Using Transparency to Drive Organizational Success

A data-driven organization doesn't just gather data; it grapples with that information and digs down to understand what it really means. But real success comes from going a step further and disseminating those findings to senior leaders, staff, and stakeholders alike. Author and former healthcare executive Quint Studer says that it's time for organizations to get real.

Quint Studer, named as one of the "100 Most Powerful People in Healthcare" and author of two BusinessWeek bestselling leadership books, focuses on "creating systems and process that hold people accountable for executing well" in his latest book, Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability. A top concern? The need for much greater organizational transparency.

Here, as a supplement to "The New Look of Transparency," ASAE's Kristin Clarke talks with Studer about what true transparency means and why it is vital to long-term success.

Associations Now: You note that employee and stakeholder surveys can further refine what transparency expectations look like in an industry or profession, but what is the working definition of transparency in today's business lexicon?

Quint Studer: The ability of the employees and key stakeholders to see the same information that the senior leadership sees. [At my coaching firm Studer Group,] we've worked with a lot of organizations. I ask them, "If we're gathered around the C-suite, are we comfortable that everybody throughout the organization feels the same way about the environment and what actions need to be taken as everybody else?" I find there's usually a big gap, and that's frustrating to senior leaders, because they're always assuming everybody sees the same environment like they do. Even in associations, if you're not understanding the external environment and what your association members are going through, your organization will eventually decrease.

I was on the board of a large healthcare association—the Healthcare Financial Management Association—and it was really interesting because they were churning members. What I mean by that is they'd have so many join and so many drop off, and of course, every time members dropped off, we'd have a reason why it wasn't our fault.

Then we started honing in on what the association members want, and it became very clear what that was. Senior leaders were guessing what the membership wanted, but what the membership really wanted was more education more than anything else. Once the association board understood what [that was], membership went up 3,000, and each member started spending 33 percent more. It is transparency, whether top down or membership up.

I was impressed with what the association did. For years the membership was asked to fill out a customer service survey, but not that many were filling it out because there was no hook. Then the association made the hook that in order to be eligible for awards, you needed to fill out the survey. We went from 20 percent filling it out to almost 100 percent. That feedback was so vital to [the CEO and his team] in terms of what his association members were looking for.

Why is transparency such a hot topic right now?

Probably because President Obama uses it a little bit. … Also, technology has made things so much more transparent. Sometimes it's not a matter of will there be transparency. It's a matter of who's going to release the data. And if you don't get ahead of the game, then someone else is releasing the data and explaining it. That's why I'm a big believer in staff satisfaction surveys, for example. People need to know what's going on in organizations, because it's not like we don't have communication systems. It's just that at times we don't have good communication systems.

What are the risks of doing nothing on this issue?

Somebody else becomes the message point. Somebody else positions it. Once that person positions it, then you're starting to play reactive leadership instead of proactive leadership.

What does a transparent organization look like?

First, when every employee knows what the specific goals are within the organization and how they're being measured—for example, through a very transparent scorecard or dashboard. In the school district of Janesville, Wisconsin, which we're working with, its board of directors now has a dashboard, so at every school board meeting, they look at what they're measuring—truancy, reading, math scores, parent satisfaction, staff satisfaction, et cetera. I think it starts off with the transparency of the dashboard.

Now, in order to create that, you often have to put measurement systems in place that you've never had before. … I find when we first start out with an organization, [the transparency process] starts with asking, "What's the dashboard, what are you measuring, what are the goals, and do you have the metrics to make sure you can measure those goals?"

Second is the connection to the why. Even though organizations may have their goal, they don't connect to why. Is it going to help us become more effective or efficient? It's always very confusing about why are we doing this and what do we hope to get out of it. … It's imperative for leaders to be able to use transparency to explain why they're doing what they're doing, because often we're spending money and cutting money simultaneously. …

If I just say to a nurse, "It's important to visit a patient every hour," the nurse is going to be looking at me and thinking, "You're kidding me. I don't have time." If I show them that by doing that, we reduce their call lights by 37 percent, and infections will drop 14 percent, then they're much more likely to be compliant with that behavior.
And third, we have to always make sure we have the leaders in place for training. The reality is that in most organizations we're relying 100 percent on middle managers to connect the dots for the employee, but we've never connected the dots for the leader! Once you're transparent, you're forcing yourself to create, train, and develop leaders to answer the why and what questions. … Transparency creates accountability.

What do association leaders need to understand most about transparency?

That data is not there to hurt them. It's just data. Leaders have to not shy away from it and not try to explain it away. Look at it and figure out how to deal with it. For example, at Studer Group, we have 120-plus employees. Every month our coaches, who are 44 employees out in the field, evaluate about 11 departments internally to make sure that they're getting certain services. When a leader gets that feedback, they can either deny the feedback or they can say, "Here's what my data tell me: I need to be more responsive. Here's what I'm doing to become more responsive."

Are there any elements of a transparent organization that are often undervalued or misunderstand?

It's the feeling the employees get just by being in the know. When I was president of a hospital, every department leader put our financials up on a bulletin board every month. I had a guy from facilities engineering come up and say, "I really like being able to read how we're doing each month." I asked, "What do you mean?" And he said, "My wife always wants to know if I'm going to get overtime, and I can look at the financials and tell her what the chances are."

I like the fact that he understood. Being transparent is telling someone that you're trusting them with the information. Now, there's always an immaturity process with transparency. What happens is that an organization that has never really shared data shares it, and someone misinterprets it, and then we say, "See? It doesn't work." The issue isn't the data; the issue is the maturity of the organization. It takes a while for an organization to handle material with the maturity you'd want.

If you don't share the information, they're going to find out anyway. If it's negative or positive, you might as well let them know beforehand. Today, I was talking to a CEO, and I went to and basically told him how he compared in clinical quality compared with the hospital in his hometown. We'd better lead the way. If I'm a donor and find out something has gone wrong, and I read about it in the paper secondhand, you're going to lose a lot of credibility with me.

How can an association assess just how transparent it is? Don't many organizations inevitably think they are already fairly transparent?

We all do. As a senior leader, I fall into the same trap. I'm so close to the external environment and what's going on that I just think everybody knows it. I used to compare it to driving to a caravan in the road, and the senior leaders are in the first vehicle. Everyone thinks we're supposed to go straight, but as CEO I see there's an accident ahead, so I go left to avoid it.

Now I think, "Aren't I being reactive and being smart?" But the folks in the 13th car down the line think, "What's this idiot doing veering to the left when we should be going straight?" That's why I like the organizational assessment in our book, Straight A Leadership. It usually shocks senior leaders, because they just assume the rest of the workforce is seeing the environment the same way they are. Instead, they find out [that] employees, particularly managers, don't see the organization the same way they do. And there's no sense of urgency there. … If I don't know the hurricane is coming or how bad it is, why would I react the same way you do?

Kristin Clarke is a writer and researcher for ASAE. Email: [email protected]

For more specific how-to information about creating a transparent culture, read "A Transparency Crash Course: Seven Steps to Creating a More Transparent Organization" in the article "The New Look of Transparency."