Setting Employee Expectations Can Create Collaboration

By: Valarie Clark

When tasked with creating a "safe place" for open staff discussion, one association professional found a challenging and rewarding experience that improved her skills and her organization’s work environment, as well.

"Don't let good be the enemy of great," a noted quote from leadership author Jim Collins, is often used by the president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges when describing the challenge of moving our association and its culture from good to great. In 2007, AAMC was in the midst of a lot of change: a new CEO, new members on the leadership team, a new values document, and a strategic thinking and positioning process that would begin to change the culture of AAMC for staff and members.

I was tapped by the CEO to lead a first-ever AAMC employee-satisfaction team. The 10-person team was charged to review the results of the 2006 Employee Opinion Survey, identify and prioritize areas for AAMC response, review options, and make recommendations to the leadership team.

As a midlevel director, a woman, and a person of color at a large medical association (more than 500 employees), this effort presented high stakes for me, my career, and the association. Over the six-month effort, the team held 28 two-hour meetings. At our first meeting we established "Vegas ground rules" to guide the team's conduct: what happened in the room stayed in the room. We had difficult conversations and creative exchanges of ideas on how best to serve AAMC employees. Our final report reflects the team's consensus, recognizing that there was no unanimity on every issue.

My experience as team leader provided me with many lessons in leadership:

Make sure everyone is always on the same page. The team concept was new to AAMC and staff, and it was important to understand the role of the team. I discussed my role and expectations with our CEO, and then I met with each team member individually prior to our first team meeting. I shared the team charge and my hopes for the team and invited questions that might not have been asked in the first meeting or in front of their peers. This was a way to build trust and create a safe environment to discuss sensitive issues.

Know the team's purpose. Early on, it was clear we would be meeting frequently, and team members questioned how to best manage their daily work and the team work. During a midpoint check in with AAMC's leadership team, our team was reminded that the team's work to improve AAMC culture was, in fact, our daily work.

Take the team's temperature often. Some team meetings were more productive than others. It is challenging to maintain high energy and engagement over a six-month period. At the end of each meeting, it's important to ask the team, "How are we doing?"

Always do your homework. As convener, my job was managing all aspects of the project and the team and ultimately delivering the final team report to leadership. This required a careful balancing act of responsibilities and delegation. I prepped for the team meetings a day in advance and ensured that appropriate agenda items were addressed and conflicts were resolved. Good process is at the center of the success of any team.

The team's final report proposed enhancements to employee benefits, opportunities to improve communication, and ways to strengthen the AAMC community. Many of the recommendations were accepted by AAMC leadership, and recently AAMC was awarded "Best in Class Employer" by HR Solutions, Inc., in recognition of AAMC's 2010 employee satisfaction results, which showed improvements in many areas since 2006, such as benefits, pay, diversity, and the state of the association.

Changing the culture is challenging work. Results and rewards are often seen much later, but being part of that change and participating in the process is energizing. As the AAMC culture evolves, it will be critical to continue this important work to ensure a healthy culture that is transparent, vital, engaged, and inclusive. The same employee-led team approach is a good model to follow for other associations that value employees and are trying to address culture change. Creating a safe place for your employees to discuss concerns isn't a revolutionary idea, but there is tremendous value in simply asking the important question: How can we be great?

Valarie Clark, MPA, is director of faculty development at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, DC, and a 2009-2011 ASAE Diversity in Executive Leadership Program scholar. Email: [email protected]