Fear not. Now is the time to invest.

“We will not be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities and the new needs of our communities if we are not using this time to prepare.” Republic Square, Yerevan (Photo: Tony Bowden/Flickr)

On numerous occasions, we have discussed the critical differentiator of leaders—the ability to define and articulate a vision. It is a vision that creates followers and energizes a community to take action. It separates mere talk from results. So here we are. The Armenian community in the American diaspora is essentially closed—no social events, no participative church services, no dances, weddings or sadly, public funerals. Our greatest attribute as a culture—our gregarious social skills—have been shuttered for the time being. Most of the community groups are making noble efforts to carry on. This is admirable and appreciated as the majority of our community in the form of families and individuals wait for that day when a significant part of their lives will return. Divine Liturgy, schools, bazaars, lectures, networking socials, dances and cultural events—when will they return? How will they return? For most of us, these months in the Armenian community are a giant pause. It is similar to when we will hit the hold button on our remote. The movie stops, and it resumes where we left off after our break. The only difference now is we didn’t ask for the pause. Not all of us, however, can simply stay put and wait this out. Some of us have a greater responsibility and must use this time to prepare for an even more significant “reopening.” Our leaders cannot afford to simply wait for the movie to start again. Leaders do not have the luxury of the vast majority. They have a responsibility to always stay ahead with creativity and innovation. Those who follow deserve no less.

Truly great organizations and institutions have a view of challenging times that separates them from the vast majority. Most of us see a crisis as a time of despair and inward thinking. The instinct is survival and very low risk taking. The few who blossom during these times do not see a depression but an opportunity. They don’t divest; they invest. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am not referring to medical or social risk. It is our responsibility, in that regard, to follow and contribute to the solution. The question is, what is our post-virus vision and how do we prepare? Is it simply idle time while waiting? How should our Armenian community prepare for the “reopening”?

In the private sector, great institutions have the vision and leadership to expand or prepare to expand when the markets recover from a crisis. They don’t “run from the fire,” but they prepare for when the fire is out. They see an even greater opportunity than before the catastrophe, but it requires the creativity to see it and the will to invest. When that day returns, those few are well-positioned to become even more successful because while others were waiting, they were preparing. This is the definition of sustainability.

There are parallels to be drawn between organizational behavior and our Armenian community. We should be preparing for the opportunity created by the end of the “Great Pause.” Let’s not waste time debating when it will happen but rather what we want it to be. There are two major opportunities before us. First, we should anticipate the “pent up” demand for what our communities offer. People will miss communal worship, public lectures, social events and culture. In the short term, at least, this is a challenge for “business not as usual.” The other is that our people will have an even greater need to be inspired and for their identity to be nurtured. As they say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

This past week I read a press release from the Diocese that was both upsetting and depressing. The announcement stated that based on revenue reduction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Diocese would furlough some members of the staff and reduce the salary of those remaining. In my view, this is exactly what we should not be doing. We have three choices during these difficult times: invest, hold neutral and divest. The last option is the least desirable. I am sure I am not alone with the many questions that came to mind when I read this release. On the expense side, have we cut all non-people-related costs first? On the income side, what about borrowing from the endowment fund of the Diocese until this window passes? What about private benefactors who are very generous when it comes to a number of other projects in the Diocese? Is the Diocese in that much trouble that it needs to cut staff and salary levels? Finally, was there an attempt to reach out to the faithful in a GoFundMe campaign specifically to fund the gap? I understand that general giving campaigns like GivingTuesday exist, but we all know that it is human nature to respond more favorably with campaigns for specific issues.

Unfortunately, once again we are left to speculate and internalize our frustration as no details were provided. In my 35+ years in corporate life and management, there is nothing more devastating to an organization than decisions that impact employees. They are clearly the most important asset of any functioning institution. They are the idea generators, the boots on the ground and the face to the customer, or in this case the faithful of the Diocese. Many of the diocesan staff work there with personal sacrifice. Cost of living is high, commuting is difficult and compensation is modest. They do it because it is more than a job as it is in many Armenian organizations. They are vested in the mission. At a time when we should be planning expansion and a “re-entry,” we are reducing the base. For those who are furloughed, how many will wait and how many will simply move on? For those subjected to salary reduction, how will they view the organization going forward as many of them work hours well beyond what is expected? Have we so little confidence in our future that we retract with the first sign of difficulty? I am not minimizing the financial problems, but if an institution like the Diocese flinches when it has a cadre of benefactors, thousands of adherents and millions in endowment assets, we should be concerned about our direction. Armenian institutions have a greater calling than short term fiscal “discipline.” I was told many years ago by a wise man that if we are doing the work of our Lord, then we should be faithfully committed to the mission and not fear financials. Worrying about money is a good way to distract us from the mission. Financials are a barometer of how well our constituency thinks we are doing. Sometimes making a decision with the long term in mind is wise. Trust the mission.

The Diocese is not alone in this dilemma. Every organization in our community has lost revenue and faces some level of uncertainty. Investment in our future is more than spending money. It pertains to how the leadership chooses to spend its time. I think we all know that this school year is over and that summer will be more uneventful than usual. Okay, fine. We all should be brainstorming, planning and preparing for how we will re-engage when that time arrives. One thing is clear. We will not be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities and the new needs of our communities if we are not using this time to prepare.

When you look into the future what do you see? Whether you lead the church or an organization like AGBU, NAASR, ARS or AIWA, what are those opportunities and are you preparing for them? This is a time for bold, decisive and visionary leadership. If that is where you are, then you (collectively) will reap the benefits and our nation thanks you. If you are in “low power mode” and simply waiting to “turn the lights back on,” please consider a different approach. That day, when it arrives, will not be a continuation of pre-COVID-19 times. There will be new rules, new needs, new appetites for identity and new opportunities. The diaspora needs its institutions to be opportunistic and forward thinking, not reactive and passive. Consider this commentary as a mirror for all of us. All of our leaders have the opportunity to hold it up and analyze the reflection. How do you assess your readiness? Where do you need to adjust to prepare for the new day? This time of pause is a great opportunity to reassess our direction, make the appropriate adjustments and be prepared to provide even greater service to our communities. Invest in the future.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

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