Alex Busansky, President of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency


Alex Busansky, President of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

Alex Busansky, President of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

Alex Busansky, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, discusses his approach to leadership and innovation.

What role does risk-taking play in your leadership style?

Risk-taking is very important, but we have to first decide what risk-taking means. Taking my entire annual budget and putting it on number 22 in Las Vegas would constitute risk-taking, but it is not an appropriate or legitimate risk to take. For me, risk-taking is trying to do something in a way that has not been done before, such as conducting original research or trying to reshape the conversation about a particular topic. The risk is that you’re breaking away from the past. It doesn’t mean that you have to risk your organization’s fortune, but there may be other costs: your professional or organizational standing or missed opportunities for other funding. Risk is important but I don’t think organizations have to risk everything every day.

Do you think the criminal justice system is good at taking risks?
The criminal justice system is generally risk averse and tends to be lacking in innovation. The upside to this is that it creates a great opportunity for those who are innovating to help move the field forward. Of course, you can’t move the field all at once in every jurisdiction, but you can start to test good ideas. As part of this process, we should be paying attention to the whole host of ways that we’ve failed and to learn from those failures. We also have to be honest about what isn’t working.  Too often, we keep on making the same mistake over and over again.

Are there institutional factors that can encourage or discourage risk-taking?
Your ability to take risks is shaped by your position and whose interests your role is serving. In the public sector, your boss is not one person; it’s a big institution that is difficult to change. If you’re a political appointee or in office for a limited period of time, there may be other factors shaping the interests you’ll pursue. I’ve worked in both the public and private sectors. I started out as an Assistant District Attorney under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, then was at the U.S. Department of Justice under Janet Reno. Ultimately, I moved over to the Vera Institute of Justice when they opened their DC office, which in turn led me to become the President of NCCD. What I’ve seen throughout those roles is that governments are pretty cautious institutions. Their culture is generally not one that gives authority to their staff to do things differently, whereas smaller non-profits have much more flexibility.

What would you say is the greatest challenge facing non-profit leaders?
That’s easy: funding. Most non-profits start out every fiscal year anew. There might be some rollover grants, but generally they have to start their funding cycle again. They rarely have reserve funds or an endowment. So their task is to come up with ideas that they can sell to foundations and government funders. Through this process, you give up some ability to create and control your own destiny. When I talk to people in my world, everybody can tell you about the few great ideas they would have loved to try, but they couldn’t secure the funding. Those ideas, whether they were truly good ideas or not, often are never realized.

Do you think that non-profits require unique leadership traits?
Just because funding is the biggest challenge doesn’t mean that knowing how to address it is the most important quality to have as a leader. The most important quality a leader can cultivate to empower talented people with values that support smart risk-taking and innovation.

How do you encourage risk-taking among staff?
I think the key to encouraging staff to do anything—including taking risks—is to value them. Valuing staff means that you listen to their needs. Do they need to work from home sometimes? Do they need a better computer to help them work more effectively?  Do they need colleagues with different skills? By creating a space for staff to talk about what matters to them, I’m better able to give their voices life. It doesn’t mean that everybody is given the same time and the same opportunities to talk and move their ideas forward. We ask: what matters to you? What do you want to do? Who should we partner with? How does that fit with other things we have going on? If I limit the conversation to my ideas, I’ve limited the possibility of having more great ideas.

What qualities do you look for when hiring new staff?
Some of the best people I’ve ever hired, I walked away after the interview thinking, “Wow, I learned something in that conversation. That was really interesting.” To find those individuals, I cast a wide a net to capture as many qualified and interesting candidates as possible. I think an important part of an organization like ours is to ensure diversity—not just ethnic diversity, but also people who have a unique work background, people who are smart in ways we might not usually value.  For example, the person who runs our technology group has a PhD in education—not who you might expect to be in charge of technology within a social justice organization. Ultimately, the staff who appeal to me most are those who are going to engage in the work and seem interested in engaging with their colleagues. If all you do is go back to your cubicle and do your work, it may be brilliant work, but it will be limited.

How would you summarize your role as a manager?
To get the most accurate description of my leadership style, you would probably need to ask the people who work with me. But I can tell you that I’m not a micro-manager. A lot of people in my position are and both can be successful management styles if you have the right staff. A micro-manager will be unsuccessful with someone who doesn’t like to be micromanaged. Someone once said to me: there’s no such thing as great parents, just parents who got the right kid. If your kid loves sports, and you do too, great; you have a lot to talk about. If they love sports and you don’t, you have an issue. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the wrong match. Similarly, there are organizational matches. I see my job as helping give people the support they need to be successful. Part of that is putting people in positions where they’ll succeed. You have to set goals for people and give them a roadmap of the expectations. That works for 80% of the organization. 

When coming into a new agency, what do you do with staff you’ve inherited from the previous administration?
There’s a perception that the new leader coming in will have issues with the existing staff. ‘They’re not my people, how can I trust them? They’re only going to want to do what the old boss wanted to do.’ But I think that perception is overstated. Even though you had no say in who the existing staff are, if you’re coming into a relatively successful organization, most of the staff are really good. I took over NCCD 15 months ago and almost all of the staff that was here then are still with NCCD and will hopefully stay a long, long time. Unless you’re really changing the organization, most of the staff will be fine, as long as they do good work and understand that you will value quality.

What do you think are the important first steps when transitioning into a new agency?
When I came to NCCD, my first task was to listen. Unless you’re coming into a failing organization that’s on the brink of bankruptcy, you need to listen to the people and figure out what’s going on—what’s working and what’s not. The existing staff are the people who are going to build the organization with you. In the first six months, I spent a lot of time connecting with as many people as possible all across the organization – and we are spread out across the country. I had met some of them during the interview process, but once you become the boss, it’s important to have a different kind of conversation. I wanted to get to know the Board and find out who they are and what their interests are. I also asked around among people outside the organization: what’s the perception of NCCD? The main thing that came out of that initial listening effort was a push for what I call the One Campaign, which focused on communication, collaboration and cooperation organization-wide– three values I hold dearly. I had seen the staff’s hunger to connect with one another. Smart talented people want to talk to other smart talented people, to trade stories and ideas, and to see each other’s work.

Are there lessons you’ve learned about how to ease the transition as an incoming leader?
When you’re interviewing for a job like this, it’s as much about you interviewing them as them interviewing you. You should be getting to know the people, but also the management structure, the financial books, and the programmatic forecast. When do current projects end – the day after you show up or 6 months later? Who’s going to keep everybody busy after that? Funding is so critical, and in a transition, there will be a temporary drop-off in funding. Make sure you understand the financial implications of your coming in. Also investigate whether there is money to make the changes you anticipate wanting to make—revamp the website, update the computers—or will you have to go raise that money first?

Are there ways that an outgoing leader can help to ensure a smooth transition?
Building a healthy organization makes any transition – whether planned or not – easier. Wherever I am, I want to establish a culture where staff are valued and well-networked with our partners and funders. On our old website, it was hard to find what staff really did and why you, as a consumer of our work, should engage with them. On our new site, we have bios and photos. People are stars in their own right.  A specific focus of this approach is that funders will have relationships with people other than me. So if I’m here or not, it’s not the end of the world. I aim to develop a communications platform that is strong so that it doesn’t all have to hinge on me. I think when you value and respect your staff, the organization becomes less dependent on the President. Sure, I have a vision and a viewpoint, but that shouldn’t be the entire foundation of the organization and its success. We know those organizations where there is almost a cult around the leader– they exist – and many are successful. But for me, the goal is to build a framework where any person who engages us will have a very good idea of who we are and why we do what we do.

Do you think the next generation of criminal justice leaders will require a new set of qualities or skills?
There’s something that’s totally situational and in the moment about being a good leader, but I also think there’s something timeless about good leadership. Thinking of what future leaders of NCCD might look like, someone else is going to do a different kind of job than I would. Maybe they love going out and talking to people; maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re more interested in a different part of the criminal justice system than I am. But as long as the mission and values remain the North stars, the organization will always survive any successful leadership transition—changing and growing along the way. If you could take a snapshot of NCCD every 10 years since we were founded, I think you’d see that the organization has stayed true to a set of values. There’s a solid core that runs through our 105 years of operation.

What advice would you give to a young professional who wants to end up in your current role one day? 
Follow your passions and ask yourself the right questions about the choices you’re making.  Who do you want to be one day?  If you want to go to law school or get a PhD, why? We spend so much of our lives worrying about making the “right” choices that we forget to make the ones that matter the most.  Work can be hard.  There is a reason they call it work.  Make sure to find something you love to do because you will be doing lots of it. 

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