At the American Society for Association Executive (ASAE)’s At Work conference in early October, I facilitated a session on cultivating a healthy organizational culture. When asked what they associated with the term organizational culture, participants had lots of responses. Values, communications, hierarchy and energy were mentioned most frequently. The word cloud to the left summarizes the variety of responses.
Organizational culture, as defined by Edgar Schein, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
While there are visible parts of culture such as dress code, the organization’s mission, work environment, policies and procedures and strategic statements, most of culture in implicit and not readily visible. It has to be learned. This could be through story and conversation or more powerfully by making mistakes that break unspoken rules and assumptions.
One organizational culture model
Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture inventory is a commonly used organizational assessment that uncovers an organization’s cultural style. They group cultures in three styles, including constructive, passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive. A constructive culture, in their model, supports achievement, self-actualization and encourages people within the organization to work cooperatively with each other. A passive/defensive culture encourages people to follow the rules, values dependability, solutions tend to be conventional and conflict is avoided. An aggressive/defensive style values people who vie for status and influence by challenging each other, by taking charge and compete with each other. This style also tends to celebrate perfectionism and long hours. Of these three styles, the constructive style (not surprising considering its name!) is the healthiest culture and is most closely correlated with deeper employee engagement and better organizational results.
What do healthy organizations do differently?
Having used this assessment with many of her nonprofit clients, Dr. Elizabeth Scott researched what nonprofit organizations that have a healthy culture do differently than their peers with less healthy organizational cultures. She found that these organizations take distinctive action in two major areas – people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some specific actions that they take include infusing fun into their work, focusing on self-care and work-life balance and empowering staff to carry out the mission on their own. In terms of their human resources practices, they see human resources staff as a partner, they engage in careful hiring, onboarding as well as off boarding when needed. They provide ongoing training and regular feedback and place an emphasis on teamwork.
Cultivating a healthy culture
I asked participants in the session what their organization was doing in the areas of people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some current steps in people practices that people mentioned include new employee welcome and mentoring program, a new idea generation group that meet regularly, every other Friday off, employee engagement surveys and committees, staff retreats and telecommuting options. For encouraging employee well being, people mentioned fun committees, culture committees, book groups, gym reimbursement, movie day and other wellness initiatives.
Intention & leadership support
What I appreciate about most of these ideas is that for the most part they are not costly. What they require is intention and support from leadership. Support for people to take the time to come together and plan fun activities as well as the time and permission within the culture for people to participate.
That permission is key. I have seen organization that have tried some of these things – putting a foosball table and other board games in the lunch room for example. Yet the culture valued quiet and the CEO was known to publically question people when they took a break. So very few people used the foosball table or the games because it went against both unspoken and spoken ‘rules” within the culture. Other examples include organizations that have elaborate telecommuting policies or flexible leave policies that few take advantage of because face time and being seen in the office is highly valued.
What of these ideas could your organization try? And if you do – how will you make sure people know they really have permission to engage! Does your organization’s culture need some attention? Inquire about a coaching call.
Staff turnover is usually described in terms of its costs. The loss of institutional knowledge. The time and energy it takes to find a replacement. The burden on those who are left behind who have to take on urgent tasks while juggling the rest of their responsibilities. Yet when someone leaves creating a vacancy on your team, you can use this moment as an opportunity.
Look before you jump
You may be tempted to hurry into the hiring process, dusting off the old job description and posting to every place you can think of. Instead take a breath and a moment to think about what has changed since the person who had been in the role started.
What’s different now?
Start by asking yourself and your team a few questions. How has the role morphed to fit the departing person’s particular skills and talents? Are there aspects of the role that someone on your team would be excited to take over? What would they trade for these new responsibilities? What else has changed? Within your organization? With the constituents you serve? The wider political, economic or social environment?
Get the team involved
Use it as an opportunity to even reimagine everyone’s role on your team. Rather than simply doing this reorganization yourself, involve your team in the discussion. This will make it more likely that they will embrace any new role that is created. One way to do this is to have a conversation with each team member. Find out what skills and talents they want to develop and what new responsibilities they see themselves taking on, as well as what responsibilities they feel like they have outgrown.
Create a responsibility wall
This type of reshuffle will likely create a bit of a domino effect. Each person on your team will likely be impacted in some way. Another way to involve the team in reimagining the distribution of responsibilities is to create a map of your team’s work. Ask each team member to write their major tasks on post its (using the one task per post it rule). Consider assigning each team member a color. Put them up on a wall. You will likely notice that team members are doing similar work that they may not have realized. How could the tasks be clustered differently than you are doing now? Are there natural groupings that you did not realize before? Do you have good alignment with each team member’s strengths? Before diving in, decide whether there are any non-negotiables that should not be put on the table – or the wall in this case. Set your ground rules of what is in bounds and what is not up for grabs.
Want to be in the conversation that results in this reimagining instead of facilitating it? Inquire about a coaching session and we can talk about how I can help.
Sustainable nonprofit organizations stay strong by paying attention to five key areas – vision, mission and strategy, leadership, communicating value, revenue generation, and engaging stakeholders.
Organizations that fail often are tripped up by trouble in one or more of these areas. They allow mission-creep. They fail to generate sufficient unrestricted income to support the on going operation of the organization as well as new initiatives. They fail to tell a compelling story of the work they are doing and the impact it is having. Their leadership becomes insular and stops engaging with stakeholders, often assuming they already have a good sense of their needs and wants.
Vision, mission and strategy
A compelling vision of how the world will be different because of your work is not enough if you do not couple it with specific strategies to achieve that vision. Organizations are stronger when they invest the time and energy into periodic strategic planning – taking a step back to assess their current state and set a limited set of goals for a three or five year period. But this is also not sufficient. Those larger goals then need to be translated into the organization’s annual work plan. Both volunteer and staff work needs to be tied to achieving those larger goals. Those work plan goals are ideally “SMART” – specific, measurable, assignable, relevant and time bound.
The organization’s long-term health is best served when there is shared leadership between the staff leadership and board. An organizational leadership who discusses strategic issues, has clear goals that they are aiming for and makes sure that they have access to good information and data when making decisions positions the organization for success. A key role of leadership is also to ensure that staff has access to the tools and resources they need to effectively do their jobs.
Becoming internally focused is a mistake that is very easy for organizations to slip into when confronted by the rush of the urgent. There is a creative tension between your leadership holding your vision and setting strategic direction and ensuring that you are also engaging with the constituents you serve. Taking the time to see the world from their vantage point and understanding their needs and their pain points. Without this, the organization may waste time and resources creating programs and services that are not relevant to the constituents they aim to serve.
A truism in the nonprofit sector is “no money, no mission.” This saying reminds organizations that they will not be able to pursue their mission for long with no resources. While a nonprofit does not pay dividends to share holders, it can have programs that are profitable. It can – and should -- be profitable – or have net assets in nonprofit accounting language at the end of the year. An organization with a break-even will constantly struggle to remain financially viable. Leadership needs to understand the organization’s business model, including its revenue engine. What is the mix of revenue sources – both traditional fundraising and earned income that build the organization’s capacity over time? Relying solely on grants endangers organizations because most often those funds are restricted to a specific purpose. They support (and create) work but do not necessarily support the organization overall.
To raise funds from individuals and from organizations, organizational leaders need to be able to effectively communicate the value that the organization produces. What are the compelling stories that demonstrate your impact? Have you defined how you achieve your impact, including the outcomes of your work? Are you measuring that impact so that you can demonstrate the change you are affecting?
Use this Organizational Sustainability Assessment tool to see where your organization is strong and what needs attention.
Would you like to talk more about how this applies to your organization? Inquire about a free coaching session.
A small organization called for strategic planning help. They had once been staffed but had gone through a series of crises. If there were a nonprofit soap opera, they could have starred. Their long time executive director and founder died. The board, used to the founder taking care of everything, was disengaged. They were hit by a lawsuit. The caretaker for one of the properties they owned was dealing drugs from the property.
Cleaning up the mess
A motivated board chair stepped into clean up the mess. She made great strides.
They were just emerging from these series of events and getting themselves back on their feet, when she called to engage in consulting.
We were able to design a process that was useful for the board and the organization. Through conversations with internal and external stakeholders, we were able to get a clear picture of the organization's strengths, perceptions of it in the community and the level of commitment of the board. I designed and facilitated a one-day retreat for the board where they were able to make some important short-term strategic decisions.
When the time is right
They were not ready, however, for engaging in strategic planning. They were out of utter crisis mode but not completely. The organization’s future was still tenuous and the board’s commitment to do what it would take to turn it around was not clear. Thus trying to engage in a longer-range visioning process just was not called for.
Our brains in crisis
When we are faced with a threat or a crisis, our vision and thinking narrows. Our brain does this to help us focus on the most immediate challenge. The threat does not need to be a saber tooth tiger. Our brain reacts to social threats in the same way as a physical threat. Thus a threatened brain is literally fixated on the short-term.
When is the time right?
Timing is important for strategic planning. The organization needs to be stable enough to be able to think longer term creatively. Does the organization have enough capacity to dedicate the time and energy needed to engage in strategic planning? Is the leadership committed to supporting changes that emerge from new and creative thinking about the organization’s future? Or will be the process be just going through the motions?
Strategic planning is a powerful process to shape the future path of your organization. Thinking about timing when you are going to launch a process is an important factor to consider.
Need support with the strategic questions your organization is facing? Inquire about a coaching call.
This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the mistakes organizations make in strategic planning. In previous posts, I have explored a number of mistakes that organizations make. These include plans that:
Not Allocating Enough time
Some organizations make their process and plan too complicated. While others go in the other direction by under estimating what is needed for a strong planning process. They do not allow enough time and do not allocate enough resources to support the process. This can lead to a rushed process that results in a superficial analysis. This often ends up with business as usual – even if there is a grand vision – because there was not sufficient thought put into the implications of the plan.
Not really wanting to change
Rushing the process can also be a symptom of the most fundamental reason a planning process will fail – not really wanting to change. If influential stakeholders do not really want to make the changes that some are advocating for in the organization. Or if they are not willing to make hard choices, the plan will likely fail.
Are the stakeholders are truly bought in to the new vision? Or alternatively – people want change and yet are not willing to do the things that would get them there. The desire is not enough. It is like saying, “we want to be innovative, we just don’t want to do anything new.” There may be lip service to change but underneath the commitment is not there.
Often times people bemoan ‘resistance,’ demonizing the people they label as resisters. There is often talk of how to overcome resistance. A better approach is to investigate what is motivating the resistance. Approach those who are working against or just not working towards the envisioned changes and talk with them. Learn about what is going on with them – what are their fears and hopes? There often are good reasons for their resistance and addressing their concerns can strengthen the plan. There may be more common ground than you realize.
So what will increase your likelihood for success?
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.