Does your team inspire a following?

Service, innovative programs, community, comfort, ease…the reasons why people engage with your organization vary from person to person. So how do you keep up?

Creating products, services and ultimately a culture that inspire people to engage with your organization takes effort and perseverance.  How do you keep building, serving and facilitating in ways that inspire people to return to your organization?

This type of sustained effort requires teams that get it. You need teams that understand your organization’s purpose, what you are striving to achieve and who you are trying to serve. It requires people who are motivated and enthusiastic about building your success.

Motivated, engaged and enthusiastic teams don’t just happen. The good teams you’ve been a part of, the ones where people share their honest perspectives and “crazy” ideas, disagree respectfully, support each other, and genuinely collaborate. Those teams were fostered.

With the hectic pace of association life we can be tempted to invite people to a conference room or a conference call or assign them a desk in a “collaboratively designed” space and expect teamwork to happen. This rarely results in engaged and successful teams.

If you want a team that: strives to create the best opportunities and resources, provides stellar service and genuinely cares for your members you need to invest in building your team.

As Hank Fortener explains “the people are the work” (How to Build Teams That Won’t Fail Each Other).  Investing time and energy in building your team will reap benefits for you, your team and your organization.

So how do you start or build up your current efforts? Here are a few key things to consider.

Engage with your team
There is a lot of talk about engaged employees. But strong teams also require engaged leaders. Your people need to see you. They need to hear from you, they need to know that you care and understand, they need to know that you get it.

A simple way to build engagement is asking questions that encourage staff to share their ideas, perspectives and concerns with you.
• How do you think we could …?
• What do you need to make this a success?
• Why is this important to you?

Stephen Covey said it best, “listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”  Listen to what people are telling you. Be open to what they are saying. Ask questions. Listen to what is going on around you – in your organization, in your member’s organizations in the broader community. Make time to listen and take in what is being said and not said.

To focus your attention on listening, I recommend keeping a list of questions in your notebook or electronic device that you can pose to build discussions.
• Why do you think this did or did not work the way we expected?
• What do you think we could do to make ___ better?
• What might slow down our efforts?

Communicate with your team
Communication is a tool for building understanding and engagement – yours and your teams. Good communication requires asking questions, listening and ensuring that your people understand the message you are trying to share. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Good communication is a form of engagement.

Try asking simple questions to gauge your team’s comfort, interest and understanding • How could we improve this plan/idea?
• If you were leading the group, what two things would you do next?
• Can you help me to understand…(your concern, the challenge, the opportunity, etc)?

Good teams require engagement yours and your colleagues. Show that you care and your colleagues will be more likely to invest their time and effort.

Here are a few resources to help you develop your team focus.
HBR Blog: Three Ways To Encourage Smarter Teamwork

Talking Point: Four Ways To Demonstrate Genuine Care

Four Ways to Instill and Promote Transparency at Work

The Question Project

They can’t read your mind!

If you want people to support your efforts and help you move toward success they  need to know what you are trying to achieve.

Not how to do it. They can figure that out.

What are you trying to accomplish? Why are you trying to accomplish it? What challenges might you run in to?

Don’t assume they know or they get it. We are all busy with our own jobs and sometimes the big picture stuff can get lost or distorted along the way.

Inform them. Inspire them. Invite them to be part of the team that builds your next success.

Taking the time to engage your team, to help them understand what you are trying to accomplish and why it is important can help them get behind the effort.

If you still think they know what you want, ask. Then stop talking and listen.

  • Does your team know why your organization exists or why the project is critical?
  • Do they understand the strategic challenges you are facing this year or expect next year?
  • Do they know the project goals?
  • Do they know who the target market is and why?

Save yourself and your team the frustration and headache. Talk with them. Engage them in discussion about who your organization is – what’s your purpose, goals, challenges, opportunities. Help them to be part of your success.

Invite People to Think

Googling a question may be the quickest way to get an answer, but is it the best way?

If you want to explore a topic, google can help.  If you enter the correct words you can review hundreds or thousands of possibly relevant hits.

But, exploring a challenge with people, even if you don’t use the correct words, can enhance everyone’s knowledge, inspire ideas, open up new opportunities and invite others to support the effort.

Open ended questions help you explore. What, why, how, or tell me about questions invite people to think, to share their insights and expertise, and generate fresh ideas and solutions.  Consider these:

  • What do we know about …?
  • How could we…?
  • Why does this need to work?

Asking closed questions – is, are, will, would, or should questions – generally results in a yes or no response encouraging little or no discussion.

  • Is there a market for this product? (versus What do we know about the potential market?)
  • Are you pleased with the membership drive results so far? (Versus Why do you think the membership drive generated the initial results?)

By asking questions you can encourage an environment that engages people, inspires them to think and encourages them to share their ideas. Isn’t this the kind of place you want to work?

“When faced with a challenge, get smarter.” ~Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

You can’t tell them to care

“Processes and structures don’t create coordinated action, people do.”*

Systems fail.  We can’t prevent all potential breakdowns, there are simply too many variables – information is wrong, deliveries are late, email is down, someone is out sick, the list goes on.

Your colleagues can make the difference. People typically see that a process is beginning to falter before a  system failure occurs.

To notice, to care and to take action people need to feel that they are part of the whole. People need to feel valued. They need to see how their role fits into the organization’s success. They need to feel that they can make a difference.

You can’t mandate that people care.

People are employed to fulfill a set of job duties. You can expect these (within reason). But you can’t tell them to care or to be engaged.

Ownership and buy in are cultivated. You can engage your colleagues to foster the awareness, mindset and skills that empower and inspire them to care, to take responsibility and to be part of the team.

Awareness: Do your colleagues know the organizational vision and goals that influence their work?  Do they appreciate the value their work generates? Can they connect how the work they are doing supports the organization and provides value to your members?

Motivation: Do your colleagues feel that they are part of a team striving to achieve a common goal?  Have they had the opportunity to participate in conversations about the goals and how the efforts can be designed or executed to support the goals? Do they see how their and the organization’s contributions impact your members?

Skills and Knowledge: Do your colleagues have the skills and knowledge they need to fully engage in their work? Do they have access to the resources they need to learn and do their job?

When the terrain and the map differ, the terrain wins.  How do you ensure that your team can see the variance coming and take appropriate actions?

*Inside Out, Tracy Huston, page 48

Building Communication

We know that communication is critical to successfully engaging people. If colleagues don’t know what you are trying to do how can they possibly join you?

Do you ever stop and consider how you communicate? When drafting a message do you focus solely on how you articulate your message or do you consider how others hear your story?

Do you consider if your language translates to their experience, interests or needs? Do you help the audience understand your point by using examples, interests and passions that are relevant to them?

If you want people to match your enthusiasm or give you their best effort they need to understand the idea and create meaning for themselves.

Communication goes beyond sharing your information. After you craft a compelling and relevant message the really hard part comes, listening.

Sometimes we are so excited about an idea it is difficult to listen, to be questioned or doubted. But this is how ideas, work and relationships get stronger. The back and forth of sharing and listening are how you build trust and ultimately create work, spaces and organizations that people want to be a part of.

Next time you share an idea, try one of these questions to help people participate in the conversation.

  • What’s right with this idea?
  • What concerns you about the idea?
  • How could we improve on this idea?

What’s your message?

innov poster2

Have you been here? The poster is clever. But the reality is that many organizations have a culture that sends these messages.

I’ve seen it.  Some organizations prefer the status quo, others get so caught up in the cycle of association work they “don’t have the time to think” others are afraid of what change might bring. These organizations tend to encourage “dreaming small” rewarding work and people that come in under budget, on time and without causing any disruption or unsettled feelings. Some of these organizations even talk of supporting innovation. But, when the work starts, questioning is discouraged, disagreeing is taken as a personal affront, and new ideas are met with a chorus of excuses…“we’ve tried that,” “you don’t understand how our organization works,” “we’ve always done it this way.”

Organizational culture sets the tone for how engagement and new ideas are responded to.

With the increased competition for people’s attention, time and money why would you discourage any of your team from being engaged, thinking or striving to help your organization be stronger?  Three things to consider today:

Do you foster a safe environment for your team? Does your team feel comfortable expressing relevant thoughts and feelings without fear of being penalized or ridiculed?

 Do you nurture a culture of inquiry where people feel it is accepted to question, dissent, probe or challenge ideas, practices and opportunities?

Does your team treat each other with respect?  This doesn’t mean they don’t question, it means that they treat each other respectfully when they do.

*The poster is part of a “Save the Inventor” campaign posted at the Union Station Metro Station, Washington DC, January 20, 2015

“This is not your parent’s association” is it?

This morning at The Atlantic City Makers Summit I was inspired by conversations that mayors, workforce investment leaders and the maker community are facilitating to help create space where “solutions can bloom.”

A discussion around the idea “this is not your father’s factory” was particularly intriguing. Essentially, the conversation highlighted how the world of manufacturing has changed in the last 15 to 20 years, but the perception of a factory and specifically manufacturing jobs has not followed.

The discussion made me wonder, can associations claim “this is not your parent’s association.” Has what we offer, how we lead and engage and what we aspire to be as associations really changed in the last 15 to 25 years?

Some of the pivotal questions that emerged from the discussion include:

  • What are you doing to encourage innovation that people can be excited about and attracted to?
  • How are you maximizing the strength of your community?
  • What are you doing to be welcoming?
  • What are you doing that gets in the way?
  • How do you talk about your successes?
  • Do you own and market who you are?

Are associations and the association community creating space where “solutions can bloom?”

If you have not attended an AtlanticLIVE event, check them out!  They host an array of intriguing events.

Think before you Plan!

Planning for the future, whether personal retirement, professional advancement or organizational planning, is one of those topics many people prefer to avoid.  I get it, knowing what you need to know, what to consider and who to talk to can be daunting.

So, when I came across this education planning perspective while researching schools I nearly fell in love!

“At School X, even as we create a dynamic daily learning environment for our students, we are also thinking far into the future. At the beginning of each school year, we take note of the year that our Pre-Kindergartners will graduate from college and enter the adult world. For next year’s youngest students, it will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2033. 2033 feels very far away. And yet for School X, it represents something important. What do we know about 2033? How does a great school prepare children for an uncertain future? Should we be offering courses in interstellar travel or piloting hovercraft?”

Imagine the amazing experiences associations could offer members, volunteers and staff if more organizations thought about and prepared for the future in an informed and inspired way.

It would be great if organizations approached planning in an organized and deliberate manner, reflecting on what happened in the past year(s), looking ahead at what the trends and forecasts envision and mapping this perspective with their strategic plan.  Sadly, my personal experience has been quite the contrary.

Planning for 20 years from now may seem unnecessary or even frivolous for an organization. Yes, focusing only on the future would be short sighted (the school above does teach reading, writing and math). But, being aware of what is or might impact the community/market you serve is smart leadership.

Being mindful of where trends and developments may lead and how these might impact your community/market is wise planning. Looking forward can help you recognize and leverage opportunities that arise and make informed choices. Being caught unaware of developments in your community/market can leave you in a vulnerable position.

You don’t have to jump into a full-scale futures research project to start considering how future developments might impact your community/market. You can start small with a simple discussion exploring what your team knows or can access about potential trends and developments in your community/market. Some people may enjoy this and some may find it painful, but it is a perspective you need to consider. Here are a few questions to help you start a discussion.

  • What is shaping our market/community?
  • What is shaping our view of the future? (Where is our information coming from? What assumptions do we have?)
  • Are our decisions based on what we have always done or on the relevant information and insights?

“If you start planning before thinking, you can end up with the wrong solution to the right problem.”  ~ Max McKeon, The Strategy Book, p. 10

Plan or Wishful Thinking?

“It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Some people despise planning. They prefer to jump in thinking they’ll figure it out as they go.

I understand that time and mental space are valuable resources and flexibility is a critical organization skill. But, rarely have I seen a first round idea be the best, brightest or most useful opportunity for an organization.

Engaging colleagues in exploration of ideas almost always results in a stronger concept. Here are a few questions to consider as you examine current programs or explore new ideas and opportunities.

The basics are always a good place to start:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Who are we attempting to serve?
  • Which organization or division goals will this advance?

Maybe ask a couple new questions and see where the discussion leads you.

  • What is the most significant challenge to achieving ____?
  • What is right with this idea?
  • What will success look like?

Plans are helpful to ensuring good investment of organizational resources. However, a truly a successful organization is one that is strong enough to develop a plan, flexible enough to monitor and navigate the environment and smart enough to refine and execute a change in plans.

How’s Your Capacity?

What is your organizational capacity?  Are you functioning at an optimal level? Does your organization advance the community you serve, attract new members/markets and leverage opportunities? No?  Not sure?

Have you thought about how and where you invest your organization’s resources? Not just the budget dollars, all of your resources – time, energy, member attention, knowledge, capabilities, etc.  Are you investing these in building your organization?

Do you devote resources to:

  • Developing new products/resources to advance your mission, market, community
  • Attracting new markets or members
  • Adapting to market or technology changes
  • Engaging your market/members in impactful ways
  • Administering current programs
  • Sustaining (or defending) “the way we have always done it”
  • Fighting change (technology, competitor, culture, etc)

Most organizations have a mixed resource distribution. It makes sense.  You can’t focus solely on one component.  The challenge is ensuring that your resource allocations are building your organizational capacity, not stalling or diminishing it.

What do I mean? If you mapped your organization’s resources and activities what would it look like?  Are your resources and attention distributed in every direction?


Or are your resources aligned in a cohesive (or somewhat cohesive) manner?

arrows aligned

It is really easy to get immersed in the daily cycle of work and overlook how individual efforts impact the overall focus of the organization.

Making a concerted effort to ensure your resources are aligned to advance the mission, strategy and goals of your organization can help you leverage your resources and build your organizational capacity. A critical step to building this alignment is empowering your team to be part of the effort.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does your team know and understand the organization’s mission and strategy?
  • Are your staff aware of how the organization’s mission and strategy translate to their work?
  • How do staff frame and inform resource investment decisions – data, gut, strategic plan priorities, history?

“The test of an organization is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.” ~ Peter Drucker