Persevering during Times of Transition: Lessons from Leaders across the Resettlement Field

Photo Credit: DKnowles/IRC

This blog post includes perspectives from Hans van de Weerd, Vice President of Resettlement, Asylum, and Integration at IRC; and Dr. Hayder Allkhenfr, Refugee Health Coordinator at the Utah Department of Health.

Strategic and everyday tactical leadership is critical to any organization, but confronting change as a leader can require new and different approaches. Nonprofits working in the refugee resettlement sector have grappled with profound levels of change over the last four years. As we look ahead to this year and beyond, we know that the sector will continue to experience substantial transition. Organizations must continue to persevere through the COVID pandemic; this public health crisis of historic proportions has presented leaders with unprecedented challenges. A time of renewed questioning of equity and inclusion in our field and the anticipated increase in refugee arrivals have created additional levels of need for focused and nimble leadership.

I recently interviewed leaders from several sectors working within refugee resettlement to learn how they had confronted the challenges of the past years. To listen to the first podcast episode in the accompanying series, Leading during Times of Transition, click here! What principles guided them as they wrestled with a shrunken resettlement infrastructure, the effects of COVID-19, particularly on communities of color, and the grave, continuing reality of racial disparities in health and other areas? What could they share about their strategies for “keeping on keeping on?” How could these strategies inform future work during the anticipated growth of refugee resettlement? What leaders inspire them during difficult times? This blog post includes several areas of action based on their strategies.

Share more information, not less.

In a time of rapid change, it may be tempting to make information-sharing a low priority. The plan for managing a particular crisis or transition is not yet clear, and so talking to staff about it may seem premature. But being transparent and consistent in communicating with staff is critical.

“Staff were not desperate to hear clear cut solutions; they were desperate to know what situation we were in.” – Hans Van de Weerd, Vice President of Resettlement, Asylum, and Integration, IRC

Take care of yourself and know that you can’t do it all.

Self-care can often take a back seat to dealing with the myriad details that demand attention during challenging times. But taking time to exercise or otherwise relieve the stress of work enables you to consistently perform at a high level. Leaders who are drained may find it harder to see evolving realities clearly and may find that fatigue clouds their ability to make decisions in a timely and effective way. Another way of taking care of yourself is to make sure that you delegate. It’s natural in a crisis to want to be in control, but control is elusive. Assuming you have assembled a strong team, once a task is delegated, trust that your team member will follow through. For more resources on self-care and promoting organizational resilience, check out Switchboard’s resource library!

Be open to new ways of working.

Though many of us are eager to return to a “normal” work environment, some of the adjustments made necessary by the pandemic have revealed positive new ways of working. Leaders know that understanding staff strengths is key to forming effective teams and great work performance. The pandemic demanded accommodations that may continue to make sense to use when offices are reopened full time, especially if program growth places new demands on staff. Smart managers will do well to remember the different ways that staff were effective in the remote environment. That staff member who thrived when completing projects in the relative quiet of home could be allowed more flexibility between working remotely or in the office.

Embrace new opportunities.

Delivering programs remotely during the pandemic might have first seemed to be suboptimal, but staff working directly with clients have found new opportunities for engagement. Some program offerings have been better attended when delivered virtually. Some organizations have reported that without the barriers of transportation and childcare, female clients  in particular, have been able to take better advantage of trainings and other services. During the difficult years when resettlement admissions were drastically cut, many resettlement providers considered how they would ‘build back better” when the program was restored. The Biden administration’s “Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration” proposed a new access priority for community sponsorships. This development offers a great opportunity to leverage the continued support of resettlement by communities all over the U.S. To learn more about engaging stakeholders, register for Switchboard’s upcoming webinar Engaging Public Sector Stakeholders to Prepare for Welcoming More Refugees on April 7th.

Be inspired by others.

I wanted to hear from each interview guest about the leaders that they admire. It’s important to look beyond ourselves and our circumstances and be inspired by individuals who have triumphed over adversity. Several leaders stood out to our guests. One is Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and authored a memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” His tough and pragmatic approach to transformation is a model for those individuals and institutions working on racial justice. (An upcoming blog post will discuss leaders’ approaches to inclusion and refugee resettlement work.) Another guest spoke of his hero, Li Wenliang, the courageous physician who fought to make the emergence of COVID-19 public.

It’s hard to imagine when we might confront another perfect storm of change and transition like leaders faced in the past few years. Learning from, and supporting, one another remains one of the best strategies for managing through adversity. To hear more on this topic of Leading During a Transition, stay tuned for upcoming podcast interviews and additional blog posts!

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