Be As Authentic As You Can: A Conversation with Jakob Klaus

October 25, 2023 – Approximate Read Time: ~16 minutes

Image by Eric Mclean on

This week, to close out the Tenacious Change 10th Anniversary Celebration we are looking ahead. Jakob Klaus joined Tenacious Change in 2021 as a consultant. In January of this year he became the Principal Partner of the consultancy, allowing his dad and founder, Tom Klaus, to take a step back to focus on content creation. However, until now, you’ve not heard from Jakob in his own words about how he came to Tenacious Change, what he brings, and his aspirations for the business. That changes today.

If you have missed out on our other 10th Anniversary blogs, you can find those at The Blog at our website.

You can either read the interview with Jakob here or you can watch a slightly longer version of it on YouTube by clicking on the image below.

I started out as a social worker at the ARC of Northern Virginia. Working at the ARC of Northern Virginia introduced me to the disability community and a lot of the issues and concerns that they have, as well as the power of empowering people who are historically disempowered to speak for themselves and advocate for their own needs. I continued working within the disability community as a social worker in Washington, DC which gave me a lot of experience managing large, complicated, and sometimes challenging teams of professionals, trying to get us all to the same decision point on some difficult personal issues involving children and families. Then I went to work with the State of Maryland working in disability services, doing adult protective services and investigations, mostly on financial crimes. In my role there, I became highly active with the local union, AFSCME Maryland. I had had a long interest in union organizing, in the power of unions and the power of workers being able to organize and advocate for ways to make their workplaces better and to also improve the service delivery systems for their agencies. So, I was highly active in that for about three years or so. I actually left the state to work with AFSCME. After doing some organizing with AFSCME and some representational work, I had the opportunity to come to Tenacious Change.

I don’t know if there is one experience that’s prepared me more than any of the others. I think my work with the disability community and the ARC was really a wonderful and humbling experience. It helped me to see that we need to listen to people no matter who they are or where they are in life or what disabilities they may have. A lot of the folks we worked with had intellectual and developmental disabilities. So as a graduate social worker, it was easy to come in with that knowledge and think, “Well, I know how the system works. I can navigate this just fine and I should be the one telling people what services they need or what’s going to be best for them.”

What I quickly saw was that working with folks who had different lived experiences than me, giving them the power to talk about those experiences, and having them be the face of self-advocacy movements, was way more powerful than any social work theory that I could use to explain how Virginia’s Medicaid system works or should work or, or should be improved. Recognition that the people that we’re helping or the populations that we’re serving possess a deeper knowledge of systems and situations than we do was really powerful.

This was reinforced when I went to work in DC working in child protective services and child welfare. There were several families that I worked with where their involvement in child welfare was generational. I might have a master’s degree in social work from a university, but they had a PhD in human services system from their experience. There were times when people were running in circles around me. I didn’t see what was coming until it was right on top of me. That was an interesting and a very humbling experience. It helped me see that the most important thing that you can do when you’re working with individuals and families is to just be as authentic as you can.

There were times when I may not have been the most therapeutic social worker, but I was certainly a very frank social worker. Sometimes the clients really appreciated that about me. Once I developed a reputation that I was not going to “BS” you, but be very straight with you, and if you were straight with me, then we could work together. That allowed a lot of cases to start moving forward.

There was one case, when a parent who was trying to get their child back home, had a history of substance abuse. We began to suspect that he had relapsed. We were asking questions and trying to figure out what was going on.

In the end, I just had to directly say, “Look, here’s the evidence that I have that shows that you’ve relapsed. I need you to be honest with me that you’ve relapsed, because if you’re not honest with me we can’t move forward with bringing your kid home. If you’re honest with me and you’ve relapsed, we can still work around that.” That was a good pivotal moment where the parent admitted, “Yeah, I’ve been having trouble.” We were able to move on then. In that experience, learning how to be compassionate, but direct with individuals was a real asset. I carried a lot of that forward into my organizing work. At AFSCME I was organizing in an area where there were about 3,000 state employees, in the western half of Maryland, one of the most Republican or conservative parts of the state.

AFSCME is known as being a Democratic establishment union. So, I was going there as this guy from the Baltimore area working for this liberal union, trying to convince correctional officers and highway workers, who most likely voted against every candidate we endorsed, that they should work with us as their union. What I found doing that was, again, just being able to as authentic as I could be. Being able to identify and respect each other’s boundaries was really important in building trust with those communities and helping us to move forward to address some issues that we needed to address. One of the really big issues that we had at the time was at a prison which was illegally targeting all of their correctional officers who were taking time off as part of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This is funny to think about it now, but this was a work site that was not a strong union work site. There weren’t really any shop stewards. The relationship with the warden and the administration was really bad. But we were able to work together to gather up the documentation that showed that the State was violating the Family Medical Leave Act. We were able to take that to the US Department of Labor and trigger a Department of Labor investigation of that work site. That resulted in about two dozen reprimands, suspensions being reversed, and people getting paid for weeks that they were suspended as retaliation for having used FMLA.

So, I think those past experiences helped prepare me for working with Tenacious Change because of our focus on the value of context experts in creating sustainable change within society, within their companies or organizations, and within their communities. A lot of what I saw over my last 15 years in social work was that change initiatives usually came from the top and went down, but they lasted only for as long as the person at the top was there to push them down. When that person left, the change initiative quickly petered out.

I’m an older Millennial. When I graduated college, it felt like the height of optimism. Barack Obama was running for president. We had our first Black president in US History. We felt like the world was going to be changing for the better. I, and a lot of other folks, went to work with nonprofit organizations and businesses focused on creating positive social change. But talking with my friends who have worked in nonprofits for a long time, one of our concerns is that nonprofits are so focused on their mission, they tend to forget the people who help them accomplish it.

That, in my view, leads to a lot of burnout among staff. I think going forward in the current context, following the COVID 19 pandemic and the fact that Millennials like me are no longer, you know, 22 but pushing 40, we are going to be more cynical of establishments and businesses. We are more assertive on our personal boundaries and needs, and what we need from companies. Going forward, what a lot of nonprofits and businesses are going to need to do is really invest in the people who work for them and realize that their staff is what helps them accomplish their missions. We’re no longer at the point where a company can say, “Oh, but you’re not doing this for the money, are you?” Well, yes, we are, and we’re also doing it to make the world better. Companies are going to need to step up. Nonprofits are going to need to step up if they want to be competitive, if they want to be able to thrive, if they want to be able to get the most dedicated, competent employees and staff to help them create the change that they say they want to create.

Tenacious Change can help these organizations using our Ownership-based approach to create sustainability and resilience. Looking at the trends of what employment looks like today; I think we need to recognize that turnover is a part of every company and every business. On average, employees leave within two to three years. And they typically leave when they either see it as the only way to get a pay raise or they’ve gone as far as they can go, and there’s no career ladder for them. I think we see the same kind of turnover with higher level executives as well. For example, my alma mater is on its fourth president in 15 years, and it’s going to be on its fifth after the next year. People are leaving within three to five years, which means that any program, initiative, or plan that a board of directors or leadership wants to put into place is going to need to rapidly become part of the culture of the organization. It’s going to need to fully saturate the organization and work its way all the way down and be owned by everyone. The way Tenacious Change can help these organizations is through our Ownership-based approach to creating organizational change and building organizational resilience.

I think one of our strengths as an organization is the relationships we have with a diverse group of consultants. Whether that’s our friends at Metrix Marketing or BRX Research or Serenity Communications, or some of the local businesses we’ve partnered with recently on RFPs. I think going forward we’re going to be engaging with more of our consulting partners, trying to bring a more diverse set of skills and abilities and individuals into our work with our clients. I would like to see Tenacious Change be able to expand its reach even further than where we are today. I would like for us to be able to go deeper into some of the areas where we’re currently at whether that’s with some of the nonprofit foundations that we’re working with, or even some of the local opportunities we’re pursuing in the Maryland area. In the last year, we put out the Tenacious Change Approach as an online course and that’s been available to individual users. It’s my hope that we can bundle that as an offering to businesses, too. That’s because one of the issues that we’ve always run into when doing training within organizations is what’s called encapsulation, where one individual may receive training and then they have to go back to their office or their unit or their program and try to disseminate that knowledge to others. Usually that is not successful, thus the name encapsulation. The knowledge gets stuck with that one person. By expanding the availability of the Tenacious Change Approach and offering multiple licenses in a business-to-business format we can help organizations truly empower senior leaders and program managers, and entry level staff even, to feel like they have ownership in the mission of their organization, and that they’re able to contribute in a meaningful way, seeing that contribution payout in positive dividends for them and their communities.

Creating a Change Movement is an introduction to the Tenacious Change Approach. It is designed to:

  • Shift key mindsets about community, organizational, and system change.
  • Introduce the principles and core tasks of creating an ownership-based change movement.
  • Improve and strengthen the current practice of people who are already engaged in community, organization, or system change work.
  • Establish a common language and understanding of key ideas and concepts for change makers who want to go deeper by enrolling in a team or organizational learning experience with Tenacious Change.

This is a 4-hour video-based course that includes 10 lessons and a downloadable, fillable journal to capture key ideas from the lessons. The reduced anniversary price is $160, a $235 savings over original price.

Today our move to Substack is complete! However, we will be maintaining our MailChimp account through December 2023. Beginning next week, November 1, we’ll focus on using our MailChimp account to redirect you to Change It Up! on Substack or to The Blog on our website.

Season 1, Episode 3 is now live! It is titled Barriers, Bears, and Gummy Bears – for reasons that will become apparent as you listen to it or watch it on YouTube.

In each episode, Lamar and Tom carve out a Third Space where everything can be on the table for open, straightforward, honest, and, yet kind and respectful, inquiry. Getting to Third Space with Lamar & Tom is now available on four podcast platforms: Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube Podcasts (if you want to watch them do the podcast).

We hope you’ll listen in or watch, offer comments and suggestions, share links with your friends and colleagues. Thank you in advance for doing all of that!

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