Terminate Them if You Can’t Get Your Way. Not Today/Not Ever

By Tino Mantella

TLG President & CEO

I was ready for my next challenge after completing a fulfilling ten-year stint at the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA.  For me, I felt the tenure in Chicago was the culmination of twenty successful years in the “movement”.  Running the largest YMCA in the world, at a relatively young age, led me to believe that I could take on any CEO role and be successful.  For readers to understand why I hit, what I shall call, a bump in the road it is important for you to understand the YMCA structure.

The Chicago YMCA, like all corporate Ys (the word “corporate” in the Y generally means there are branch units. Chicago was the largest with thirty-five) was set up like corporations.  I was the President & CEO and the hierarchy below me included VPs, specialists, Branch Executive Directors, and so on.  This structure enabled me to use all of the tools in the tool chest. When it came to employees, I could promote, reassign, or even terminate.  I utilized all the business elements at my disposal.  For example, in the over one-hundred-year history of this YMCA system I was the first person hired from outside of the Chicago region.  All of my twelve direct reports were from Chicago and they had a way of doing things.  It was the Chicago way or the highway.  The BOD hired me to shake things up and that is just what I did.  I replaced eleven of the twelve reports within the first year.  It was not an enjoyable experience but, in my mind, it had to be done. Bringing in my own talented team, who came with experiences inside and outside of the Y, from around the country, worked.  The process cascaded through the system of over 4,500 employees.  It was not always easy, but we made progress and positively impacted millions of youth, families, and communities, over the ten-year period. I/we made it happen here, so I felt I could do it anywhere.

I was recruited heavily to become the President & CEO of the Arthritis Foundation during my tenth year at the Y.  Because of my team’s success in Chicago, I had a number of offers. Why not go for the one that seemed most challenging, I thought to myself.  So, the family moved to Atlanta.  Here is what I should have realized – I was moving from a corporate structure to a federated model.  I certainly did not do my homework before taking the job.  Perhaps I was a bit cocky and also excited to be leading a major national health institution.

The AF had fifty-five chapters stretching across the USA.  Each chapter had its own President and Board of Directors.  I came into my role at the AF thinking that I was a good influencer.  It took me a while to realize that I had one card I couldn’t play – the termination card.  If a Chapter President and/or it’s Board of Directors wanted to opt out of any project, no matter how much sense it made to me, or how important I felt that the particular initiative was, it could get stopped dead in its tracks.

My go-to style was to drive change like I did at the Y.  If it made sense, why wouldn’t people jump on board.  Like today’s national political structure, I found that it wasn’t that easy.  Adding to the challenge was the fact that my BOD typically came from the Chapters-earning their way to the “big board” was an honor.  Although they joined the Corporate Board, their roots were in the Chapters.

We had a good many successes at AF, but at the end of the day I didn’t succeed.  Looking back, I would say that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me, in the business world.  My key takeaway was that I was moving too fast.  I wasn’t getting the level of buy-in to move the ships in the same direction.  To be honest, I didn’t have enough respect for the Chapter Presidents or their Boards.  It was humbling to say the least.

My next role was to run the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG). We built thirty-six Societies (special interest groups (SIGs)).  Even though the over 500 SIG members didn’t have direct authority, I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes twice.  I gave them a major say in the direction of the organization.  We spent several Saturdays working together to design the policies and practices for TAG.  Those policies were foundational in respect to our collegial approach over the dozen years we worked as a team of staff and volunteers.

To summarize, particularly in today’s world, success is driven by everyone rowing in the same direction in unison.  That requires giving everyone a voice.  If stakeholders know that decency and fairness are at the core of decisions, and they their views are encouraged and respected they will generally accept a bit of messiness along the way.