Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo: Petr Poliak
Zuzana Baudyšová, the founder and the director of Nadace Naše dítě (Our Child Foundation), explains the ins and outs of managing a team that may have to deal with 2,000 desperate phone calls a day.
What does the Our Child Foundation do, and what kind of problems do you most often deal with?
Protecting children in critical life situations. The Help Line civic association is firmly connected with the foundation. The line is there not only for mistreated and abused children, it also serves as a replacement for parental attention. These days of booming business and opportunities for personal realization are hard on the children.
Children are most bothered by the lack of communication and situations when their “packs” – their families – break down when their parents split up. An extension of the Help Line is the Crisis Center, where we deal with children face to face, but there are lots of other things we do. Last year we established the Parents’ Line, and we consistently defend children’s rights as defined in the Treaty on Children’s rights.
How many workers do you manage, and how do you select them?
The foundation has only four employees, but a team of about 130 people works on the Help Line and in the Crisis Center, including external consultants. Both organizations have managers with whom I maintain daily contact. We are a large group of mainly young people, and we have a lot of turnover, as they study, travel, and build up their own families.
We often recruit for new specialists. I personally look for people who have recommendations as well as all the prerequisites. A person’s character appears only when critical situations arise at work, so when selecting people I also consider whether the job applicant sees things as we do, in order to be compatible with the whole team. For my Help Line colleagues it’s absolutely necessary for them to be over 20, to be high school graduates, to be interested in listening to children, and to successfully go through the interviews and specialized training.
What traits in your people do you place greatest emphasis on?
I prefer working with open people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds, but they have to know the limits – they have to be considerate of others. Too much self-assertion is not appropriate. We have to take a psychological approach, not only to the children, but also to the sponsors and the media. Every sponsor is different and expects something different from working with us. Help Line consultants must be able to listen to the children and, through proper communication, lead them to the right solution. They should be strong, because when people listen all day to children’s problems and tragedies, there is an ever-present danger of burn-out. We try to ensure that our employees go home without taking their cares with them, so we allow them to discuss their concerns or experiences with more experienced colleagues from the core team after work.
Psychologists have solutions for every problem. Do they ever disagree, so that you have to get involved in their interpersonal relationships?
Naturally. It might seem that open dialogue should pose no problem for Help Line colleagues who have gone through lots of training focusing on communication. Unfortunately that is not the case, and I regret that even in the core team we aren’t always able to speak our minds openly. A problem should be stated at the right time, in the right place, because, among other things, intrigues and slander draw off energy meant for work.
Once we had a person who was secretly stifling us, but we didn’t know how to counteract it. Each of us filled in a questionnaire in which we expressed our reasons for not communicating better and who we thought the culprit was. Everything pointed to one person. I passed on the questionnaire results to him and asked him to resign to preserve our team’s good atmosphere.
What kind of boss are you, and what should an ideal manager be like?
I try not to be authoritarian, instead I try to ensure that we arrive at the same opinion. If I give my people an order and they don’t identify with it, the result will reflect that. What makes a team is willingness to reach agreement. However, sometimes I get into situations when I have to force through my opinion regardless of others, and then I’m uncompromising – I let them deal with it themselves. I always try to emphasize individual responsibility, since team responsibility is very opaque. An ideal leader should be highly professional and humane, so that the team can respect him or her.
During the foundation’s nine years of existence, you’ve had a chance to test your leadership abilities. Which management tactics have proven valid for you?
I think setting an example is the best. Many people tell me that I could work only part-time, but I always have to go all out. The boss and the team are part of a whole, and if I slow down, everyone will. In the end, I wouldn’t even be able to reprehend anyone for not being fully involved, for not breaking the trail but rather following the pack. But I must admit that I would never work so hard if I weren’t working for the children.
Even a team made up of strong personalities like psychologists should be cohesive. What kinds of situations improve team cohesiveness?
There are lots of them. Sometimes someone has unkind words for us, and we immediately close ranks before the foe. We are even more tightly knit when we’re trying to save a child. If a child eats a lot of pills in a crisis and calls from a telephone booth somewhere and speaks more and more slowly, we know the situation is grim. That’s the time for teamwork – we must act quickly, tactfully, and professionally to determine the source of the call, and then use another telephone to call a rescue ambulance. We have had hundred of such experiences in nearly eight years of uninterrupted work, and there’s no beating the great happiness of a job well done.