ACE-IT with Working Wardrobes: A Recap on the Workshop

Recently, the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking hosted two professional development workshops with service organization Working Wardrobes, in which the participants learned about the five ACE-IT attributes and how to solve organizational problems using the ACE-IT framework. Working Wardrobes’ mission is to “help men, women, young adults and veterans overcome difficult challenges so they can achieve the dignity of work, and the Power of a Paycheck”. In pursuit of this goal, the organization has been providing workforce readiness services, partnering with other organizations in the community, and engaging with different volunteers, clients, and partners. 

During the workshop, the Center’s founder Dr. Ernest J. Wilson and Executive Director Shellee Smith introduced the ACE-IT attributes—adaptability, cultural competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and 360-degree thinking—to the Working Wardrobe leaders and discussed how to use these essential skills to more effectively lead and manage change. After all, the organization is currently undergoing a new phase of adaptation.  After 30 years at the helm of Working Wardrobe, founder Jerri Rosen recently appointed Bonni Pomush, who has many years of experience in research, leadership, and strategy-development, as CEO. As the new leader of the service organization, Pomush is working to push Working Wardrobes even further. 

As part of the workshop, the participants took the Third-Space Thinking Assessment—developed with industrial and organizational psychologists—to help identify which attributes the organization were stronger in, and which ones have more room for improvement. The organization’s overall scores for cultural competence and empathy were especially high, which aligns with their objectives as a nonprofit organization that is comfortable with professional development. As Smith said in the workshop, “if it’s a core value for the organization, then you need to build it into the culture of the workplace”—and it seems Working Wardrobes has done precisely that.

Near the end of the workshop, the participants were posed with a challenge: using the ACE-IT methodology, figure out how to raise $100,000 from new sources for Working Wardrobes. The participants discussed the challenge in breakout rooms before reconvening and sharing their insights. One of the groups shared how each ACE-IT attribute contributed something to their solution. For example, through the lenses of empathy, they were able to recognize the importance of storytelling in reaching different audiences, and through the lenses of adaptability, they identified the significance of reflecting upon the people who have helped them in the past and what has added value to their organization. 

Another group zeroed in on the idea of connecting with survey donors, clients, community partners, and staff members. They emphasized the connections that can be built simply by asking people questions about their life experiences and passions and finding a common thread of shared experiences. This was elaborated upon by the third group, whose discussion revolved around empathy and cultural competency, which goes beyond awareness of race and ethnicities and encompasses an understanding of how the values, norms, and customs of organizations can differ. 

In a moving interpretation of donor culture, one participant shared that everyone likely knows someone who has been homeless, drug-addicted, alcohol-addicted, incarcerated, abused, unemployed or severely injured. Pointing out shared experiences can initiate an emotional connection between members of the organization and donors and eventually help the organization garner the necessary funds to help people move forward. Like Dr. Wilson says, Working Wardrobes is “one third salesperson, one third social worker, and one third good, sincere, listeners”. As such, this narrative appropriately encapsulates the heterogeneous nature and unique identity of the organization.

At the end of the discussion, participants identified curiosity as an especially critical attribute to approaching challenges like this one. One participant noted: “we talk about being change-makers, and I think being curious about what other people in the organization are doing or how they do it can really impact how we do our jobs and can, as a collective, do better”. Ultimately, the challenge seemed to pull all the ACE-IT attributes together for the Working Wardrobes team, and they all acknowledged how the ACE-IT model will be helpful in the face of future challenges and opportunities.