice president for programs at the Chamber, way back in November. It started, as most good initiatives do, with the belief that people -- people with purpose, and whose lives had purpose -- were among the region's greatest asset."I think the Cha mber needs to be at the front of this unemployment wave," Stephanie told me. "But I'm not sure we should replicate what other organizations are already offering." Within five minutes, we had a kernel of a program -- one that would offer recently unemployed workers two things, a place to hit the pau se button and reflect more intentionally on their "next steps" and a weekly community gathering to kick off their week. My own sense -- having been recently let go by my own employer -- was that it was second-nature for suddenly unemployed people to throw their resumes like spaghetti around town; to chase the same path they just left; and to wake up on Monday morning wondering what in the hell they were going to do all week. Stephanie pitched it to the Chamber leadership. It became a pilot program in late December with Stephanie, the Chamber's workforce champion, Rod Bradham, and myself at the helm. The long and the short of it is that we spent five weeks (we gained an extra week thanks to a snowstorm) connecting with people who were all over the map in terms of what they needed and wanted from the program. Several had spouses who were unemployed. Some were challenged (in spite of legal protections) by their age -- specifically, they were older. Some were utterly ready to dig deep and assess where their lives were pointed. Others just needed to pay their mortgage. We did our best to help everyone take a next step or two. In the process, we partnered with some astounding people -- life coach Eleanor Rouse; web developer and social media guru Rick Whittington; three "experts" on making career changes, The Hodges Partnership's Josh Dare, Stephanie's developer-turned-pilot husband John, and former Circuit City exec Neal Lappe. We tried, not entirely successfully, to balance between guiding people to a place of better awareness and providing very practical resources. And in the end, we received great feedback -- ideas on how to improve the program, if it goes forward, and ideas on things participants would not want to change. I learned a few things myself. This four week program was one of my first facilitation forays outside of Luck Stone, and a sharp reminder that facilitating groups of strangers that are not a community or a work group or a team is going to require a new level of engagement on my part. It reminded me the importance of pace -- of providing space for people to connect, to reflect, to share, to create community, and to do all of that even at the expense of content. I learned -- a little better -- how to balance the tension between the head and the heart. Both mine and the participants. It cost the Chamber time and space to offer this program to 40 or so unemployed workers in a region that has lost more than 10,000 jobs in the past year. To offer it again would cost a few hundreds of dollars. To scale it and move 1,000 people through it would set someone back about $40 per participant -- or $10 a week per person. There are two ways to decide whether or not to offer subsequent Next Steps sessions. One involves looking at the bottom line. Another involves looking at the lives that we touched. Here are a few pieces of feedback that touched me, and reminded me why I want to do my best work with Floricane:

The weekly class provided my with motivation for the week.

I think you have put together a great program that cannot be measured in just number of people who have obtained full time employment.

I think it was a fantastic experience and hope the program was as successful for others as it was for me.

I wanted to send a personal “Thank You” to both of you for doing such a wonderful job with the pilot “Next Steps” program. It was obvious that both of you spent a great deal of time working on content and the presentation was outstanding. Well done!

It was a great thing you all envisioned and rolled out. I think you provided a huge service to many even much better than the very expensive outplacement service orgs. The tools that were provided were very thought provoking and I am still working to reprioritize what I value you with where I spend the majority of my time so thanks for that.

I'm not sure there's any better work organizations can do than to touch people's lives, to give them hope, and to help them discover their best direction.