Getting Your Organization Into Alignment

When your structure and processes make sense and your staff are well suited for their jobs, you have a smoother ride to success.
Geese in flight, in V formation

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Remember the old refrain we used to sing as kids, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round?” Well, as grown-ups, we know the wheels only go round if they’re the right wheels. Consider this: Have you ever had to use a doughnut spare tire? It isn’t designed to last or exceed certain speeds. If you think of the wheels as the employees of your association, you can see how important it is to ensure you have the right people in place. That’s an essential task for a chief staff person—and one that typically requires bringing in an outside consultant.

Workforce Planning: A Case Study

Let’s pretend there’s an association executive named Andrea Evelyn Smith, who goes by “AE.” She loves her job and often feels she was born to be an AE; even her name seems to support it.

She recently took a position at a midsize association. It’s a career move for her and presents her with new and interesting challenges. AE is facing difficult budget issues due to an anticipated drop in membership. Her staff has been highly resistant to the changes she wants to implement, and this situation is made more complex because these are priorities the board emphasized during her job interview. The board is concerned the staff might not be able to adapt. But with all the fires she’s been putting out, AE hasn’t had enough time to think about the staff members’ wishes. Still, she knows the industry is going through significant changes, and she needs staffers who can handle these curve balls. But the staff members complain constantly that they are overloaded.

Taking a rare moment to reflect, AE sees that some of these fires could have been prevented. She recognizes she needs to follow through on the goals the board members have given her but suspects they may be right about their personnel concerns.

AE realizes she doesn’t have the knowledge to solve this problem—and she needs support in her decision-making. So, she reaches out to a human resources consultant to discuss the situation.

To Audit or Not to Audit

AE tells the consultant she has many concerns: the future direction and capabilities of the association, staff skills and competencies, member engagement, impending budget cuts and a new member database implementation. Staff are at the core of these concerns. The HR consultant discusses two options—an HR audit or workforce planning.

The first option, an HR audit, includes interviews with staff members to understand whether the work they perform is consistent with their job description, followed by a review of the job descriptions against the needs of the association. It also includes a review of employee files for compliance and a review of the application/interview process. The audit will uncover whether jobs are appropriately classified as exempt or non-exempt and whether overtime has occurred and been paid.

The second option, workforce planning, is more involved. It takes a deeper dive and can be done with or without a compensation analysis. The consultant recommends this option as the best approach to help AE accomplish her goals.

Along with staff interviews and a review of employee files and job descriptions, workforce planning includes an examination of the strategic plan. It’s often used when there’s a desire to better understand an association’s culture and when there’s uncertainty around existing and potential jobs. It can help a CEO understand whether there are gaps or opportunities for streamlining and define how realignment could add value for the members.

Getting the Dirt

Employees often have the most information on gaps and superfluous resources. That’s why workforce planning always includes conversations with employees, which often yield data that otherwise may only be shared at the proverbial watercooler. They may also yield negative information regarding how employees feel about one another and about the AE as a leader or communicator. However, that’s a good thing: You can’t fix something you don’t know about.

These informational interviews are paired with an evaluation of job descriptions, which are often out of date and in need of revision. This analysis can help determine whether the level of the position is appropriate. In addition, studying employees’ résumés and job applications can help determine skill gaps, and performance reviews can offer insight into what feedback employees have received. Working with the HR consultant, the CEO can determine the accuracy of past feedback.

A workforce plan also looks at whether your processes are documented. Think succession planning and organizational knowledge transfer: A review of processes might suggest opportunities for streamlining. For example, are staffers using several calendars? If so, why? Is your current software serving the association well, or do you have outdated programs without the capability to produce reports, causing many hours of manual labor to produce information that could be automated?

Problems Revealed

Returning to our pretend situation, AE and the consultant agree to proceed with workforce planning. The consultant arrives and begins to talk with staff members. They are all told their conversations are confidential and the report will contain only aggregate information. During the discussions, the consultant confirms staffers are highly change resistant. Most of the staff members have been with the association for more than 10 years, and they have been doing things the same way the whole time.

In the interview with the membership director, the consultant learns that her duties are very administrative in contrast to the expectations from the title. The membership director enters data and responds to routine member calls and has no management or decision-making responsibilities that impact the association. The consultant is barraged with a long list of complaints about other staff members who “don’t do their jobs.”

The membership director also reveals she believes she should have gotten AE’s job. She interviewed for the position but was not selected by the search committee. Other staff members tell the consultant the membership director seems to lead the charge of resistance. The consultant also learns the membership director has been known to raise her voice, not only with staffers but also with members, a situation never addressed by the previous executive. Staff members inform the consultant that the membership director is so busy being concerned about what everyone else is doing that she rushes to complete her work and makes many errors that cause her significant time investment for correction.

The membership director isn’t AE’s only problem. The consultant sees that there’s no central calendar and that all the staffers have director titles, even though their duties are mostly administrative in nature. Employee files also contain no résumés or applications, leaving the consultant to wonder how the staff members were hired. AE tells her that, to the best of her knowledge, the staffers are friends of the previous association executive or members.

The consultant reviews the strategic plan and sees that one of the goals is to increase member engagement. In reviewing the organization chart, the consultant sees the existing positions include roles in membership, reception, and MLS and accounting (part-time).

The existing organizational structure has the receptionist reporting to the membership director. The consultant believes this is unnecessary, as there are only four staff members. Additionally, to increase attendance at events, AE needs support from marketing and event planning. While the membership director seems to believe those areas are her responsibility, she does not have the necessary skills.

As luck would have it, the receptionist has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and has organized events in the past. The consultant notes that realignment of responsibilities away from the membership director to a new marketing and events position will better position the association to achieve its strategic objectives.

AE and the consultant also discuss using one association calendar so that staff members can understand all deadlines and association happenings. AE commits to having at least biweekly staff meetings to review business so that everyone has a better understanding of what is happening, leading to increased staff engagement.

Finally, the consultant talks with AE about staff behaviors. They discuss a strategy for having one-on-one discussions, so each staff member understands the association’s vision, reengages with the mission and knows how to move forward.

They also discuss staff skills as a whole. The receptionist has the knowledge, skills and ability for a marketing role. Unfortunately, some of the other staff members do not have all the knowledge, skills and abilities needed. But because they have been in the roles a long time, it may be possible to train them through professional development. Although never a desired outcome, AE understands she might need to make some difficult decisions if staff members can’t improve their performance.

Real Results

The game of pretend has now come to an end, and you might be wondering about the results achieved by some of the real associations that have undertaken a workforce planning analysis. The results of such an analysis are always confidential, but here are some successes I’ve witnessed:

  • Organizational realignment that improved engagement, eliminated process redundancies and created opportunities for promotion.
  • Streamlining through reduction of multiple software programs being used for the same purpose.
  • Organizational culture change achieved by addressing key issues.
  • Creation of a value proposition.
  • Creation of new positions that support the National Association of REALTORS®’ Core Standards.
  • Realignment that moved employees into new positions that better suited their skills while creating additional value for the members.

If all these outcomes sound good to you, it may be worthwhile to consider whether workforce planning could be beneficial for your association.

Regardless of the recommendations, it’s important that the AE and the board not take the results personally. You can’t know everything, nor can you be an expert in everything—even if you often feel that you should.

Sometimes AEs believe they’ve done many things right and fostered a good culture, and hearing unanticipated information can be disheartening. The important thing to recognize is that there will always be negative feedback.

There’s a balance to consider. If the feedback is fairly trivial or insignificant, then don’t give it that much weight. Take stock of it and move on. In other words, look at the positive recommendations and move forward with those.

Going back to my original analogy, if your current organizational model is going flat, you need to change it. But a spare—an easy fix—isn’t going to last long. It’s important to take the time to assess and invest in a team that runs together smoothly and can successfully drive your association forward.


First, Make a Case

Considering bringing in a human resources consultant for a workforce planning engagement?

Every workforce planning analysis should begin with identifying a business case. What is happening that is causing you to want to undertake this project? Common business cases include budget shortfalls, skills gaps, realignment concerns and new strategic priorities for a new direction. Sometimes an association’s board of directors wants an analysis conducted. That’s OK, too, as long as there’s a business case identified.

Know that workforce planning is about more than having the right people in the right job at the right time. In the ideal world, it identifies the roles that are most valuable to the organization.

But there are some things workforce planning can’t address, such as resistance to change. Nor can workforce planning address self-serving interests, including roles someone may want to create but that are completely unnecessary for the association’s size and membership needs.

Completing a workforce plan isn’t always fun—especially if you’re operating in a lean environment in which every seat is vital—but it’s an essential practice that you can return to time and again when you need to fine-tune your organization.

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