Saying Goodbye: How Dispute Resolution Firms Cope With The Departure Of A Senior Practitioner

This article originally appeared in the January 1998
issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by
the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.

What’s it like for a
senior practitioner to say good-bye to the
dispute resolution organization he or she helped
build from the ground up, in order to start a new
practice? And what’s it like for the organization
that gets left behind?

Just ask Lucy Moore. Last spring, Moore left
Western Network– the Santa Fe-based non-profit
she co-founded in 1981– to launch a solo
practice.

“It was very much like a divorce of two
people who really care for each other,”
Moore says wistfully.

In the past year the dispute resolution field
has seen a number of such “divorces”
–cases in which a founder or senior partner of
an organization has moved on in search of new
challenges:

  • In August, John Ehrmann, then-executive
    vice president of The Keystone Center in
    Keystone, Colorado, announced that he
    would leave that organization after 15
    years of service to look for greener
    pastures. A month later, four other
    senior Keystone facilitators — Michael
    T. Lesnick, Connie Lewis, Timothy Mealey,
    and Barbara Stinson — followed Ehrmann’s
    lead. The five then formed the Meridian
    Institute, a new nonprofit dispute
    resolution organization in Dillon, Colo.
  • Also in August, Western Network partner
    Carl Moore (no relation to Lucy Moore)
    left that organization to begin a solo
    practice. Carl Moore was only with
    Western Network for two years; most of
    his long career was spent teaching
    communications studies at Kent State
    University.
  • In May, Eric Green left Jams/Endispute,
    the organization he co-founded in 1982
    and helped to build into the largest
    mediation firm in the U.S., with 30
    offices and 350 mediators and retired
    judges on staff. Carmin Reiss, a
    Jams/Endispute mediator and Green’s wife,
    left at the same time. Green and Reiss
    now provide mediation services under the
    name Resolutions L.L.C., in Boston,
    Mass., and Green continues to teach law
    at Boston University.

Taking the high road

Managing transitions like these is tricky.
People face the challenge of preserving personal
and professional relationships, which are
particularly important in a field as small and
insular as dispute resolution. Those who leave
must also shoulder the burdens of launching a
small business, while those who remain must
regroup and move on — no small task in a field
in which the reputations of individual senior
practitioners are often stronger than the
reputation of an organization.

Take this example: The same month that
Keystone Center hired Kathy Prosser to take the
helm as president, John Ehrmann, a nationally
known facilitator of policy dialogues and a
mainstay of Keystone’s work, decided to leave.
Soon after, four other senior practitioners
followed Ehrmann in forming Meridian Institute.
With an aggregate 51 years experience at
Keystone, the potential for deep rifts with those
people remaining behind loomed large.

“Initially we felt a sense of
disappointment, and we felt some anger,”
notes Kevin Curtis, a senior facilitator based
out of Keystone’s Washington, D.C. office.
“We wondered why our colleagues didn’t want
to be part of the opportunity to work with us on
planning the next five to 10 years.”

In the face of this painful situation, senior
professionals on both sides of the divide placed
a strong emphasis on preserving personal and
professional relationships as much as possible.
“Our hallmark approach was to manage the
transition in as collaborative a way as we
possibly could,” says John Ehrmann. “We
wanted to take the high road.”

What did that mean in practice? Ehrmann, who
was the first to decide to leave, explains that
he tried to be as transparent as he could about
his intentions. The first step was letting the
new president and the chairman of the board know
of his decision to leave as soon as it had formed
in his head, even before he knew exactly what he
would do when he walked out the door.

“I wanted to be sure that the new
incoming president of Keystone would have a fresh
start. I knew that she was planning a major
retreat for the staff, and I wanted enough lead
time so that I could be out of there before that
happened,” he says.

Ehrmann and his four colleagues also made a
point of sitting down with each member of the
staff at Keystone to explain one-on-one their
reasons for leaving.

Finally, when it came time to dividing up
Keystone’s projects, both sides worked hard to
use the dispute resolution techniques they
advocate in their practice. “We tried to
articulate our interests, and they tried to
articulate theirs,” notes Ehrmann. “We
all agreed: let’s not get so focused on one piece
of work that we employ methods to get it which
will have a cascading effect through our
relationships.”

The focus on interests led both organizations
to realize that they could both benefit by
continuing to work together on a limited basis.
For several projects near their end, Meridian
partners continued to provide services
temporarily as subcontractors to Keystone. For
several newer projects, and even a few that were
mere possibilities, Meridian and Keystone agreed
to staff them with joint Keystone/Meridian teams.

The split in the senior staff of Western
Network may also provide a good model for how to
handle transitions harmoniously.

“We really, really worked at it. That’s
what it takes,” says Lucy Moore. “After
18 years of a close working relationship, it’s
better not to be cavalier about it, unless you
don’t care about the people. You can leave the
organization whole and healthy.”

How did they do it? The key was “keeping
communication open from an early stage,”
says John Folk-Williams, one of the partners who
remained at Western Network. “You have to
recognize that people will change their
professional and financial and work situations.
You need to be flexible.”

Another important component was the mediated
negotiations in which the details of the
departure were worked out. Western Network
partners held a day-long negotiation that was
co-mediated by the chairman of the board and an
outside mediator. A set of agreements emerged
from those negotiations that ensured minimal
disruption to clients and projects. Among the
negotiated details:

  • Lucy Moore agreed to continue mediating
    two of Western Network’s long-term
    projects, working as a consultant.
  • For a period of one year, she also agreed
    to work through Western Network as a
    consultant on any projects that came to
    her from previous clients of the
    organization. Western Network will
    receive 25 percent of the fees.
  • Also for one year, she agreed to give
    Western Network the right of
    first-refusal on any new work that came
    her way that she did not want.

As a result of these agreements, Lucy Moore
says the transition process has been gradual and
smooth. “I’d guess a couple [of clients]
don’t even know it’s happened,” she says.
Perhaps more important, the personal and
professional relationships between the former
partners appear to have emerged intact.

Green and Reiss went through similar
negotiations at Jams/Endispute, and they also say
maintaining relationships was an important goal.
When asked if they had succeeded at the latter,
Eric Van Loon, senior mediator at Jams/Endispute,
says, “Yes,” with a laugh. His proof?
“They’re using my tickets to the Celtics
tonight!”

After the storm subsides

In the aftermath of a major exodus, the
biggest challenge for the organization that gets
“left behind” is to regroup.

Prosser, who was the commissioner of the
Indiana Department of Environmental Management
before becoming president of Keystone, explains
that what at first seems like a blow can be
transformed into an opportunity.

“Anytime you have change in an
organization, you have a certain amount of
sadness,” she says. “But when senior
people leave, there is a great opportunity for an
organization to take a look at itself, and to set
a new course for the next five, 10, 15
years.”

When Ehrmann and his colleagues announced
their pending departure from Keystone, Prosser
elected not to react by immediately hiring new
staff. Instead, she launched an intensive
strategic planning process with those who
remained.

The first step was hiring an outside
facilitator based in Boulder, Colorado. Chosen
after a series of interviews with a core group of
Keystone staff, the facilitation team of Sandra
Hill and Joel Rothaizer, of Organizational
Systems, brought a combination of experience,
expertise in managing organizational change, and
an understanding of the world of public policy
dispute resolution. Perhaps more importantly,
according to Prosser, they brought “a sense
of humor and a flexible approach that wasn’t too
cookie-cutter.”

The team worked with Keystone to organize and
run several off-site, one-to-three day retreats,
each with several weeks in between. Some were for
everyone in the organization; others engaged
subsets of the staff.

“The retreats allowed us to be
proactive,” said Prosser. “We looked at
what we do at Keystone and how we do it. We
helped the staff build an understanding of the
organization they have been a part of.” She
adds, “Our goal was to identify the
strengths and values that we want to keep, and
also face the weaknesses and figure out how we’re
going to deal with those.”

In addition to these internal meetings,
Keystone looked outward to better understand the
future market for their services. Prosser hit the
road, meeting with clients to introduce herself,
talk to them about their evolving needs, and ask
them how they see the future of the field.
Keystone staff began gathering information about
trends in the dispute resolution marketplace.

All in all, Keystone staff seem to feel that
the strategic planning process has been essential
in preparing the organization to face the future.
Todd Barker, a Keystone facilitator based in
Vermont, notes, “We’ve spent six days in
retreat, and these six days have been the most
important ones we’ve spent together since I’ve
been at Keystone…. It’s been an incredibly
important part of the transition.”

What’s the impetus?

Why do practitioners put themselves through
these transitions? One common reason for moving
on is that practitioners would rather be
mediating disputes than managing an organization.

“I got tired of the administrative
duties,” explains Green. “I’d get 50
e-mails a day, with questions like, ‘Can we do
such-and-such in the Phoenix office?'” As a
member of both the board of directors and the
executive committee at Jams/Endispute, Green was
also making at least eight trips a year from
Boston to the firm’s southern California
headquarters, and he’d often have to take a
red-eye flight home. It got old. “I wanted
to focus on what I really loved —
mediating,” Green says.

This is not an uncommon sentiment for someone
in a service business, says Sylvia McMechan,
co-chair of the environmental and public disputes
sector of SPIDR and executive director of The
Network: Interaction for Conflict Resolution, in
Ontario, Canada.

“[Often] somebody begins a company or an
organization to deliver a service that they like
to deliver,” McMechan explains. “Over
time they become so caught up in the
administration of the organization that they get
further and further removed from providing that
service.” In a way, she says, “they
become victims of their own success.”

One solution to this problem, then, may be to
let mediators mediate and allow business managers
to run an organization.

Carl Moore advocates this approach. He says
its premise is akin to the dispute resolution
practitioners’ mantra: “You need someone to
pay attention to the process, so that others can
pay attention to the content.”

But it may not be that easy. Many small
nonprofits cannot afford to pay an executive
director to run the organization. At large firms
like Jams/Endispute, there are so many management
tasks to be done that it’s inevitable, and
probably desirable, for mediators to do some of
them.

Even if senior mediators could be freed from
management duties, it’s not clear that they would
be inclined to stay with their organizations. The
fact is, mediators are an independent lot.

“I think being a mediator is a very
lonely job,” explains Lucy Moore. When a
practitioner mediates a dispute or facilitates a
meeting, no one else in the room has the same
expertise or the same neutral role, Moore says.
Those who succeed in such a solitary role tend to
be independent thinkers, and perhaps a little
introverted. “I don’t want to chat about my
cases on a daily basis,” she says. “I
don’t feel like I want to be cozy with a lot of
other mediators.”

Folk-Williams concurs. “Despite all the
talk about collaborative processes,” he
says, “[mediators] work better on their
own.”

It’s no wonder, then, that so many
practitioners enjoy working solo or in small
organizations, and that more are choosing to do
so.

Lawrence Susskind, executive director of the
Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, Mass.
(and publisher of this newspaper), thinks such
changes are inevitable.

“Senior-level turnover is normal in most
professional-level service organizations,”
says Susskind, who led CBI through just such a
transition when co-founder Antonia Handler Chayes
left in 1995. “I also think … people in
dispute resolution … shouldn’t be judged by a
special standard because of the field they have
chosen to work in. What I mean is, it is not
surprising to see organizations change, die, or
be re-created. We shouldn’t expect anything else
— even though we are in the dispute resolution
field!”

Perhaps the most basic lesson offered by these
transitions is that by marshalling the same
skills they use in their day-to-day work–careful
listening, candor, and flexibility, among others
— practitioners can minimize the potential
pitfalls and maximize their new opportunities.

                        author

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