Shifting Culture as a Strategic Imperative

The building of a culture requires a thirst for knowledge about what is….”   J. Bennett

Last week, I wrote about the imperative of establishing an organizational culture that embraces change as an essential key to managing strategic risk and accomplishing organizational goals. Over the next few weeks, I will be examining the mechanisms for identifying and analyzing organizational culture and ways to systematically shift the culture as required.

Shifting culture is not necessarily easy—but it is possible—and it can be done with the right process that is emphasized and supported over time. That process includes: 1) clearly identifying and acknowledging the prevailing culture; 2) setting a vision for culture and establishing accountability mechanisms to advance expected behaviors; and 3) ensuring that our employees are acknowledged and supported as they begin to make the necessary behavioral and attitudinal shifts.

Acknowledging the prevailing culture: As leaders, we must be aware of the prevailing culture. This means that we understand what is happening two, three, four layers down in the organization.  Some leaders may make the mistake of assuming that the way people treat them, respond to them or interact with them is the norm across the agency.  Often it is not.

I do this in several ways.

First, we talk about culture and its inextricable link to organizational success.  I make it a point of talking with our senior leaders and staff how an innovative, responsive and data-driven culture is a foundation for successfully carrying out our long-term strategy.  That successful and high-performing organizations have a culture that is purpose-driven, performance-focused, and principle-led.

Then I ask—how do we compare?  I make no assumptions but instead invite feedback and honest assessment from employees by asking very specific questions that speak to culture—sometimes in quick and informal settings and sometimes in more formal gatherings.

I call for honesty around what might be identified as subterranean cultural issues that might interfere with the organization achieving its goals.  For example, I ask…do people respond in a timely manner to one another?  Does the field feel supported by corporate services?  Do they get the information they need, as rapidly as they need it to do their work, manage their budgets, hire good people? I work hard to create a safe place for people to speak directly to the issues of culture and engagement. With every conversation, I listen carefully. This listening establishes trust, which in turn, engenders direct and honest feedback. I want to hear it all. Sometimes I hear things that are difficult or in direct contrast to the kind of culture that is required for success. I invite the truth, and I am not afraid to hear it.  I encourage senior leaders of the organization to be equally as inquisitive, as interested in the day-to-day experiences of their staff.  And I want to know what they learn.

This learning provides us with the opportunity to act.   We have a sense of where there are gaps—in communication, trust, accountability, and delivery of expected results—and we can respond.

As we continue to explore culture next week, I will speak to the setting a vision and establishing accountability mechanisms to advance expected behaviors at the leadership and line staff level.

Note: After this month the blog is moving to its new permanent home on The Fedcap Group’s website. Be sure to bookmark: to read all of Christine McMahon’s blogs!

Managing the Strategic Risks That Come with Change

Change is inevitable in today’s market place.  If The Fedcap Group—or any other nonprofit—is to survive we must remain relevant and attuned to the evolving demands and the competitive environment.  I have learned that there are strategic risks leaders must address to ensure an ability to respond to a changing market.  This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it hits the imperatives:

Culture. It is imperative that leaders pay attention to the prevailing culture within the organization. We all know the phrase “culture eats vision for lunch”.   It is the truth.  Culture is really understood by spending time talking to people from throughout the organization.   Do not assume that you have a responsive culture because people are responsive to you as a leader.   Do not assume that you have an innovative culture just because people tend to be positive about change in a meeting.  As leaders, we have to work hard to develop a culture that embraces change as a way to improve the outcomes for those we serve.  We have to tie every decision, every new leadership position, every operational change, and every organizational improvement to this goal.   It has been my experience that the majority of staff will get behind an idea or a change effort—even if it is significant—if it is founded on improving the outcomes for those we serve.

Talent.  While we may not start the change process with all of the right people at the table, it is imperative that as we move forward, we secure people with the needed skills and experience to execute and maintain a change initiative.  Recruiting and onboarding high-quality talent takes some time—so start now.   You will need both leaders and doers—and hopefully the same person does a lot of both.

I look for people who are able to obtain buy-in from critical stakeholders, individuals who are able to dissect the effort and then structure the work to accomplish the tasks and who effectively create a sense of urgency.

Technological Investments That Produce Data.  Lack of data is often a critical constraint to effectively undertaking organizational and programmatic change. Core legacy systems may not be able to provide timely and accurate information and analysis for business decision making. In other cases where organizations have grown inorganically through acquisitions, (such as The Fedcap Group) critical systems and data sets may not be seamlessly integrated to give comprehensive real-time insights on key business issues. Thus, often, core data and IT infrastructure have to be improved –and this often occurs AS process and operational changes are occurring.

Alignment in Priorities.  Effective response to the changing marketplace requires commitment, alignment and sponsorship from key corporate players.  Without the right level of commitment by all critical parties, change efforts can be delayed or become harder to execute. Misalignments do not always occur due to major disagreements or conflicts among stakeholders. Instead, they can occur because different key staff prioritize their work differently.  Thus, aligning the agency primary goals and change processes is required for organizational success.

Clarity. Change efforts can also fail due to ambiguity about the end goal for the change.  When there is ambiguity of purpose—the project and system requirements may not be precisely specified. The programmers and developers of the system may provide their best interpretation of user requirements, but specific needs may be lost in the interpretation. This can lead to the development of systems that do not meet end user needs.

Getting Comfortable in the Unknown.  Prior experiences can be a very powerful constraining force. That ubiquitous phrase “this is the way we have always done it” is the death knell for effective change and response to an evolving marketplace.  It is imperative that staff at all levels become increasingly comfortable operating in the “gray”.   It’s natural to desire a clear direction and sense of control in our day to day work.  After all, the unknown can be intimidating.  But while it’s certainly comforting to have specific instructions provided at work, a constant need for clarity can limit the potential of any team. Changing habits can be hard and removing enablers of old habits is a critical talent shift if positive change and response is to occur.

Note: After this month the blog is moving to its new permanent home on The Fedcap Group’s website. Be sure to bookmark: to read all of Christine McMahon’s blogs!

Seeking Interdependence As We Celebrate Independence Day

This week, much of the United States will take a day off to celebrate Independence Day. As our history books attest, independence is hard-won. Independence requires a belief in the possibility of a life different from the status quo and the courage to act on that possibility.

As a voracious reader, I have spent quite a bit of time seeking to understand our history and the evolution of humanity.   I have come to understand that as challenging as the fight for independence was for our country and continues to be for people across the world, in the end, it may be that the harder fought battle is learning how to be interdependent.  It is rare for people to live truly independent lives.  In fact, the most successful, the most fulfilled, seem to have learned the art of reciprocity—building coalitions and healthy relationships that have at their core the hope of mutual success.  The very structure on which our society is built, demands interdependence.  We need to learn to operate comfortably in our interconnected, interdependent environment.

At The Fedcap Group, we use the tag line “better together” quite a bit. 

We mean it. 

We have brought over twenty companies together under one umbrella, because we believe our interdependence is the foundation for organizational stability, sustainability and long-term impact.

In our day to day work, our goal is to help those we serve build successful, interdependent lives.  Our efforts in helping people find jobs, overcome addiction, and achieve educational success require teaching those we serve the art of interdependence—how to ask for and receive help, how to trust, how to develop and then rely on on a community of support, and how to work together to achieve a goal.

So this week, as many celebrate our independence, I invite you to consider the idea of celebrating our interdependence—in the end we may be stronger for it!


Note: After this month the blog is moving to its new permanent home on The Fedcap Group’s website. Be sure to bookmark: to read all of Christine McMahon’s blogs!

Technology as a Catalyst for Employee Engagement

“Networks are the new companies.”

–Harold Jarche

Employee engagement is the measure of an employee’s connection to the mission of their organization and commitment to bringing their best every day. Strong engagement means employees feel they have a say in the business of the organization and they feel they are a part of something larger than themselves. Engaged employees are essential to the growth and success of an organization. They will drive innovation, they will be motivated to stretch beyond their limits, and they will act as owners of the business, deeply invested in its impact and success.

Sadly, research reflects that only 30% of employees feel actively engaged with their organization. Fifty percent are passively engaged, and 20% reported that they are “actively disengaged.” A business cannot thrive, and certainly cannot make an impact if these are its employee statistics.

For an employee to feel engaged, they must enjoy ongoing interaction and collaboration with their colleagues. They must be consistently motivated—and challenged—by their colleagues and their leaders. They must feel safe and comfortable in their work environment. They must receive recognition in a way that truly makes them feel as if they are making a difference, and they must feel they can express themselves authentically and make mistakes without fear of reprisal.

The Fedcap Group is comprised of 17 different companies—each with its own mission, and each with its own unique history and culture. Our geographic footprint stretches—for now—across the United States and the United Kingdom. And yet, we all are united in a common mission to improve the long-term self-sufficiency and social well-being of the impoverished and disadvantaged. Underscoring our united mission is a structure so sturdy that no matter where our employees are geographically or where they sit within the company, mechanisms are in place to shrink time and distance so that there is intentional collaboration and interaction—cornerstones of employee engagement.

Technology is obviously an integral part of most businesses. At The Fedcap Group, we are intentional about using it specifically to enhance employee engagement. The choices we make to grow our technology are always made with the caveat that whatever we choose will support collaboration, interaction, innovation, and drive. Salesforce™ tells the story of our relationships with contractors and stakeholders. Oracle unites our employees with a common language around financials, procurement, and human capital management. Our intranet is a consistent point of outreach to engage employees in questions and opportunities for recognition and topics relevant to our mission.

As we have become more and more intentional about using technology as a tool for employee engagement, there has been a marked increase in employee retention, learning, and professional growth. The result is more innovation, more drive, and more solutions to tough problems. Communication, collaboration, integration, and common language all culminate in an environment where we are better united in our mission and active support—not only of those we serve, but also each other, resulting in strong engagement across the organization.


Read more of the CEO Blogs here:

Employment is the First Step In Climbing the Career Ladder

At The Fedcap Group, we are committed to improving the long-term self-sufficiency and social well-being of the disadvantaged and vulnerable.

The first step to economic self-sufficiency is employment.  For many of those we serve, finding a job that pays minimum wage is cause for great celebration as it is the first time many have held a job at all.   I have been privileged to observe the remarkable sense of accomplishment in the faces of those holding their first paycheck.  Our expectation is that the first job is the first step on the career ladder—where ultimately those we serve are able to own a home, support their family and send their kids to college.   We work to imbue the sense of possibilities that comes from joining the workforce.

That said, staying at minimum wage is never the goal.  We at The Fedcap Group know that most individuals making minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom home and struggle to pay for food, child care, clothing and health care.  We understand that many of these workers are supplementing their income by taking second and third jobs and tapping into a variety of federal, state and local benefits.  We work closely with individuals to access SNAP, HUD and other government benefits because we know that they can make all of the difference in feeding a family.

We also understand that when a worker is offered a raise, they can lose eligibility for these benefits and actually be worse off than before the raise.  This phenomenon is known as the “cliff effect.”

At The Fedcap Group we spend a lot of time talking about how to innovate our programming to address these stark realities.   We consider all of the ways we can help advance how rapidly individuals climb the career ladder, thereby reducing their need for government benefits and eliminating the cliff effect.   We study job sector information from the Department of Labor and build partnerships with employers in industries where there are significant growth projections.  Our Career Design School trains workers and offers certifications in fields where there is significant demand for employees – resulting in promotional opportunities.  We work with business to develop employer-based training so that individuals we place in these businesses can “hit the ground running” and thereby earn raises more rapidly.

We offer Job Clubs, where individuals who have obtained employment can join with others recently employed, to discuss issues on the job, ways to advance their success and resolve conflict.  We push out suggestions via text and e-mail for online learning, classes at community colleges, our own ongoing training opportunities—seeking to underscore the importance of continuous learning as part of the pathway to long term self-sufficiency.

We have designed web-based curriculum including PrepNOW!  and Get Ready! to promote college attendance—creating another pathway to long term self-sufficiency.

We have spent time examining the characteristics of individuals who are able to move past minimum wage to a salary that can result in self-sufficiency—and we intentionally find ways to integrate the building of these characteristics into our work readiness skill building activities.

And we evaluate our impact.  Do these activities make a difference?  Are we seeing changes in long term self-sufficiency?

Our results are promising.  We see that training in high-growth sectors, smartly designed work readiness activities, creative business relationships, and accessible online college readiness curricula are resulting in higher salaries, savings accounts and food and housing security.

The climb to long term economic well-being for the chronically unemployed or people with disabilities is not easy.  At the Fedcap Group, we believe that success is the shared responsibility of the individual served and the systems that serve them.

Do you have additional thoughts on how to help the impoverished climb the career ladder?

Scalability, Structure, and International Expansion

In December of 2018, we added a new chapter in The Fedcap Group’s distinguished history. We pushed our boundaries beyond the United States to include a partnership with Kennedy-Scott, a 30-year-old social services agency dedicated to putting people to work. Since then we established Fedcap Employment and Fedcap Scotland—all part of Fedcap UK—created to expand our proven model for assisting the chronically unemployed obtain employment in high-growth sectors with strong career ladders.

We have spent considerable time honing the precise interventions within this model of service, collecting data, evaluating outcomes and refining as indicated.  We have expanded these services in diverse locations across the country.  Scaling our models and replicating them for an international market is an important next step in our long-term vision.

That said, scaling any model of intervention is challenging, ensuring model fidelity even more so, and doing both “across the pond” demands strategic and detailed planning and execution.  In any international expansion there are cultural barriers, tax code and compliance issues,  and complexities associated with shared infrastructure and communication.   Our advisors were in agreement that it was  crucial to establish a local office and team that understand the market and language , ensuring we were in compliance with local regulations.

First, we found organizations that had similar missions and histories of delivering effective services. These critical relationships allowed us to hit the ground running while at the same time, avoiding pitfalls that can occur without “boots on the ground” knowledge.  Having a local country manager has been tremendously effective in ensuring that we are compliant and competitive within the new market.

Second, working in partnership with local funders and providers, we evaluated our human, technical, and organizational resources—filling critical gaps as identified.  This focus on structure was advanced by our decade-long commitment to building robust structure, systems and processes.  We already had experience in putting management teams in place that effectively delivered services in very different jurisdictions across the US.   We had worked through which business decisions can be made on a local level and which need to be made centrally.  We had tested our capabilities to set up IT systems that ensured secure data sharing.  Effective structure has been essential in our success to date, allowing us to recruit top talent, ensure ease of international communications and provide real time outcome and financial reporting.

Third, we created scenarios to test our proposed structure, ensuring the systems were in place to support our high standards for service delivery.   We understand that it is the “known unknowns” that we are preparing for.

Expanding internationally takes a lot of time, testing, and hard work.  To date, we have provided services to over 7000 individuals through Fedcap UK.  We are convinced of the value of these efforts, and the importance of making our service model available to individuals with barriers to economic well-being—changing lives one person, one community and one country at a time.

Challenging Conversations: A Pathway to Innovation

At The Fedcap Group, we are committed to finding precise interventions that will alter the status quo and create lasting and sustainable change in the lives of those we serve.

Our growth—and our success—depends on our staff coming to work each day with this innovator’s way of thinking. As a leader, I know that a big part of my job—and that of all of our leaders—is to create the conditions that allow for the open flow of ideas—good, bad, or impossible.

To create these conditions, as leaders, we must be intentional about establishing a common understanding that we can—and will—make mistakes, engage in generative dialogue, and appreciate the essential role that conflict plays in arriving at breakthrough solutions. The root of the word “conflict” is “striking together.” It is only by pushing each other to think beyond our immediate understanding and by challenging each other to see things we haven’t thought of that we will find not just good solutions, but the right solutions.

Many people do what they can to avoid conflict. Instead of challenging their peers or their superiors, they say yes or they stay quiet, hoping to stay “under the radar.” Part of the reason for our success is that we encourage our staff—no matter what the level—to speak up with their insights and ideas. I never want staff to agree with me if they see something I haven’t seen. I want to be challenged, I want us to challenge each other, because I want to get it right.

This environment requires that we have built a solid foundation of trust.  If we don’t trust each other, and if we don’t engage in challenging conversations, we simply will not innovate. It is my job to ensure the conditions are right for truly striking together to ignite powerful solutions to society’s toughest problems.

Read all of our blogs at:

Leadership and Learning Are a Way of Life

As leaders, we all know that leadership is not simply a job title. It is not a nine-to-five job that you turn on when you walk into the office and turn off when you leave.  Leadership is a way of life that requires constant learning, nurturing, and stretching. It is how you show up in the world, every day. It is a discipline that requires time and practice.

As a leader of a large, growing, multi-company organization, I am driven by the need for continual learning and this takes time and discipline.  I intentionally spend time each day reading, writing, considering, and ultimately, translating the learning into action.  Learning sets the tone for the organization. It enhances by ability to be agile in my responses to the ever-changing marketplace and business climate. Reading allows me the space to challenge my own assumptions and bring more knowledge to the table in discussions with my board and team. I share articles that interest me with my leadership team and am always intrigued by the responses I receive.  Weekly, I share articles of interest with all 4500 staff of The Fedcap Group—and find the responses equally as inspiring.

In addition, I spend as much time as I can with leaders in diverse and disparate industries inviting them to share their perspectives with me and their approaches to the things that are essential to smooth organizational development and management: structure, innovation, corporate health, and stakeholder and staff engagement. I always walk away with new insight.

This carries over to the kind of employee I look for to bring into our organization.  When interviewing potential new employees, I always ask the question “Tell me something you’ve learned recently.’   I want to understand if the person I am talking to has the intellectual curiosity required in today’s environment, required to succeed in our company.

For me, leading and learning do not feel like “work.” They are inextricably connected, and I am continuously energized and stimulated by what I learn.

Leading from the Front: Guest Blog from Ret. Colonel David Sutherland

Memorial Day is just a week away, and while we pause to remember and honor those who have fallen in service to our country, I am also moved by lessons learned from military leaders who have faced the most difficult and high-stakes challenges and crises imaginable.

Ret. Colonel David Sutherland, Chairman of Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services, an organization that is an essential part of The Fedcap Group, is a leader whose wisdom and insight I value.

I thank Col. Sutherland for his great insight.  And, as always, I welcome your thoughts.




Ret. Colonel David Sutherland

Lead from the Front is a philosophy for team-building based on years of real-life experience in the field, culminating in Iraq.   One of the four traits of a leader is knowledge.

Say knowledge and people think “intelligence” and “information.”  True, it does mean that, but the main deliverable of knowledge is structure.  Think about it.  What do people really want to know before they begin a task and while they are completing it?

  1. What am I doing?
  2. Why is it important that I do it?
  3. How is this going to make a difference?
  4. How well am I doing it?

It’s such a simple concept, yet you’d be surprised how many people don’t operate under these principles.  And when leaders do answer these questions?  People will follow them places you couldn’t imagine.

Take Ted, one of the Troop Commanders who served with me in Iraq.  During the initial part of our 15-month deployment, his Troop First Sergeant was killed in action.  The Troops’ next First Sergeant was shot and wounded in action.  Ted himself was engaged directly or within proximity of his convoy by as many as 70 IEDs.  And yet his troop accomplished more than I ever thought possible.  How?  Ted explained every task and didn’t overreact.  His troops understood the job that needed to get done and why they were doing it.  He put structure where it was needed and ensured standards were understood.

General George Patton once said, “Don’t tell someone how to do it, tell them what to do and they’ll surprise you.”

Follow that advice and you’ll have workers who are both competent and confident.