Tom Kimbis is principal consultant at Enflection, LLC, and former interim president and general counsel of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, DC.
Giving staff opportunities to expand beyond traditional job roles and expectations can unleash innovation and a redefined and more deliberate overall sense of purpose.
Association executives are constantly being challenged to achieve goals while staying within budgets, forcing them to maximize output from all resources. This balance can be thrown off by unanticipated events, with COVID-19 as a current and stark example.
Pressured CEOs are often tempted to find solutions by turning to external services or pushing harder on internal departments and structures to deliver more. The savvy CEO, however, can reap rewards for the association by looking beyond the status quo to develop creative ways to solve problems with little impact on the budget. One approach is to create targeted and timely interdepartmental initiatives, which we are now seeing in real time operate as well remotely as they do in person.
Many associations are structured with similar departments. It’s only natural for the board and the CEO to rely on work to flow up through these departments to executive management. After all, the work of each team is presumably run and managed by trained experts, then it lands on the desk of the CEO, who in turn uses it to help meet the association’s pressing goals. It’s a logical process.
But this process fails to maximize the organization’s most valuable asset: the staff. With the default vertical structure as the go-to work process, the CEO might fail to tap the extensive knowledge and abilities of individual staff members across the organization who are capable and committed to contributing to the mission. In an association with a positive culture, the staff wants to see the association succeed, not only for reasons of self-interest, but also because of a team-oriented spirit.
CEOs can capture these untapped assets and direct them toward resolving critical issues through interdepartmental initiatives.
In one real-life example, an association faced a common challenge: how to better connect with federal legislators on a time-sensitive topic and drive home the value of its industry. After the federal affairs team attempted conventional means of engaging Hill visits without getting enough traction, leadership decided to build on their work with a new effort.
What began as a brainstorming experiment bringing a digital communications staff member and a market analyst into the room with a federal affairs representative for a series of lunchtime meetings soon piqued the interest of other staff. A new idea emerged: the creation of a new website that could serve as an information center about the job-creating benefits of the industry separate from the online presence of the association. The new online information center would have a specific audience: congressional staff.
Before long, representatives from all departments were collaborating on the idea. Creating the optimal content and presentation to reach and sway a congressional audience with compelling job-creation intel was perfectly suited for an interdepartmental team: it required insight into current industry conditions from member testimonials, proper visual design, legal permissions, a novel teamwide review process, an understanding of sensitivities and touchpoints in the political landscape, and market growth projections in key geographic areas.
The important takeaways from this example are not the details of the project itself, but the benefits of a collaborative process that other associations can replicate. Not only did the team develop an effective tool to achieve its intended goal, but it did so faster than anticipated with essentially no additional costs. Most enlightening was the way in which team members contributed to the project outside of their own areas of expertise.
With the default vertical structure as the go-to work process, the CEO might fail to tap the extensive knowledge and abilities of individual staff members across the organization.
Yes, the communications team representative had the prime handle on the digital framework for the online tool, but it was a representative of the membership team who contributed critical insight into how the messaging would be best received by key secondary audiences, changing the entire process for the better. Similarly, the political insights of the market research department member resulted in some important tweaks to the initial position of the federal affairs staff for reaching congressional staff. The project team members contributed mostly in their areas of expertise, but the value they added wasn’t limited to their primary work areas.
In this real-life case, the interdepartmental team benefited from the trust of the CEO, who increased staff visibility and empowered them to take on a highly important issue that they normally would have only seen through the lens of their respective departments. The team atmosphere improved as they realized they were able to positively influence the organization in a new way, while also showcasing both their traditional skills and those outside the scope of their everyday work.
CEOs will benefit from identifying issues for interdepartmental teams that are new and important to generate staff excitement, not stale standbys that have been floating around for years. Issues related to COVID-19, for example, are top-of-mind and cry out for innovative solutions. Today’s remote work can lend itself well to tackling these kinds of tasks using newly-formed teams, flexible schedules, revamped office routines, and a common desire for a shared purpose.
When creating an interdepartmental initiative, consult with the head of the primary department to explain the new approach and to identify a team leader, set deadlines, and review budgets. Ask the heads of other departments—the more the better—for volunteers to staff the team. Pull, don’t push. Announce the new initiative widely with some fanfare and see who will step up. Don’t assume that you or your department heads are aware of the full knowledge, skills, or interests of all staff members.
If done right, a cross-departmental initiative may not only lift a sticky problem off the CEO’s plate, but do so within budget, energize team members, boost morale, increase transparency, and impress board members with a burst of creative leadership.