Monday, August 19, 2013

Mental Rules for the Staff Retreat

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Two weeks ago, in Careful What You Ask For, Part 2, I continued writing about the process I used to create my association's values statement, despite some misgivings about the value of values statements I've previously shared and still hold.

After digesting the results of the anonymous staff survey I circulated to gather feedback on the current values our organization rewarded and the kind of change that was needed if we were to be successful in the future, I had made a couple of key observations.

One was to acknowledge the juxtaposition that emerged between a staff that demonstrated a high level of commitment to exceeding the service expectations of our members and the fact that not every member of that staff was comfortable with experimentation and risk-taking, especially when those actions were perceived as putting the high member service commitment at risk. Another was to understand the importance of my role in the values process without allowing others to shirk their own responsibility for the culture we would say we wanted to create. As CEO, the organization would naturally follow my lead, and rather than allowing that to happen unconsciously--as I had been doing previously--I needed to take conscious steps to model the right behaviors. At the same time, I didn't want to lose sight of the fact that high-performing culture is a two-way street, and that driving everything only from the from the top down might prove to be counterproductive.

With these observations in hand, I began to prepare for the day-long staff retreat that we had scheduled to discuss the creation of our new values statement. I spent a lot of time thinking about my role in that conversation. I knew my intention was to facilitate, not dominate, the conversation. I wanted to ensure that everyone participated, that all voices had a chance to be heard, and that our output--whatever it was--was something that everyone would support. At that same time, I came to realize that there were certain concepts and perceptions that were simply off the table. I wanted and needed to have a guiding hand in the outcome, and, like it or not, there were certain outcomes that would be unacceptable if I was going to continue to lead the organization.

I eventually codified my thoughts into a set of mental rules that I kept at my elbow during the staff retreat and that I used as a signpost every time the discussion wandered away its original purpose. The first four of these rules I shared openly with the staff. In fact, I used them to form my opening remarks at the staff retreat. I wanted their help in shaping the future of our association, but they needed to know where I wanted them to start from. The last two rules I kept to myself, but they were just as important to my successful facilitation as any of the others.

Here are the four I shared with everyone:

1. Our overall objective as staff is NOT serving our members. It is to create a positive future for our industry WITH our members. The mission and strategic priorities the association has identified require its staff to take a leadership role in this regard, not acting in opposition to member needs and desires, but playing an active role in coalescing them around activities and initiatives that can positively shape the future.

It took me some time to come to this conclusion, but once there, I was and have remained absolutely convinced of its rightness and importance. Staff were to be lauded for their commitment to exceeding the service expectations of our members, but serving them in such a manner had to be seen as a means to a greater end, not an end in and of itself. The latter path leads to servitude and stagnation, the former one to growth and achievement of our broad and industry-shaping objectives. And fundamentally, that's what we were here to do--shape the future of our industry. We had to have a culture that supported that kind of vision. Thinking of ourselves as servants wouldn't do. We had to be partners, and in some cases, leaders, of the members themselves.

2. We are talking about the organizational values we believe will correlate with that success and the behaviors that can be adopted throughout the organization that align with them. We are NOT focusing on the individual actions or behaviors (past, present or future) of any one person.

I hoped this one would go without saying, but I have learned the hard way that it is best to actually say the things that go without saying. The survey results contained some criticisms directed at individual people within the organization--or at least at some negative mindsets that seemed to be shared by some members of the staff. It was helpful for us all to read those results, as they accurately described where we were starting from. But there would be little or no value in speaking ill of anyone around our staff retreat table. I wanted everyone to stay focused on the good things we were already doing and the things we had to change if we were going to bring more success into our system.

3. This is a work-in-progress. The discussion will not end today. There is no compelling need to push towards finality or any arbitrary number of values. We will confirm what is obvious and no more.

This one was absolutely critical for everyone to understand. What we began that day was a process that would reshape the culture of our organization--and to think that such an objective could be completed in one day was ridiculous. I didn't want to pretend otherwise. By the middle of the afternoon, I knew we would all be exhausted, and that it would be better to take stock of what we had accomplished and positioned ourselves for a subsequent conversation than to push towards a forced conclusion.

4. We function in a complex and adaptive system. The traditional conception of the single charismatic leader will not contribute to success in that environment. We must think of leadership not as the trait of an individual, but as a system capacity that functions throughout the organization.

Here I really felt like I was putting my cards on the table. It was my way of openly addressing the issue I felt strongly about--that everyone in the organization shared in the responsibility of creating the culture we said we wanted, and that none of us had all the answers nor could serve as the lone culture policeman moving forward. But it was also my way of empowering everyone outside the context of our values creation process. I was telling them not to look to me to lead them forward. I was the CEO, and I would continue to co-create with the Board the strategic space within which the association would operate. But they needed to understand that I am not the only leader the association has or needs. Everyone in the organization had to approach their tasks from the same leadership perspective as I approached mine. I wanted them to learn as much as they could about our environment, make decisions and take action, and constantly learn and refine their approach. Before we starting talking about the values we needed to succeed, I wanted everyone to understand that we all needed to get comfortable with living life on the skinny branches of the tree. Doing otherwise would not be helping the association grow and become what it needed to be.

Stay tuned. I'll continue this story in future posts. Up next: The two mental rules I kept to myself and the role they played in helping me prepare for the staff retreat.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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