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ED Now Feature: Leadership in Economic Development: Becoming Remarkable
tags: leadership
Eli Dile   on Monday, November 20, 2017 at 9:02:00 am

By Joy Wilkins, CEcD

Disciplined people engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action – this simple mantra captures much of what separates any great organization from the average.

 - Jim Collins

 While many organizations undergo similar challenges and circumstances, some stand out as being uncommonly good or extraordinary in their performance. In other words, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, they are remarkable.

What makes an organization remarkable? According to “Good to Great” author Jim Collins, they are obsessively data-driven and have the creativity and discipline to act in ways that meet the needs of those they serve better than other organizations. They focus on the customer.

Whether one leads a chamber of commerce, public authority, public-private partnership, or another type of economic development organization, as an economic development leader, focusing on the customer is at the heart of what we do. We do this in thanksgiving for the privilege and honor of serving as stewards of the public trust. And no matter how good we are, inherent in our profession is the shared understanding that we can always do better in serving others.

Inspired by the work of Collins, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) launched the Measures of Success Task Force in 2002 to examine a handful of remarkable organizations using the methodology Collins employed in “Good to Great.” Specifically, they sought to learn what these associations, which have achieved exceptional year-after-year results, do differently to be so consistently great. Their latest research pointed to some key to-dos which are presented in their 2013 book, “7 Measures of Success.” These to-dos are relevant to any organization operating in the social sector that seeks to operate in the best possible way.

Foster a customer service culture

Remarkable organizations understand they exist to serve their customers and are committed to that purpose, note the authors. For these organizations, customer service is everyone’s business, from the front desk to the CEO: “They demonstrate their commitment in everything they do, from answering the phone, to responding to mail, to developing quality products and services.” Yet their efforts go beyond ensuring quality interactions with their customers, explain the authors. These organizations “build their structures, processes, and interactions – their entire culture – around assessing and fulfilling [customer] needs and expectations,” they say.

Economic development organizations have more than 50 role models that embody this principle of focusing on the customer – IEDC’s Accredited Economic Development Organizations (AEDOs). These organizations are recognized as the “best of the best” in our profession and are noted for being customer-focused, where paid staff and volunteers live and breathe a culture of going the extra mile in service to others. Team members see it as an honor and privilege to serve, and recognize that those they serve are the lifeblood of their organization.

About this series

Economic development leaders are true change agents for the world around them. The impact of their leadership on those they serve is untold and often cumulative in nature.

This article is the 22nd in a series that focuses on the application of leadership principles to economic development practice. How do we respond to the call for dynamic and adaptive leadership given the ever-evolving economic, social, environmental and political considerations affecting our communities and organizations? This series aims to contribute to the conversation.

Align products and services with mission

Another mark of distinction for remarkable organizations, according to the 7 Measures, is a focus on mission – their reason for being, rather than money – and seeing customers as a population to serve, rather than a market to sell to. They “speak passionately about fulfilling their mission and constantly test their ideas for products against that mission, using it as a touchstone for everything they do,” say the authors. Such organizations reject any idea that will not directly aid those they serve, regardless of whether it generates revenue, they note.

However, providing excellent service does not mean doing everything or anything the customer asks, the authors point out. Instead, as their research revealed, it means reviewing every idea to see if it is a good fit with the organization’s mission and existing portfolio of services and whether it will truly benefit those they serve. This doesn’t mean they are resistant to new ideas, however. On the contrary, the authors explain that remarkable organizations willingly engage in experimentation and exhibit no fear of failure. It is all part of their quest to better serve their constituencies.

This is an especially important lesson to consider for those of us serving in economic development. Given the broad nature of the work we do, it is easy to fall into the trap of mission creep rather than staying laser-focused on how to best help those we serve. As noted by the authors, remarkable organizations stay focused on meeting customer needs and constantly weigh new ideas against how they will best meet the needs of the day.

Use data-driven strategies

As noted in the 7 Measures, remarkable organizations are committed to ongoing feedback, analysis, and continual improvement. Say the authors: “They continually track [customer] needs and issues as well as the wider environment, then collectively analyze the data to develop a shared understanding, through asking, ‘What do we know now? What are we going to do about it?’”  Whether the data is collected through qualitative, quantitative, formal or anecdotal means, it is always put to use and not put on the shelf, they explain.

Collecting feedback from those we serve is a fairly regular practice in the economic development profession, and there has been a growing interest in defining metrics and tracking how we serve. To aid our profession in these efforts, IEDC published Making It Count: Metrics for High Performing EDOs as a guidebook on performance measurement. According to 7 Measures, remarkable organizations have developed an expertise in gathering the data, as well as processes for sharing and analyzing the data to deduce what actions to take. They nurture a culture in which information is analyzed and shared throughout the organization and where everyone, not just senior managers and leaders, are expected to use the data to figure out the actions to take.

Cultivate a culture for ongoing dialogue and engagement

Remarkable organizations cultivate a close-knit, consistent culture where all employees not only receive the same script, in the form of the same information, but also see the potential to contribute to a blockbuster production, according to the 7 Measures. “Whether they have lead or supporting roles or work behind the scenes is not relevant; they all share equally in the responsibility to contribute and add value,” say the authors. They observed that remarkable organizations lack a silo mentality, or a focus on distinctions among staff or functions; rather, they embody a culture of shared values and a unified purpose.

In addition to fostering this dialogue and engagement among team members, remarkable organizations often extend this form of “constant communication” to their customers, observe the authors. As a result, their stakeholders become their best ambassadors for advancing their organizational mission with the same script or message.

Utilizing the CEO as the broker of ideas

In addition to understanding or fostering a vision for the organization, CEOs of remarkable organizations facilitate visionary thinking throughout their organization; they engage others in defining, refining, and responding to that vision and all that it entails, per the 7 Measures. These executive leaders help both their board members and staff think in terms of what’s possible and see their role as enabling things to happen, the authors explain. In fostering a team or family environment, they note how these leaders work to facilitate discussions and develop consensus around ideas.

This is modus operandi for successful economic development executives who have mastered the ability to raise community support for what their organizations do from internal and external stakeholders alike. Through a focus on the customer, use of data-driven strategies, and ongoing dialogue and engagement with stakeholders, they have indeed led remarkable organizations in our profession.

Be organizationally adaptable

Remarkable organizations not only weather the crises and changing environmental conditions but also learn from them and take action, observe the authors. “Nothing is considered an entitlement or a sacred cow whose worth goes unquestioned,” they say. And although they are willing to change, the authors note that they also know what not to change: “Their mission and purpose remain the touchstones.”

In economic development, change is perhaps the only constant. The work we are called to do is ever evolving; our profession has broadened in scope of service to the community, yet not in mission. Remaining true to mission in the face of competing voices is often a challenge to surmount for our organizations. The authors provide some basic questions we can ask ourselves to help us assess organizational adaptability:

  1. How do we monitor and respond to future trends, threats, and opportunities that will likely impact our organization’s environment?
  1. How open is our leadership in discussing changes that will affect our organization’s environment?
  1. In addressing change, are our leaders seeking input from staff, members, volunteers, and/or the board?
  1. Have we faced previous dilemmas and, if so, what lessons were learned? How did the situation affect our strategic decisions?

Build alliances

According to the 7 Measures, remarkable organizations form alliances with partners that relate to existing strategies and have a tight fit with their mission and purpose. “In that regard, they determine with whom not to partner as much as with whom they should partner,” note the authors. The authors explain that these organizations:

  • Are willing to admit they can’t do everyone on their own.
  • Bring self-confidence to their alliance-building activities, secure in who they are and what they bring to the table.
  • Communicate clear expectations for each specific partnership.
  • Find partners who have the expertise, skills, credibility, contacts, and other resources to complement or augment their own resources.
  • Do not hesitate to walk away if a win-win situation does not materialize.

For those of us serving in the economic development profession, this, too, should sound quite familiar, as we know that our work is a team sport and requires us to develop extensive strategic partnerships to get the work done. With this said, 7 Measures provides some clear guidance to help us establish the right partnerships and to partner for the right purpose.

Closing thoughts

In his monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” Collins writes, “You will always be good relative to what you can become.” Those of us who are members of IEDC know what it’s like to part of a remarkable organization as described through the 7 Measures. Part of what makes IEDC remarkable is the drive we share to always ask ourselves “why be good, when we can be great?”

Thankfully, 7 Measures shows us how our organizations can continually be great in what we do, and serve those around us with excellence in the midst of ongoing change and challenge.


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