Leadership

Could Your Staff Agenda Use a Reset?

By / Jan 13, 2019 (ampols/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

With changes in industries happening ever more rapidly, associations will have to ask how staffs should best do their work. Bringing the question directly to staff is a good first step.

Many associations have what’s called a zero-based committee structure. Except for the keep-the-lights-on stuff of, say, executive and finance committees, the group otherwise starts the year fresh. The board determines what’s essential and builds a new committee structure around that.

What if you tried it in the office?

Organizations try all sorts of methods to break down silos and spark new ideas, but the challenge remains.

I don’t mean that CEOs should summarily fire their staffs and ask them to compete for their jobs again every year. That’s a miserable way of going about things even in a gig-economy world, and it does no favors for an association competing for talent. But there’s something to be said for prompting department leaders to reset their agendas and think more deeply about the purpose of what they’re doing to better explore ways of doing things differently.

Velvet Chainsaw Consulting’s Jeff Hurt spoke to this issue recently by challenging organizations to get out of their departmental ruts. His focus is on education and meetings, but his thoughts on the matter are meaningful across all parts of an association.

“Avoid the deceptive thought that your next conference can be planned the exact way you planned the past one,” he writes in “Becoming a New Normal Leader.” “Sidestep the trap that your customers—your target market—will always attend your programs, buy your services, and shout your merits from the rooftops.”

When you prompt your organization to think differently, Hurt suggests, you’re starting to get on the path of thinking holistically, designing your mix of products and services to integrate well, and keeping members from wondering if your right hand knows what your left is doing.

If only it were that simple, of course. Organizations try all sorts of methods to break down silos and spark new ideas, but the challenge remains. Zander Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey, recently wrote in Harvard Business Review about his efforts to encourage a “culture of curiosity” in the company that can stoke rethinking. “Enhancing this quality doesn’t happen organically—you have to approach it deliberately,” he writes.

Some of the methods Lurie discusses strike me as admirable enough but fairly rote: All-staff meetings, recognition programs, outside speakers, and Slack channels are all nice to have, but perhaps only for those on staff who find them valuable. And only if those employees sense that their provocative questions and suggestions are actually taken seriously, if not acted on. Those methods are all passive; employees can engage or not. That’s fine, but none dare call it group cohesion, let alone a “culture of curiosity.”

Better, I think, are the initiatives where Lurie takes the matter directly to his staff.

“To foster a culture where questions are welcome, I need to show that I’m open to asking and answering them,” he writes. “I do that through regular skip-level meetings with people one level below my direct reports, where the conversation is open and nothing is off-limits.” And an internal hackathon the company hosted helped it identify some best practices in survey work that the company could then pass on to its users. Keeping the door open in that way—or, more precisely, knocking on it—can surface the ideas that can help improve the organization.

For associations, making this kind of curiosity work means listening to members as well as staffers. Last week, my colleague Tim Ebner wrote about the Brewers Association’s recent retooling of its definition of membership, which involved a lot of big conversations about what the organization is for and who it’s serving. As part of that, the membership was invited to participate in a comment period. This gathering of  feedback was something the association had neglected to do during a previous change in structure.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the importance of different ideas in your organization; the critical thing is to take the next step, be transparent, and actively solicit them.

What do you do in your organization to encourage departments to share feedback and present new ideas? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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