Leading Through Turmoil: Advice from Jeff Brown, CEO of The Julian Center
Written and edited by Erica Poff, CAE, PMP, IOM, VP of Talbott Talent; Leah York, CAE, President of Talbott Talent; and Heather Hunter, Marketing Associate
In 2019, the board of directors of the Julian Center (TJC) in Indianapolis, Indiana, hired Talbott Talent (Talbott) to lead their search for a new CEO. Facing the prospect of several months without an executive, Talbott advised TJC to hire an interim CEO—someone who could provide staff with much-needed support during the transition period while Talbott guided the board through the search process. Within a week, Talbott signed an approved interim CEO – Jeff Brown – to begin work in January 2020.
Brown had spent the previous 27 years of his career with American Legion. He began his tenure in the accounting department and ended as the Executive Director, a journey which provided him with diverse nonprofit experience. Still, he was surprised when Talbott sought him out for the interim role at TJC. “I didn’t have any background in domestic violence issues, so even though I had a lot of experience, I thought they’d want someone who was a little more knowledgeable about those issues specifically,” he admitted.
Fortunately, Brown could appreciate what Talbott knew to be true- that nonprofit CEOs don’t necessarily need to have industry-specific experience in order to be excellent leaders. Talbott saw Brown had the right set of transferrable skills to be a successful interim executive at TJC. “You’re never aware of what it’s like to work for an organization until you’re actually in it with them. Because of my experience, I know how to address a nonprofit at every level: operational, financial, human resources. I know how to fix any issues in those areas, and how to get people to work together,” said Brown.
Two months after Brown took on the role as interim CEO, COVID-19 cases surged and began impacting workplaces everywhere. Though he was a veteran chief executive, navigating a leadership transition combined with a global pandemic would require Brown to solve large-scale, unexpected problems. To do that, Brown created a united team by prioritizing two things: transparency and communication.
From his first day, Brown dove into the organization, prepping TJC for a new leader by identifying areas that needed growth and addressing them head-on. He knew that, as a newcomer, he’d need to gain the trust of everyone in the organization in order to successfully make any changes. “As ED [executive director], you have some of the board’s confidence because they hired you. The staff, though, doesn’t know you at all,” he explained. “So communication, with everyone, is key.”
Brown kept that principle at the forefront of his leadership strategy. At an all-staff meeting he facilitated in his first month, he invited the staff to ask any questions they had. He also shared his own challenges and weaknesses with them. “I wanted them to know that I wasn’t there to play sheriff; I don’t expect perfection, because I’m not perfect. I wanted them to feel like I was a part of their team,” he explained. “That resonated with them. I think they appreciated the transparency, and they started working really well with me after that.”
Brown also met with the existing leadership team to discuss TJC’s opportunities for growth, emphasizing that he wanted the team to work together to find solutions. Together, they created a comprehensive list of staff priorities that would help the organization succeed and discussed their progress in weekly leadership meetings.
Recognizing the importance of the board’s involvement in the transition, Brown began to hold weekly meetings with the board chair. The practice helped ensure the board and staff would prioritize the same changes during Brown’s time as interim. The meetings gave the board confidence in the organization’s direction, as well as in Brown’s leadership.
As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, Brown was in contact with TJC’s human resources and program directors around the clock, prepared to respond as information came in from all directions. They needed to comply with new changes in federal, state, and local laws and regulations. “You don’t plan for something like that, especially as an interim,” Brown said.
Again, communication was paramount. “We took a lot of advice and guidance from experts, like the CDC. We took the time to cross-check our information and make sure it was reliable,” Brown reflected. As long as the leadership team clearly communicated changes, he found, the staff kept calm. “That experience built a lot of trust between us.”
Knowing that the response to the pandemic would change with time and new information, Brown and TJC’s other leaders kept the team updated constantly. “I’ve heard that you have to communicate something seven times for it to stick, so we would communicate to staff through email, in meetings, through their supervisors and the people they were supervising – whatever we could do to make sure the message was out there,” said Brown. “You really can’t over-communicate with your team, and with everyone else.”
While Brown steered TJC through the beginning of the pandemic, Talbott continued to guide the board through the search for a permanent CEO. Though impressed with each of Talbott’s candidates, the board eventually decided that their top choice had been in front of them the entire time – none other than Brown, himself.
Since Brown came from outside TJC’s industry and specific nonprofit sector, he wasn’t someone the board would have considered had they searched for a new CEO without Talbott. However, his interim leadership had proven him to be a capable, qualified fit for the CEO position. Once again, Brown was surprised by the offer—but this time it was for the permanent role. “I thought I’d be there for four months or less,” he said. “But over time, I started to really get attached to the team, and we had built some momentum within the organization that I wanted to continue. The board wanted it to keep going, too.”
As permanent CEO, Brown provided stability and resilience for the organization through the pandemic. Now, he’s looking forward to the future. “We’ve just put in place a new development director with a new plan that’s going to be very beneficial to the organization. We’re reorganizing positions and restaffing to create better teams. We’re trying to create a culture and environment where [people] feel proud of what they do and are committed.” As an exceptional leader through crisis and calm, he'll undoubtedly be able to do just that.