Changes AT GDB: My Thoughts

I haven’t written about this…frankly because I didn’t feel like I had enough brain cells left at the end of the day or the weekend to truly get my thoughts down. I still don’t feel very eloquent whenever I think about this, but I have to write something down.

While I was in class, GDB, for reasons none of us understand, laid off 8 employees, several of them being field managers and people who had been working for GDB for several years, some of them 20. At the same time, they expanded the territories of whatever field managers were left. People who know a lot about the state of things at GDB don’t understand it, since they didn’t think they were financially strapped, which would explain the sudden changes.

This scares a lot of us. One of the things that sets GDB apart is the excellent followup services we can all get if we need it…which now, we question if they will be available. Oh they tell us they will be available, but come on, do the math.

Several of us have written letters to the board, and as far as I know, nobody even got their letters acknowledge. Now we all received a rather condescending email telling us that the executive is doing a fine job, and the only problem they see is maybe they should have communicated things sooner.

I’m really scared of the way things are going. I love Tansy, and the training I got was great…but when it’s time to get another dog, I may really have to think hard about where I’m going. It seems that the executive is taking a sledgehammer to GDB’s core values.

There are other things…like if you are between dogs but are headed back to class, they don’t send you these big earth-shaking messages. The only reason I knew about the layoffs was because I was receiving messages from a listserve, and the word got out. But because I was considered between dogs, they struck me from the list. They also struck me from the list when sending out a survey asking for input. What? I don’t matter because *right now*, because of life circumstances, I’m between dogs? How disrespectful. See core values, being sledgehammered.

Because Michael Hingson is far more eloquent than I, and has asked that this letter go far and wide, here is his letter. I might comment below.

The following is a letter I just sent to the board of directors of Guide
Dogs for the Blind, Inc. Although it may appear that the content of this letter is guide dog specific I believe you all should be aware of this issue
as it reflects on how agencies which should do better are in fact treating
blind people and their own staffs.

There are now significant problems within the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization which stem from bad leadership by a relatively new CEO. The
problems in part are due to a poor attitude about blindness and partly they
stem from his lack of competence in managing well a nonprofit organization,
at least as far as I am concerned. Actually, hundreds of consumers have
already sent letters concerning this issue to the board and many others have
signed a petition concerning this. The petition is located at
http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/tell-the-board-its-time?source=c.em.mt

I am widely disseminating my letter because many of you may be asked about this issue, especially around the convention. Also, as many of you know I happen to be a quite visible guide dog user due to my experience on 9-11.

The fact is that what is happening at GDB should not be permitted nor ignored. You may wish to sign the petition and I ask you to consider so doing.

There are issues I did not discuss within the letter in order to protect staff at all levels within the organization. However, suffice it to say that the amount of outrage and pushback by consumers and other stakeholders toward the leadership of Guide Dogs for the Blind is unprecedented.

Again, I send this for your information. Should you feel it necessary to contact me please feel free to do so at info@michaelhingson.com. Thanks for reading.

Best,

Michael Hingson

Dear Members of The Board of Directors, Guide Dogs for the Blind,

For some time I have been monitoring the changes at our school and the stakeholders’ reactions to them. I am writing to express my feelings.

Before proceeding let me introduce myself to those of you I have not met. My name is Michael Hingson. I received my first guide dog from GDB in June, 1964. For the past forty-nine years I have used guides only from GDB. I grew up with the school, its staff, and its advancements in guide dog and student training. While a college student I assisted Guide Dogs’ staff in preparing testimony concerning pending legislation to change current guide dog laws in California.

I am a firm believer in the value a guide dog brings to blind persons who can effectively learn to use it, and I know firsthand the value and strength of the human-animal bond. You see my fifth guide, Roselle, and I worked in the World Trade Center and escaped from the attacks on 9-11, 2001. Because of a story GDB put out concerning our escape Roselle and I became quite visible throughout the world.

After 9-11 I came to work at GDB where I stayed for six and a half years.

During that time I worked to keep Guide Dogs for the Blind visible to donors and prospective donors, possible students, and others. I successfully raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school and I met with countless donors and spoke to tens of thousands of interested persons about the organization.

In June, 2008, after a change in the leadership at GDB I left the organization to continue a developing speaking career. I now travel the world talking about issues like strengthening the Human-Animal Bond. In 2011 Roselle’s and my story was published in a book called “Thunder Dog, the story of a blind man, his guide dog, and the triumph of trust” which became an instant New York Times Bestseller and which has now been published in 12 languages. Today I continue to travel, consult, and speak worldwide.

I tell you all this to say that I understand change and know the challenges change and new ideas bring to any organization. Specifically I have seen much change during my 49 years associated with Guide Dogs. I have seen the school lead by several different CEOs each with their own leadership style and priorities. I also have seen the concern each time a new leader came along and took the school in a different direction. I never have found it necessary to speak out concerning a CEO until now. Below are my thoughts.

When Bob Phillips took the reins in 2001 he brought something new to the school when, for the first time, the CEO had a daughter who was a graduate of GDB. Bob’s empathy permeated throughout his leadership as he worked to bring more of a marketing effort to the school. During his term Bob helped the school grow to be the largest guide dog school in the United States.

While some were concerned that he was bringing too much of a “business approach to the school”, what he did was to improve the efficiency of the organization, and he helped enhance the reputation of GDB within the guide dog community, the service animal world. He supported actions which improved the reputation of Guide Dogs within the ranks of blindness consumer organizations. I participated in efforts Bob promoted to integrate GDB more into the local and Marin business community. In short, during 2001 to 2007 Guide Dogs for the Blind began to move out of a role as a large nonprofit, but relatively isolated from the world around it to a responsible community family member which was growing in stature and standing within the world community.

After Bob Phillips left the organization a new CEO was hired. We need not go into her contributions except to say that for the most part Nancy Gardner’s leadership proved destructive to many of the initiatives begun by Bob Phillips and his predecessors.

When Paul Lopez began his term as CEO there was much optimism for continued growth among many stakeholders. Some of us had concerns that he did not have a good grounding in a positive philosophy about blindness, but everyone took a wait and see approach. Rather than growth Paul has demonstrated that his approach is not well suited to a nonprofit philanthropic organization such as Guide Dogs for the Blind. I know you have heard from many concerning the issues stakeholders have with Paul’s leadership and I do not want to go over ground you already have encountered. However, I believe my perspective is somewhat unique since I have a 49-year history as a student, and a six and a half year back ground as a GDB mid level management and leadership staff member. Also, I have served in management positions within various companies including serving as a company president, vice president, and I have served as a senior level manager in more than one sales organization. I know first-hand good leadership as well as poor and disconnected leadership. Paul Lopez is not demonstrating good leadership for the benefit of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Let me illustrate.

1. Consumer Relations. To date Paul Lopez has not made an appearance at any of the blindness consumer organization National meetings, and it is my understanding that he has not even attended any of the California affiliate meetings. I know he has received such invitations in the past because I delivered one to him personally last year long before the time of the National convention season. I also know he has received written invitations this year, but has not accepted them. The National organization conventions are the best places for any new leader to learn about the issues blind people find important. Also, they are the best platforms for any new blindness related program director to market their organization and to promote discussion. The fact that Paul has not attended National conventions among blind people is noticed by blind people throughout the country and red flags have gone up especially since his lack of action is directly opposite to what Bob Phillips did to promote relations during the early 2000s. Given the lack of visibility by the school and its newest CEO, and given the bad press within the consumer world I believe any positive momentum concerning consumer interest is gone. Furthermore I believe Paul Lopez’s lack of visibility concerning consumer organizations is a bad reflection on his value of input and cooperation with blind people.

On another front I have heard from many students who have attended classes over the past year and a half that Paul will not spend time with them, or at least he spends very little time with them, especially in the past few months. This is the exact time Paul should be selling his decisions and actions to his consumers, but he seems to be having none of that.

2. Budget. Earlier this year when the announcement of lay-offs took place we all heard that the decision to terminate eight employees was in part a budgetary one. The local newspapers also reported the layoffs and stated that the reason was related to a need to reduce or adjust the budget.

This makes little sense especially when the stock market and the GDB reserves are growing. Also, given that ten employees lost their jobs in a similar move during the Nancy Gardner administration it is hard to understand why an additional eight, mostly long time employees, were dismissed.

I like the concept of establishing the new call center which can help improve efficiency if handled properly. It seems to me that any time a call goes unanswered for more than one business day any organization which permits this is remiss in its obligation toward the consumers it serves. If students’ did not get return calls before and if that has changed then well and good. Creating the call center should help improve efficiency.

However, laying off several long-term key staff people and choosing to terminate the head of graduate services given his standing in the world-wide guide dog community and the vast amount of knowledge and respect from consumers he brings to GDB does not seem efficient or wise. The community at large does not buy the budget and efficiency arguments for laying off some of the people who were terminated earlier this year. I agree with them. It can never be good to lose people of the caliber of those employees who were let go and expect any organization to continue to operate as well as it did before. Also, one aspect of decreasing the number of field reps while increasing the call return effectiveness is that you may find that more people actually need visits from a GDB rep. While Mr. Lopez has chosen to believe it more efficient to send people from GDB you cannot yet know if it might have been better to keep the people you lost, but work to keep them busier with visits as well as better involving them in GDB’s marketing effort. Also, given that some of the employees worked on campus might it have been better to reassign or split their duties rather than dismissing them outright? Please do not say it was for budgetary reasons as GDB was not and is not in peril of going under. The “business decision” to let them go is a bad one by any basic business staffing morale standard.

Speaking of morale, I have not heard any positive comments about moving Barbara Browning away from the switchboard and removing the friendly face that greets visitors to the administration building. The approach taken with Barbara again shows a business orientation not suited or appropriate for a nonprofit like GDB.

3. Trust. While blind people go to guide dog schools to obtain guides and gain the additional mobility assets they feel come with using a guide dog, the trust of the senior staff of guide dog schools often is lacking.

Senior staff have, for example, in the past changed school policies concerning dog ownership, reduced consumer representation on boards, reduced the influence levels of or eliminated consumer advisory committees, and downright ignored issues and input by stakeholders. Many of us have seen new senior staff come with ideas of “making the organization run more like a business” and “improving efficiency” while all they do is to alienate stakeholders and not grow the organization. The result is that students go to schools because of positive experiences with the staff members who work directly with them and they ignore leadership which they view as something which doesn’t concern them, or they go elsewhere or decide not to use a guide dog altogether. I have seen all three happen regularly.

The unfortunate reality is that “business oriented CEOs” do not understand the subtleties of running a nonprofit or philanthropic organization. Yes, nonprofits should operate more in line with business practices than most do today. In fact, some of today’s concepts regarding the “good” operation of a nonprofit are the very things which keep it from growing as they go against what makes any organization grow in our changing world. However, while trying to bring good business practices into the nonprofit arena the “corporate way” as it exists today also tends to exclude some of the very attitudes, drives, and strengths which make good nonprofits great. the most important of these is Trust. If a CEO arrives and changes some of the very core foundations upon which an organization is built without obtaining support from stakeholders then he or she loses the faith of those individuals and probably staff as well. Nonprofits must have emotional buy-in and support in ways many corporations today seem not to have and seem not to need in order to be successful. Corporations can buy loyalty while today’s nonprofits cannot. Also, with an organization like GDB consumers have no permanent stake in the organization since they have many choices of guide dog schools. So, if they become disenchanted or dissatisfied with one school they do not suffer a financial hardship when deciding to attend another. Trust and emotional buy-in are all the building blocks a school like GDB has to make a consumer relationship work.

In the past five years 18 people have been laid off from GDB. Right or wrong no employee had ever been laid off before. Before 2008, budgets were cut, some staff perks were cut, some positions and departments were realigned, and puppy raisers and breeder keepers were asked to shoulder more financial obligations to care for their charges, but no employee was simply eliminated in order to decrease staff size. When the first ten people were separated there was grumbling and concern, but in general, stakeholders felt that the programs would continue and thrive. However, with the latest staff reductions, programs and staff directly connected to consumers were dramatically affected. Well loved, trusted, and effective staff members were removed. Personal access to trusted staff was eliminated. Consumers were asked to trust a decision maker who had not established any kind of bond with them as he made changes those very consumers considered part of the fabric that made GDB better than ANY OTHER SCHOOL.

Also, it didn’t stop with the lay-offs. Two very senior staff members retired at a time many of us find suspicious at best. Terry Barrett and Don Frisk worked at GDB long after they might have retired simply because they loved their jobs and because they wanted to continue to make contributions.

I tell you that you will have a very hard time convincing consumers that the timing of these two retirements is a coincidence. In addition, at least one other training supervisor has quit and left the guide dog field completely.

Right or wrong, again, many of us find this additional departure not to be coincidental.

If all the “changes” aren’t enough Paul Lopez has further eroded consumer confidence in his leadership with what he has done concerning Guide Dogs for the Blind’s reputation and involvement in the international guide dog community by reducing the number of GDB certified assessors for the International Federation of Guide Dog Schools from four to one, all in the name of saving money. Previous administrations spent time and effort to move GDB into the 21st century including establishing relationships and connections which made our school one of the preeminent guide dog organizations in the world. Trainers came to consult with the GDB staff.

GDB experts helped insure that other schools throughout the world were held to high standards of excellence in all aspects of their operations. GDB could do this only because it is so large and staffed so well that it had the necessary expertise within its ranks. Even before the lay-offs three assessors working at GDB were told to withdraw from their IFGDS commitments which also mean that fewer individuals will attend International Federation meetings.

Guide Dogs for the Blind has lost the trust and confidence of much of its consumer base. I said earlier that due to my 9-11 experiences I am a highly visible guide dog user. I am contacted daily by GDB users who tell me they will not return to this organization for their next guide. I have been told by people who are in a position to know that staff is demoralized in ways never experienced before. I have spoken with past members of the board who tell me that they are angered and outraged at the way the organization is being run today. I am amazed that the board has not done anything visible to stem the tide of outrage and anger and that its only public position is that people simply do not know the internal issues and budgetary challenges which led to the decisions we now discuss. When I am asked my opinion and guidance I do not have positive encouragement I can offer because I have come to have the same views as others. I know I will be asked about the GDB issues when I attend the consumer National conventions this summer, and I do not have anything I can say with confidence that will alleviate consumer fears and concerns.

It is hard for me to write this letter. I love GDB, but I, like many, have no confidence in Paul Lopez and I am concerned that the board of directors has not done anything obvious either to show the value of Mr. Lopez’s decisions or to remove him as CEO. I call on the Guide Dogs for the Blind board of directors to take a vote of no confidence toward Paul Lopez and I call on the board to remove him as CEO and begin a search for a truly qualified replacement. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best,

Michael Hingson

I can definitely speak to the morale and Mr. Lopez’s lack of a presence. I never met the man…which was probably good since I just heard about the layoffs, and was holding back my pitbull teeth. He never was present the days we were on campus, and he didn’t attend our graduation. However, later, when a guide dog instructor who was under blindfold and her puppy had to be helped by their supervisor when a driver forgot the difference between forward and reverse and drove her car into a store window, then, oh then, I got an email from Mr. Lopez.

But whenever his name came up, the mood got quite dark universally. It was quite telling for me.

Plus, the way one of the directors of training treated me at the dinner table one night, i.e. seeming to not know how training was handled, backing her chair straight into my dog, storming off to talk to the instructors and then never speaking to me again, speaks to either the fact that she was stressed out of her mind, or didn’t have the foggiest clue how training was happening. If a director of training doesn’t know what’s going on, who else doesn’t?

And I don’t like to talk about attitude towards us, because sometimes when we pull that card without much proof, it comes across long. But I have noticed that bunches of brochures that used to be available in an electronic and accessible format are no longer available. What does that say about their respect for us and their attitude towards us? Are they empowering us, or are they simply “helping the needy”?

I am deeply disturbed that it doesn’t matter who I speak to, the feeling of uneasiness and dread about the way GDB is going is the same. Even when Mike Harris was running Ontario…into the ground…, there were some segments of the population who liked him. This isn’t true here.

So…if you feel the same way, please sign the petition and please write to the board. You’ll probably not hear a thing back, but at least you will have spoken. Here is the GDB board of directors page. There are no actual email addresses there, but here’s how they write it. They take the first letter of the first name and put it with the last name and finish it with @guidedogs.com. Knowing that, you *should* have everything you need to send them your feedback.

And now, after I have written this post, I feel like I’m warmed up to write my actual letter. Please do the same if you feel as I do. I know I can’t right as awesome a letter as Michael Hingson, but at least I can contribute to the deluge.

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