In Chapter 8 of 15 of her 2010 Capture Your Flag interview, non-profit executive and Students of the World founder Courtney Spence answers "What have been your greatest lessons learned to date in leading your organization through a multi-city, multi-school growth phase?" Spence shares how lessons from Jim Collins' books "Built to Last" and "Good to Great" have helped her team overcome adversity around the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis. Surrounded by a strong team carrying shared passion and purpose, Spence is able to navigate funding challenges and downsizing to implement a more sustainable organizational strategy.
Erik Michielsen: What have been your greatest lessons learned to date in leading your organization through a multi-city, multi-school growth phase?
Courtney Spence: I think I’ll speak to two lessons learned. The first lesson I really have learned came out of this most recent year. 2009 was certainly a difficult year for everyone, we were no exception to that. We took on eight different partnerships, we had seven teams, we did incredible work. I am the most proud of our work from 2009 of any work that we’ve ever done. At the same time, right about the end of September, there wasn’t funding, we weren’t sure what was going to happen. Was there even going to even be a 2010 year? We had to sort of step back and I personally had to get myself through a very negative place. I mean, I was pretty down and this was something I had been working on for nine years and we were facing the possibility of, “Okay, maybe we’ll just stop for a year and do something else.” And I had prepared myself for that because it was just such a difficult time for everybody financially and I knew that we weren’t going to be immune to the financial crisis that we just went through – or still going through. But I have read Jim Collins quite a bit and I go back and re-read “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” and the “Stop Doing List” is something I have never been great at, but I think sometimes when you back is to a corner and you have no other options, you have to make hard decisions and I think you also get to make more creative and riskier decisions because of that. So, I finally took his advice and we sat down with a big pad of paper and was like, “Here are all the things we’ve said we need be doing differently, or we don’t need to be doing this anymore, or we shouldn’t be doing this.” And we made some hard decisions, but out of that we are looking at stronger 2010 year than I ever imagined possible. We have three full time staff. We are so optimistic and things are falling into place right and left and I really feel like we are back on a new track that’s the right track. Now, I’m sure things are coming up, bumps in the road, that will happen, but the idea that you can get to what you think is the bottom, the deepest, most, bottom, terrible place you can be in, and you can find a way to get out of that by making hard decisions but knowing that you have that courage within yourself to do that, I think is really an incredible lesson that I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t gone through what I went through last year.
And I think the second lesson is – it’s really important to be able to work with a team that works, and I think, for me, work with a team that you love. Particularly, the two women that I work with now, we are an incredibly strong team. There is not ego involved. Work is getting done. Emails are going out – midnight, “ Hey, I’ve got this idea!” We all have the same passion, we all have the same sense of purpose and we love each other and I think it makes for such a successful environment. What we have done in the last couple of months, I would never have dreamed. So, I think it’s just as important as it is to love what you do or like what you do, I think it’s important to love or like the people you do it with.