Linda Mains, founding consultant of Mains & Associates, has served for thirty years as an internal and external consultant in management and team effectiveness, organization and leadership development, and performance management. Her expertise spans facilitation, change management, group process design, team development, appreciative inquiry, and partnership contracting. She has transformed organizations across public, private, and not-for-profit sectors.
Ms. Mains attended University of Washington, where she pursued an M.A. in Organizational and Interpersonal Communication. She has also completed a program in Advanced Human Resources Development Strategies from The Wharton School.
TSL (Talent Science Lab): What spiked your interest in the field of OD? How has been your career progression so far as an OD Practitioner?
Linda Mains (LM): As an account executive in a large, local advertising agency, I was always struck by and intensely curious about how a business whose acknowledged expertise was “communication” could be so oblivious about how to employ those skills within their own organization. My career in OD has essentially been spent exploring the answer to this question, developing along with my clients, ways to facilitate their understanding of their own processes and needs.
The progression of my career came via the “training” path. Following completion of my M.A., I joined the Training and OD Department in a local, metropolitan government. I learned the ins and outs of needs assessment, training design, the criteria for effective adult education, how to identify high quality trainers and training, etc. It was a natural progression from training to OD since many clients approach their organizational issues initially as a “training problem.” Acquiring the skills to explore a manager’s core concerns leads inevitably to creating opportunities for exploring with them and their employees, their team’s strengths, mission, goals, accomplishments, concerns, etc.
The advent of Appreciative Inquiry as a change management strategy significantly enhanced my work with clients. The AI process calls forth considerably less defensiveness, creates opportunities to change the conversation from one of problem solving to strength building, enables participants to see themselves and their work with some perspective and “appreciation” and apply those learnings to address their concerns more productively and constructively.
TSL: What are the most common challenges you face while dealing independently with different clients?
1. The inability to get enough of the system in the room to effect useful change.
In the course of a recent project, it surfaced that substantial, core issues within the department were the result of organizational processes that went beyond that department. After many attempts to engage managers up the hierarchy and those of the other departments that would have been involved in addressing the issue, it became clear that there was little organizational will to address these specific concerns. We ended up doing some work with the original department that would help mitigate the consequences of the system problems but unfortunately had little effect beyond that.
2. The clinging that clients often have to the secondary gain that holding onto their anger or dissatisfaction may provide.
Sometimes, in teams when one encounters a great deal of pain and unhappiness, the members have such attachment to their negative perceptions of their boss, or their organization, or the problem co-worker, that they are literally unwilling to let it go in order to navigate a path that is more useful, productive and cooperative. To chart a new path requires a willingness to “see things” in a new way and to want to move in a different direction vs. what may be a preferred outcome like “getting that person fired!” or having the opportunity to lay blame. Sometimes, the dysfunction of the team has become so entrenched that no other options seem possible or, in fact, welcome as it would require change from each individual. So one might define some “secondary gains” as:
o Comfort being the “victim”
o Comfort because I’m right; you’re wrong
o Comfort because “this is how it will always be” means I don’t have to change.
3. The ever-present challenge of securing enough time and participant availability to engage effectively in the process.
4. Always, the challenges of effective, ongoing client contracting.
TSL: You are also serving the community as a Senior Consultant at CCP. What motivates you to do that?
LM: Non-profit organizations provide such value to our community and rarely have the financial resources to make use of process consulting. In addition, CCP provides current line and staff managers and recent college graduates a rare opportunity to experience, in a substantial way, the value of attending to an organization or team’s process needs. CCP creates opportunities for growth for both the individuals participating and for the organizations they return to; it informs future career choices, and provides significant benefit at no cost to a non-profit client.
TSL: Is there an incidence when you experienced disagreement with the client? How did you handle that situation?
LM: I can say without a doubt that most of my problems with clients came as a result of unclear contracting. He thought he was getting one thing; I was delivering something else. Or, we both believed we understood each other, but we really didn’t. Or, I was unable to describe my process well enough that the client was surprised or confused or, ugh, worse! I think many OD consultants would agree that many of our failed projects can be attributed to poor contracting. Honing my skills at contracting enabled nearly every difficult situation I encountered with a client to be solved—perhaps by agreeing not to continue!
I would like to share an incidence here: Early in my career I was the acting supervisor of the training and OD department in a large local government. My boss, the HR department manager, and I had wildly different points of view about the process and the value of OD. His background was in labor relations and power was the currency of his approach to work. He and I found ourselves in disagreement with great regularity though, personally, we had a good relationship.
Finally, one day he asked for a meeting the following day about something he was, once again, unhappy about. He and I were friends and he had a great sense of humor, so I walked into his office that morning wearing red 14-oz boxing gloves and announced that I was “ready for the fight!” He broke into laughter and started dancing around doing his Rocky imitation and we had a great laugh. Then, we got down to the serious business of understanding the nature of our ongoing conflict. I pointed out to him that our conflict was no different than the disagreements he had experienced with the two previous supervisors of training/OD. Since our conflict was not unique to him and me, perhaps it had more to do with our diverging understanding of the purpose of training and OD.
I feel like I was helpful to him in coming to the clear understanding that, as the manager of HR, he had the right to set the direction and specify the manner in which the work should proceed. By the same token, I suggested that as long as he hired professional training and OD people, the disagreements would likely continue because of the essential value/process differences. I was quite clear that our discussion could likely result in my soon being out of a job and, in fact, within 6 months did chose to move on. His next training/OD supervisor was not hired from within the profession. Even though the outcome was not what I would have preferred for myself or for the organization, my “client” and I got very clear that we actually did not “have a contract!”.
TSL: As an OD Consultant what satisfies you the most?
The ah-hah’s. When the experience of the work together yields the “hand-hitting-the-head ah-hah” moment of “how did I not understand that this is what we needed to do together?!!!!” Or, “you mean we should address issues together?!” The new awareness inevitably leads to leaps in a client’s ability to more effectively manage his/her own issues related to the work, the team, or the organization.
TSL: What steps do you take to ensure that your clients and stakeholders are satisfied with the intervention’s results?
LM: Even though the process of contracting occurs in the first days of the work with a client, it is never, ever, not ever, done! If you view contracting as a process, not a product, then it continues to be a regular part of your work from Day One to Completion. The odds of having a successful intervention increase dramatically when contracting is viewed and pursued in that way.
TSL: What are the key personality traits do you think are important to become a successful OD Practitioner? What skills have you developed over the course of your practice?
LM: The key trait is the ability to set aside one’s ego involvement in the outcome of the work. It’s the client’s organization, team or life. It’s their learning to do and it must be done in a manner, time, place, and process that they can connect with and learn from. Their readiness and their needs and your ability to meet them are crucial to your success and ultimately to theirs.
The ability to raise difficult issues with a client or a team as opposed to “ignoring the elephant in the room” is critical to one’s success. This is also a key component of the ability to manage the contracting process. The skill of crafting thoughtful questions and being an effective, active listener is crucial to helping the client discover a useful path forward.
TSL: What advice would you like to give to people aspiring to make a career in the field of Organization Development?
LM: I would like to suggest that they start their career by joining an OD consulting firm. This will give them ample opportunities for networking and marketing themselves. They can learn from other OD colleagues and work on diverse projects for clients from different industries. The other option is to take a job in an organization as an internal OD consultant. This will help them work consistently and build relationships with supervisors and managers gradually.
TSL: Thank you!