As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Garlin, Chief Sustainability and Innovation Officer at The ARK, a Chicago nonprofit that helps Chicagoland Jews who are facing adversity, navigate toward self-reliance through free, comprehensive social services. He brings more than 30 years of experience in leadership within the Jewish community. A former radio host with WCPT in Chicago, Michael is a vibrant thought leader and has a keen awareness of the specific needs of those in the Jewish community. At The ARK, Michael oversees the Development, Marketing and Volunteer Departments and directing Human Resources.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Of course! I’ve really spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, focusing on Jewish organizations. I started off as a youth and teen director in my twenties, and have played many roles throughout my career, and have recently taken on the position as the Chief Sustainability and Innovation Officer for The ARK. I oversee many departments including Development, Marketing, Facilities, Employment Services, Food Pantry and Volunteer Department and play a role as our Major Gift Officer.
My desire to work in the nonprofit sector comes from my childhood — my parents were loving and supportive to both my brother and I. Every week I felt we were volunteering for some organization in helping others, it just stayed with me my entire life. I was born in Morton Grove, IL, and moved to south Florida at the age of 8. I graduated from Arizona State with a Bachelor of Science in Leisure Studies, and received my Masters in Human Services at Southeastern Nova, in South Florida.
Along with my nonprofit work, though, I’ve also picked up some other skills. I hosted my own radio show, called “In My Head with Michael Garlin”, I’m an author, and, for the past ten years, I’ve been working with nonprofit executives as a certified life coach.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’ you learned from that?
My very first job, I was the teen director at the JCC in Boca Raton, and I would take naps in the middle of the afternoon because there wasn’t often too much to do — we would primarily work with the kids at night and on weekends, so I would catch an extra hour of sleep on the couch. And then, one day, my boss walked in, and I’ve never been more embarrassed. Aside from the obvious takeaway of napping at home, instead of at work, I think I realized that there’s always something more to do. Looking back, even though I couldn’t work with teens during the afternoons, I could have taken on other work to continue to make that JCC even better for the teens when they were able to come. That drive and dedication can sometimes be hard to find when the other choice is a nice break, but it totally pays off in the end.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My best friend on the planet was my father. We were in the same profession as executive directors (although he ran managed law firms, and I have managed nonprofits). Throughout most of my struggles, I would call my father, who somehow he always knew just the right answer or how to manage the situation. He taught me so much along the way that it would take me volumes of books just to write down the lessons I’ve learned from him. I miss him a lot, but I’m always so grateful for his impact on me.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Since The ARK was founded in 1971, our purpose has always been to unite and care for the Chicagoland Jewish community. The ARK has a very specific mission — we help people through great challenges within their lives, and help them get back up on their feet so they can thrive. I think we’ve been really focused and successful in that mission. We’ve grown to provide so many services and programs, but at the end of the day, we’re the safety net for the Jewish community, just like when we started 50 years ago.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Whether it’s at our lowest or highest points, I constantly make an effort to treat my team first and foremost as human beings. I believe everyone has something to give, so I really strive to treat everyone as equals, regardless of their status. Each person brings something new to the table and has the ability to make the organization better — so, no matter what times are like for the organization, treating people with respect is first priority for me.
In times of difficulty, I do think it’s important to consider what my team members might be going through themselves. Over the past year of the pandemic I’ve worked really hard to make sure my team members are supported and cared for not just as professionals, but as individuals.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course I’ve had tough moments throughout my career, but I don’t really think of it as giving up. The way I view it, when you’re faced with challenges as a professional, there are two ways you can address those challenges, and it really depends on your job. If you love your job, you will overcome those challenges and execute your responsibilities because of an inner drive fueled by the work you’re doing. But, if you’re unhappy, and the challenges are stacking up, you’re not stuck. We’ve all left jobs we don’t like. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up — it means you’re moving on to bigger and better opportunities.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Confidence and stability. Show confidence and be in the moment. It’s all about your attitude, and good leaders have to be positive and present, showing by example that their team can and will succeed through those challenges.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Being available goes a long way, and I don’t just mean leaving your door open or letting your team know you’re free. I think leaders need to go out into their teams and let their people know they care. Bring in COVID-safe snacks, give training beyond professional skills. This month, I’m bringing in a speaker to talk about personal time management. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we do on a day to day basis at The ARK, but it’s meant to remind employees that they’re not in this alone. Being available as a person for your team is the best thing a leader can do to inspire and connect.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It has to be in-person, it has to be transparent and it has to be real. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary. Doing it with as much respect and transparency is all you can do.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to just keep pushing forward while allowing yourself to be creative. Creativity and optimism that these moments will change have helped me in navigating the past year. We can’t rely on “the way things used to be” as our guiding principle — this is a time of change, and creativity and optimism allow you to meet that change-head on.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a nonprofit through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on the mission. Amidst any challenges, nonprofits need to continue to focus on their mission. We’ve all had to change how we provide services and care for our clients, but we can’t change why we do what we do. Keeping that “why” at the forefront of our minds is everything as we navigate these times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other nonprofits make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Really, the nonprofits I’ve seen have stepped up during the pandemic. They’ve taken their work to new levels trying to support their clients and communities especially for nonprofits that impact people from underserved communities. I know there’s always work or what I call gaps that we can improve, especially as we look back to the beginning of the pandemic. I strongly believe it’s more important in this moment to celebrate the work that’s been done by your organization. We tend to focus on what we can do better and not celebrate what we have done well
One mistake does come to mind when thinking about nonprofits in a more general way. In my past, I’ve seen nonprofits fall into the trap of focusing on raising additional funds rather than removing expenses. It’s easier and more effective to look internally first — where could we be going wrong? What are we dedicating too much time and money to? Paying very specific focus to a budget and preparing multiple situations can be so helpful.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Right now at The ARK, I’m personally calling every one of our donors to check on how they and their families are doing. Making sure relationships are based off of connection, rather than a transaction. This is critical work in continuing to foster a relationship between us and the donor. Whether it’s in turbulent times or good times, those relationships are the ones that keep organizations like The ARK equipped with the services needed to support the people in our communities.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Treat your people like people.
Treating your staff with respect is really important to create a positive work environment amidst difficult times. Building personal relationships with employees that come from a place of compassion is something that I make a top priority every day.
2. Be available.
Making yourself accessible also cultivates this environment. As leaders, we have to be clearly available and ready for our staff to come to us with questions, ideas, or concerns.
3. Encourage new ideas.
Great leaders foster an environment that encourages all staff members to come forward and contribute their own ideas and solutions, both in turbulent and peaceful times.
4. Be creative.
Creativity and flexibility go a long way during difficult times. Rather than focusing on a return to normal, I think leaders should focus on the future. Using uncertain times as periods of change and growth can be scary, but also provide long-term positive results.
5. Set goals.
I think all leaders need to continue pushing their organizations forward with meaningful goals and future milestones. This not only fosters a more driven, passionate team, but continues to center your organization as it progresses.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite book’s title has become my personal mantra: Getting To It. Getting To It was written by my good friend Jones Loflin, who asked readers to ask themselves: What am I not getting to? And for me, I realized I wasn’t getting to what I really wanted to accomplish in life. I thought about the dreams I hadn’t made a reality, like hosting my own radio show, and decided that it was time to act. So, when I set both my professional and personal goals, I always consider: What do I want to get to?
My vision for The ARK is to grow one of the largest endowments in the Jewish community, so that when we face the next difficult crisis post-COVID-19, we’re prepared. Getting TO IT! How do you want to move forward? “Getting to it” helps you answer that question.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Link in with me on LinkedIn but share with me something about you that will be inspiring. Send me an email at email@example.com or visit arkchicago.org and learn how you can get involved helping those that need help the most. We’re always looking to expand our community and would love to share more about our programming and services with you.