Getting your staff and organization to think from the outside-in
In a recent workshop with association CEOs, and in my interview with executives in the last two years, a recurring concern emerged: how to develop staff/senior teams. The consensus was that most staff knew little about members as whole persons. They lacked abilities for “reading” emotional needs and behavior; connecting on an authentic level; thinking from the stakeholders’ perspective; identifying, anticipating and acting on unarticulated expectations and needs. Most CEOs agreed on the need for staff that was intellectually curious, capable of thinking strategically, probing beneath the surface and innovating beyond business as usual; willing to take initiative and play a part in moving the organization forward.
There were five challenges these CEOs considered major liabilities and hurdles to growth. How many of them do you share?
- Intellectual and cultural “disconnect.” Being lonely at the top is a cliché that, like other worn and scorned clichés, expressed an important truth. It wasn’t that staff didn’t share the values of the association or the goals of the CEOs– many, if not most, did at least in principle. Yet they lacked depth of market foresight and customer insight; the ability to anticipate needs, “read” human behavior, make connections between disparate pieces and keep an eye on the big picture.
- Fragmentation. Silos kept people from different departments and on different levels from sharing experiences and jointly arriving at new insights. Most staff were immersed in narrow, operational details, without opportunities for linking them to the big picture or collaborating with others across the organization. The problem is that people don’t get on the same page merely through intent, intellectual agreement or even the sharing of information. Shifting from silos to integrated teams requires joint learning experiences, sharing and applying lessons learned and collaborative problem-solving. Yet it was difficult to extricate staff roles from silos since most organizations’ architectures and ways of doing business were still hierarchical.
- Lack of time emerged as a major gap. How could one change culture and bring the organization to the same page –let alone innovate– without time to reflect and explore ideas and possibilities with others? Most CEOs saw themselves trapped in cultures of busy work and deadlines. How could they extricate their organizations from the pull of operational details and crises and still get business done?
- Lack of energy and curiosity: For any organization to grow and innovate in this customer-driven environment, staff must be energetic, motivated and curious. They should be eager to probe beneath the surface and understand what makes members/customers/stakeholders “tick” at any given moment. They should be alert to members’ deep-seated needs and emotions, before these members were even aware of them; and able to identify new opportunities even when these looked nothing like the familiar opportunities of the past. Most CEOs agreed, however, that they were in a quandary. How could staff think from the outside- in, when their roles limited them to spending all their time on the inside, consumed with internal operations and priorities?
- Narrow definition of value and customers. What do you do when the numbers of your non-member followers on Twitter or Facebook exceed those of your official members? Or when members and non-members create their own vibrant, Linked-In communities that they utilize far more extensively than they do your own programs and services? In most cases, associations either ignore non-member followers or try to sell them membership. In other cases, they choose to compete with member-driven communities, even attempting to close them, in the erroneous assumption that these actions would drive community members to the association. In all cases, valuable customers/stakeholders are lost because they cannot be accommodated within existing definitions of “customer” and ways of delivering value. The question that many forward CEOs pose is how to expand the definition of whom they serve; tap and provide value to these stakeholders outside the confines of “business as usual.” How can they connect with customers where they, and not their association, live?
Best Ideas for solutions
I cite four ideas in particular that surfaced in discussions because they attack root causes rather than symptom,s and point to organizational re-alignments rather than band-aid solutions.
- Get staff out of the office—representing the association, visiting members at their sites, exploring opportunities, collaborating with external parties, etc.
- Make interviews, participant observation and other types of in-depth conversations with members the go to tool for understanding members/customers and part of everyone’s responsibilities
- Streamline operational concerns and re-order priorities so that time and space for strategic thinking and joint learning are institutionalized—part of the fabric of daily business
- Adopt more flexible, distributed leadership roles allowing opportunities for innovation and decision-making across the organization
Developing staff and cultures is not a matter of imparting information or instituting special “activities.” They are the outcomes of cultures of on-going learning and experimentation.
Cultural and organizational re-alignment does not involve only staff or one level of staff or one area of the organization. It is not a matter of “fixing” subordinates to rise to the level of the perceived superiority that the CEO represents.
They require environments in which decisions are made on the basis of continuous learning from results. They require humility, curiosity and openness to constant recalibration and transformation from everyone in the organization–from the CEO down .