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Focus and Adaptability During Challenging Times

Community Wealth Vanguard asked two executives—Mora Segal and Steve Reinemund—to share their thoughts about the interplay between focus and adaptability. These two leaders consider focus and adaptability from varied perspectives. Mora Segal, Chief Strategy Officer of College Summit, encourages innovation as the organization continues to grow to meet a national need. Steve Reinemund, Dean of Business and Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Wake Forest University, draws on his 30-plus years in business to share best practices with leaders and to help young people unleash their passions in their vocations.

One clear theme emerged during our discussions: change requires a balance between managing the circumstances of the short term and maintaining the organization’s long-term focus and commitment. Assessing, mining, and investing in organizational capacity can help leaders to achieve this balance. An idea that arose several times was the importance of gathering and listening to feedback from all corners of the organization.

Another recurring theme was that innovation is vital and must be allowed to flourish at every level of the organization. As Mora Segal pointed out, “It’s important to encourage everyone to come up with good ideas based on what they’re learning . . . . You want everyone to show focus and rigor. We could go from good to great if we were able to encourage that.” Changes must happen not just because they are great ideas, but also because they are a great fit for the organization or address a crisis well.

According to Steve Reinemund, “One well-known leader in the current administration was quoted as saying, ‘You never want to let a good crisis go without action.’ Oftentimes crisis or upheaval or change causes an organization to rethink their objectives and either to recommit to what they’re doing or to appropriately adjust to the changing times. A good leader needs to be able to—pretty much on the run and on a regular basis—assess whether the change the organization is facing is a change that requires an adjustment of the objective or a redefinition or a reemphasis.”

Here are a few more hints for managing the interplay between focus and adaptability:

Stay Focused and Consistent

An organization can stay focused on its mission through various means, even during particularly challenging times. As Reinemund said, “It starts with having the right, well-articulated vision and mission. If the vision and mission are not well thought out and appropriately articulated, and repeated often, then it’s very hard to keep people aligned against those objectives. . . . Oftentimes leaders get tired of hearing themselves talk about it, but the people who you’re leading don’t get tired of hearing about it. It’s important that they consistently hear the same message.”

Seek Change

For some organizations, adapting to increase impact entails a series of small changes that further refine their focus on mission, such as letting go of low-impact projects to refocus on high-impact projects. For others, adapting means completely reworking the organization’s mission and approach while maintaining what is already working well. This type of shift requires intensive planning and a long-term vision in order to avoid destabilizing the community’s bedrock organizations, while opening the door for new organizations to flourish.

Adapt with Care

Many organizations experience a struggle between staying focused on their mission and adapting to new circumstances, which may include a reduction in funding, shifting economic landscape, changing marketplace, or gain or loss of staff. While circumstances may make some reactive shifts unavoidable, organizations can minimize the impact of outside events by conducting long-range planning that takes into account the inevitable bumps in the road.

Focus and adaptability are often in tension, but may not necessarily be opposing forces. In fact, Reinemund believes that mission focus and adaptability are one and the same: “If you’re not adaptable in today’s workplace to changing times, then it’s likely that you’re going to be outmaneuvered by your competition. But adaptability doesn’t mean adaptability of everything; it means adaptability to the marketplace, but not to the basic principles of what’s right and wrong, and the basic principles of respect for the individual and for the way you manage your company.”

Make Sound Decisions

While adaptability requires careful consideration, at some point an organization must make choices and put the resultant changes into action. Mora Segal described College Summit’s clarity around decision-making: “Decisiveness is a particular skill we have, compared to other nonprofits. It comes from senior leaders, and has to do with the quality of our board and our ability to focus. . . . It works top-down and bottom-up, but historically has been more on the innovation side and less on the process side. We’ve had to learn how to make those choices about what to pursue or not. Many organizations struggle, because there might be a quick decision at the top and they want to decide fast. But the effect of a 10-degree turn by a leader is a large-degree change at the bottom, so that is something we pay a lot of attention to.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

You can’t achieve your mission if it is not clearly—and frequently—articulated to your staff, the people you serve, and the community. As Reinemund stated, “Particularly in a heavily people-intensive organization, communication is absolutely essential to achieving the mission because if people don’t buy into what the objective is, don’t understand why it’s being emphasized, and aren’t getting regular feedback as to how the organization is achieving their objectives, the chances of achieving the goal are certainly minimized. . . I like to say, ‘If you don’t think you’re overcommunicating, you haven’t communicated enough.’”

Take Time to Think

A major barrier for organizations that seek to reassess their mission focus and adapt accordingly is carving out time for the necessary deep thinking. As Segal pointed out, “Innovation comes from talking to peers and colleagues, and engaging outside of your own box. That is always hard to do with day-to-day work.” Other executives have created this space for reflection by taking a sabbatical or serving as a loaned executive at a local nonprofit or community partnership, allowing them to see the communities they serve with new eyes.


Focus and adaptability need not create friction within an organization; in fact, the two can feed one another to increase impact. The key is to build a strong foundation so that your organization can focus and adapt. As Segal said, “The healthiest organizations are so good at process and so respectful of people that they think of innovation as a process and respect that to be innovative, you must be structurally sound.”

Although change can be difficult to effect, change is essential for organizations to remain vibrant and thrive in the rapidly changing 21st-century marketplace. Strategic partnerships also are essential, because public and private money will always ebb and flow. Organizations must work together and learn from each other as they build sustainable enterprises and relationships to create impact in their communities.

Read additional excerpts from the interview with Steve Reinemund.


Paula J. Kelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Reston, Virginia. You can reach her at paulajkelly@gmail.com.

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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