Number 1 Priority

By: Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director

One Friday evening I had a few minutes to decompress and like many people do I pulled out my phone to see what I could catch up on. After browsing Instagram I tapped my work inbox. A couple of new messages, one of which was pertinent to our Regional Portfolio, so I quickly forwarded it to Jayson, who directs our Regional Portfolio. Minutes later I got this response from Jayson, "9pm emails????  Tsk tsk tsk". Of course I quickly shot back, "9pm email checking???? Tsk tsk tsk", but then promptly logged off and picked up a book instead. We'd both been busted...


Earlier this year, we did an exercise on our team retreat where we created a Hierarchy of Goals (an idea we borrowed from one of our grantees, Medic Mobile). We listed out all of the general goals and priorities we have as a team on a large sheet of paper. We tried to keep it to 10 but ended up with 11. We then ranked them in order of importance, with each person using a different coloured marker. We all started our rankings. Some of the team started putting their 1's and 2's next to 'Grant Delivery', or 'Grantee Support', and continued down the list with their 3's, 4's and 5's. Dave Peery had been thinking while others began and then stepped forward to begin his ranking. He put a big fat number 1 next to 'Team Health'. The rest of the team just kind of stopped for a moment. We realised what we'd just been given permission to do: prioritise our own health over all of the other functions of our work. Very quickly everybody adjusted their rankings so that they too prioritised Team Health in the number 1 spot.

It sounds simple, but that moment has had lasting effects. Our team now regularly reminds each other to avoid work email in the evenings, log off at the weekends, and stay away from work when taking PTO. 

Now, in all honesty we're not that good at actually doing it yet. As a relatively new manager I'm learning how to set healthy expectations for our team. In addition I have the privilege of working with some dedicated and highly motivated folks, each with their own self-imposed expectations of what they need to do to get the job done. I never have to worry that someone isn't pulling their weight. 

We also try to be very cognisant of the fact that our grantees bear an extremely heavy burden of emotional, mental, and physical exertion in their work with the communities they serve. We don't escape it though. Our pressures and stressors are different, but still very present. 3 of the 7 PF team members have experienced extended mental/emotional breakdowns either caused or exacerbated by work pressures. 2 of those have happened while working at the PF. We have a lot of work to do and it's not an easy fix. 

But the message is different now. Rather than building a culture of competition and 'at all costs' productivity we're actively practicing a culture of team support. We're more regularly heard telling each other, "put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others"--an oft heard phrase used in aviation safety demos, popularised on our team by Jayson.

My goal for our team in 2017 is to get things in balance. To support our team in being disciplined enough to focus on a few things we can do very well, rather than addressing every other need we hear about. Sometimes we will fail and find ourselves underwater again, but if eventually we can cultivate balanced workloads for a healthy and thriving team it's worth it to keep trying.