Building and Facilitating Strong Internal/External Staff Relationships – A Lesson in Patience

In December, we wrapped up the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows was made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. We’ll be recruiting for Cohort Two later this year for a start date of January 2019.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to share reflections from the 2017 Fellows on the Trellis blog. In today’s post, Melanie Binder shares some strategies for building internal staff relationships. You can catch up on all posts by the Fellows here.

Posted by Melanie Binder, Community Engagement Manager and Social Media Coordinator for the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB)

One of the challenges that many organizations face is how to get your internal staff (colleagues) and external staff (board members, etc.) to be supportive of your projects and goals. And when your new projects are ground-breaking and innovative within your industry, it can be quite a struggle to get all parties to share your vision. While we at the American Society of Plant Biologists have made great strides to address this issue over the past few years, it continues to be one of our biggest challenges.

How do you build strong staff relationships? Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/15132846@N00/8197868606/
How do you build strong staff relationships?
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/15132846@N00/8197868606/

Here are my top four tips for building strong staff relationships

1. Understand the culture

Organizational culture contains but is not exclusive to the following elements: organizational mission, values, expectations and goals. A key component in fostering a strong relationship with different people who will either be asked for input on or be impacted by the project is understanding not just the culture of the organization itself but also the culture of the committee, staff members, or board members that you are working with. What is their culture? Does your business strategy align with the current culture, or is your organization experiencing a change in culture?

In our organization, we developed and launched new and innovative digital initiatives that impact our staff and our community, and these initiatives have become critical to our organization’s mission to stay relevant. These initiatives are part of an overall digital transformation for our organization, and they do not happen without growing pains.

Maddie Grant who consults about culture change writes:

“Digital transformation initiatives usually start out as being about implementing new technology platforms or new marketing processes. But very quickly, organizations come to realize that these projects actually impact at a deep level how people work. Either how staff work and share information and collaborate internally, or how they need to build new ways to build relationships with their external stakeholders (volunteers, members, customers, users), or some mix of both. And this goes way beyond the technology – in fact technology is often the easy part.”

 

2. Set Clear Goals and Expectations

It helps to have a clear vision of what you are setting out to accomplish with your project. What are your short-term goals and your long-term goals? Does your agenda fit into the culture (vision and mission) of your organization or the board/committee you are presenting to? Can you present this concisely to your board/committee?

From past experiences, we have found that while our agenda aligns with our organization’s vision and goals, it does not align with our Executive Board’s vision. Part of the reason for this is because of board turnover, and this can happen for projects that are long-term. For us, the concept of our current digital initiative project started over 4 years ago, based off of extensive market research. Our Executive Board at that time had complete historical knowledge of the research and conversations, and the buy-in to move our project to the next phase: design and inception. From this point, it took almost 2 years before we were able to launch our digital project. In that period of time, there have been several new board members.

So now, it’s a little like Groundhog’s Day – with the new board members having no historical knowledge of our projects, we find ourselves repeatedly educating and providing all the in-depth history of our project in order to gain our new boards’ buy-in so we can move forward with our agenda. With complicated and multi-layered projects, its necessary (and exhausting!) to re-explain in order to gain their awareness, understanding and trust… But in the long run, the patience is necessary and worth it.

 

3. Identify the Influencers

You can call these folks what you want: champions, advocates, cheerleaders, influencers, etc. – individuals or groups of people who you will need to call on to help you promote, build and evolve the community. Focus on those in your community who are well-respected and have an understanding of your project and share your vision. These internal and external relationships can be vital in order to move your agenda forward.

In our organization, we created a new steering committee. We identified some influential former board and committee members, as well as active organization members and started a separate steering committee for our digital project. This advisory group is led by a former President of our organization who reports back to our Executive Board on our behalf. We actively work with this new steering committee to help us identify project goals, prioritize and strategize those goals so we can achieve our current goals and plan for the future. We are also strategically training our internal staff, and creating cross-departmental collaborative projects/events that involve our project.

 

4. And it always helps to have a secret weapon!

…Mine is to bring my dog to work occasionally. Not only is she great at giving hugs, but she loves to receive them from our staff. I have found that this reduces the stress in the office and has the un-intended benefit of opening conversations with staff that I do not generally collaborate with. This has led to informal discussions about projects, what we are working on, and what our goals are.

 

Changes to our organization’s culture can meet resistance, but we continue to see glimmers of hope. In my job as our community manager, I work as part of our digital initiative team to nurture these internal and external relationships. Our small team has a broad vision of the future for our innovative digital projects and these relationships are critical to our success. While getting the buy-in we need continues to present challenges, we have seen lots of progress and positive signs, and we’ll continue to pay close attention to nurturing these relationships in the right way to ensure the success of our efforts.

 

Will this work? Not overnight, or in one meeting, however if you have patience and focus on your future goal and vision, it will build the foundation for the support you will need to effect positive change.

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