This post is adapted from “All Hands on Deck: Navigating Your Team Through Crises, Getting Your Organization Unstuck and Emerging Victorious” (Career Press, 2015) by Peter Boni, managing principal, Kedgeway Inc., and former CEO of Safeguard Scientifics.
So here you are, brand new in a role or considering taking one to reposition an organization or department. It has run aground, faces critical issues, and isn’t performing up to its potential. The task is lonely, daunting, complete with skeptical eyes staring at you. Hopeful eyes are staring, too.
Can you be the catalyst to lead the organization, department, or team past its current issues? Can you get the ship off the bottom to sail safely once again? If so, where do you start? Before you can hatch a plan, you must ask questions and listen; then ask for help.
Ask Questions and Listen; Then Ask for Help
Success stories generally start with the practice of fundamentals. Asking questions at the outset is high on your priority list. Stories of failed navigation through difficulty start with the absence of the practice of those fundamentals.
Who to Ask
Asking a diverse group of people similar questions can lead to superior input based on several points of view. Those viewpoints are likely picked up at varying angles of observation, some hands on and others at 30,000 feet. Whether determining if I should accept a position or what an appropriate game plan would be once I accepted it, my due diligence to hatch a plan always started with asking everyone under the sun for help. Most people who are asked are thrilled to help. They are quite candid about giving their points of view, with details and specific examples to back them up.
So, given the wisdom of this strategy, whom do you ask?
Insiders: You can find a plethora of people who are knowledgeable about an organization and its issues, problems, opportunities, and more. You’ll find them at the higher echelons as well as from the board of directors to the CEO, executive staff, and senior management. Some are in the middle of the hierarchy, responsible to the higher echelons. Others are first-line supervisors or individual contributors in operational or support rolls. Those close to developing or delivering the value proposition to key constituents have a closer operational view than those at the higher ranks.
These insiders all have a point of view. Just ask them—from the receptionist to the board chairman, from the team captain to the water boy, from the janitor to the mayor. I’ve found that many near the bottom of the totem pole have an enormously mature and insightful perspective.
Former insiders: Organizations with issues have likely suffered turnover in senior, middle, and/or junior positions. People moved on. They, too, have observations and opinions developed over time and further reflected upon after being on the outside for a spell. Seek out key former insiders and ask them the same questions as you ask current insiders.
Recipients of the Value Proposition: A business has customers and perhaps user groups. A government has citizens, special interest groups, party heads, and political supporters. A sports team has fans and support clubs. A higher educational institution has students and parent groups. A healthcare organization has patients, nurses, and doctors. A nonprofit has a targeted constituency. Ask these people the same questions.
A lost customer, patient, fan, student, alumni contributor, political supporter (or whomever) left the organization for a reason—maybe for more than one reason. In fact, they may be receiving that value proposition from a competing organization. What an interesting perspective, having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly from the other side of the fence. Ask them.
Partners to Provide the Value Proposition: Commercial enterprises have strategic alliances and business partners, vendors, and those who are in distribution. Nonprofit organizations, government organizations, sports teams, healthcare providers, military units, and most organizations have these partners, too. Ask those individuals the same questions.
Who dropped out? Or who was asked to drop out? Given their experiences dealing both with the organization and the decision to leave, they have a learned point of view. They also have experience dealing with competitors who delivered that value proposition, albeit a bit differently. Ask them.
Competitors Who Deliver That Value Proposition: They could be competing sales or marketing people, factory employees, engineers, or members of the financial or support staff. They could be a different political party, another sports teams, healthcare providers down the street, members of the campaign staff of competing political candidates, or nonprofits that have targeted similar donors to deliver to the same identified social needs. Most organizations face competition when it comes to their value proposition. These competitors have an insiders’ view as well as an outsiders’ view. Ask them.
Former competitors may have totally abandoned the field to make their living in another, perhaps aligned, arena. They left for a reason and they have a perspective. Ask them.
Outsider Observers in the Know: Industry analysts, lobbyists, journalists, advocates, consultants, and unions all develop a view. They see from afar, but they often have a strategic view that’s further removed from an organization’s day-to-day drama. Ask them.
Certain knowledgeable people have left their field to become involved in a different, perhaps aligned, arena. Put them on your list. Ask them, too.
Thought Leaders: Some carry more weight and influence than others. Thought leaders could be former or current insiders, outsiders, partners, competitors, or observers. When asking questions and requesting help, find out who they are and put them on your “ask” list.
What to Ask
In both for-profit and nonprofit settings, the answers to only a few questions have given me the baseline to learn quickly what others discovered over a period of months or even years. Over my four decades of asking these questions, I’m struck by how candid the answers have been and how knowledgeable I become by listening.
Question No. 1: If you owned this operation lock, stock, and barrel—or if you were a dictator and could do anything to enable the organization to achieve its potential based on what you know about it and its environment—what handful of things would you do?
Question No. 2: What would you have the organization keep doing, start doing, and stop doing to reach its potential and maximize its value proposition?
Question No. 3: Who are the thought leaders in this field and in this organization? Identify them and seek them out for a one-on-one discussion. Ask thought leaders for their help. Listen to them. And ask them to participate on your informal advisory panel so you can test the premise of a plan hatched from the exercise in Phase 1. I ask everyone Question No. 3, even if I already know I’m speaking to a thought leader. I’ve always been surprised by how many have been flattered by my asking. They have given me terrific counsel, which made an enormous and immediate difference to the success of my assignment.