Transforming an Organization Demands Deeper Questions, Commitment

True transformation can be tough. Every employee must move to a higher level of engagement, performance and accountability. James Zaniello, president of Vetted Solutions, shares insights from groups that have successfully implemented transformative change.

January 10, 2019 – Transformation is a revolution. It takes time. It requires a visionary leader, or better, a group of visionaries, to spearhead the change and sustain each other. It often requires breaking something down to rebuild it into something better. Madison Avenue figured it out decades ago: “new and improved” sells better than “improved” alone.

Yet many people will resist transformation because it is a challenge. “As specialists in executive placement, we know the pattern,” said James Zaniello, president of Vetted Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based executive search firm. “The revolutionaries who thrive on transformation start by changing their surroundings and looking for a new organization to lead. Staff who resist change remain where they have been and are reluctant to try something that has not worked before.”

Transformation is anything but easy, said Mr. Zaniello, whose firm specializes in serving the talent needs of associations, non-profit organizations, and the hospitality and destination marketing industries. “Spend time browsing titles of business articles, books and blog posts, and you’ll realize that everybody has a perspective on what is necessary to turn something around or modify a behavior,” he said. “But often, that advice speaks to change, not to true transformation.”

Navigating a Shift

In its focus on the association sector, Vetted Solutions has helped many organizations transform, said Mr. Zaniello. Along the way, he and his team have seen many examples of what is necessary to successfully navigate a monumental shift:

  • The business model was thoroughly reviewed and either redefined, or in some instances, completely redesigned.
  • All decisions were driven by data – including strategic plans, programs and other offerings, membership goals, and employee assessments.
  • The organization culture shifted into a higher gear.
  • The organization committed itself to diversity and inclusion.
  • Succession plans were created for the entire organization, and they continue to be reviewed and updated.

For more than two decades, Mr. Zaniello has held positions ranging from non-profit executive director to publisher of the leading tool for non-profit executive search. Prior to forming Vetted Solutions in 2010, he spent 10 years conducting searches at Association Strategies, a leading Washington, D.C.-area executive search firm focusing exclusively on associations and non-profits.

“Simplistically, for many organizations the strength of the business model is evaluated in short- and long-term strategic goals,” said Mr. Zaniello. “When your organization achieves its goals, it must develop new ones. If you are falling short of your goals, consider whether they should be modified or scaled back.”

Related: 10 Traits of Transformational CEOs

On a daily basis for association executives, and at least quarterly for board members, he said, the road to transformation begins when leaders are unhappy with their answers to one of these questions:

Does our business model still make sense for our industry or the profession we serve?

How do we deliver value to our members and the industry in general?

Are we innovating?

Are we accomplishing our mission and is our mission still relevant?

What information are we using to answer these questions?

What does success look like for us?

A Data-Driven Mindset

Today, the use of data to analyze and evaluate is prevalent. Organizations must use data, too. “But data needn’t be a gigabit of computer code, for some it can be a simple member survey,” said Mr. Zaniello. “Associations, seen by some as having been slow to adopt the practice of data-driven decision making, now heavily rely on data in many different ways.”


Five Ways to Identify Transformational Talent
Keeping up with the rapid pace of change is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses today. With technology advancing rapidly and the expectations of customers shifting, achieving success depends on finding talent that can move and transform as rapidly as the business itself. But that’s easier said than done.


Transformative senior leaders usually have a history of strong experience with data. They often speak of how a few surveys and data points helped them change perspectives within their organizations and eventually convince others in the association to rely upon the data. “A data-driven mindset is a must-have to assess typical business operations, but it is equally as illuminating on the human side of your organization,” said Mr. Zaniello. “There are a wealth of employee assessment tools such as McQuaig or the Four Tendencies that allow leaders to better understand their employees – identifying dominant characteristics, potential coaching needs, and preferred communication styles – and maximize the potential in their staff.”

Related: Five Ways HR Can Maximize Data and Analytics

“The tools can help identify the person in customer service who is much better suited to be in charge of outreach, and they also can ensure that your team is working better as a group and boosting performance. If human resource data reveals gaps in how your organization runs, transformation may be needed first at the staff level,” he said.

As its business model undergoes a thorough review, the organization must also evaluate its culture to ensure it can achieve its goals. This is more than just making sure the right people are in the right place at the right time. “Everyone – staff and volunteers – needs to move to a higher level of engagement, performance, and accountability,” said Mr. Zaniello. “Are your teams collaborating to help everyone achieve the vision? Is everyone respectful of differing viewpoints? This doesn’t mean that all ideas are good or worthy of the same level of consideration, but a person who feels respected is a person who feels valued. That respect builds loyalty, fosters team spirit, and creates a willingness – even a desire – to go above and beyond to achieve the vision.”

The Customer is Key

Transformative associations are increasingly customer-centric. Leaders should ask themselves how they would describe their organization’s customer focus. Can everyone in your organization tell you who the customer is? By way of example, Mr. Zaniello pointed to Danielle Holland, president and CEO of the Financial Managers Society, who agrees that customer focus is an organizational imperative. “Her experience with this is that satisfied members spend more, exhibit deeper loyalty to the association, and create conditions for higher levels of engagement,” said Mr. Zaniello. “She asserts it is about creating a value proposition that delivers on service and operations. The success of this customer focus is readily evident because it results in consistent annual growth rates, extremely high retention rates, and very positive customer satisfaction rates.”

Levelling up starts at the top with the board and senior leaders. If there are practices and attitudes that hamper the achievement of the strategic vision, they must be changed, said Mr. Zaniello. “Lead by example, lead through organization challenges, lead through motivational strategies, lead by whatever means resonates with your staff and volunteers,” he said. “The key is to lead. Practice the ideals and require the same of your team. Actively develop, foster, and manage your organization through its levelling up. “

Diversity and inclusion is also vital. Mr. Zaniello cited Kevin Keller, the CEO of CFP Board, who highlighted the importance of diversity and reducing the barriers to entry in the Journal of Financial Planning. “Kevin makes clear that diversity and reduced barriers enable traditionally underrepresented populations to join an organization and thrive,” said Mr. Zaniello. “The demographics of every industry are shifting. How much does your organization, at all levels, reflect the industry that it represents today? Are a full range of viewpoints and backgrounds incorporated into your organization’s decision-making, offerings, support, and development? Have you included the opinions of the board, the staff, the volunteers and the members?”

Practical Suggestions

In a 2017 diversity and inclusion report, Vetted Solutions analyzed practices and beliefs at associations. The study found that many organizations have realized the importance of diversity and inclusion but struggle with how to enact meaningful change. The report provided practical suggestions to help associations of all sizes. Among them:

  • Make the connections – Learn your organization’s diversity and inclusion goals, their connection to your strategic priorities, and how your work furthers those goals.

Related: Recruiters Up Their Game in Diversity

  • Respect – Listen attentively, and ask questions, seek feedback, and encourage open discussion.
  • Put in the effort – Immediately address situations and comments that challenge the value of diversity or hinder inclusivity, understand your unconscious biases in order to manage or reduce them, and encourage diverse participation at presentations, events, and conferences.

“Diversity and inclusion do not stop with hiring or initial participation,” said Mr. Zaniello. “It is a fundamental that needs to be incorporated into every part of an employee’s or volunteer’s lifecycle. Diversity and inclusion begins with gender-neutral job descriptions and continues with a welcoming hiring process, onboarding, retention, development, and advancement. While this likely starts from the top, everyone at the organization can, and should, own pieces of this.”


Diversity Recruiting: Supply, Demand and the Matchmaking Process  

Hunt Scanlon recently released its latest issue of ESR. This time around, an in-depth look at diversity recruiting – what drives it, why it’s not a social crusade, and how it matters in every workplace. According to the newsletter, diversity starts at the top – and that oftentimes means it begins in the boardroom. Diverse boards make better decisions and lead to improved company performance. But boards are failing to reflect society as a whole. What’s the problem? Hunt Scanlon offers up some answers.

As you might expect, building cultures that will not tolerate discrimination but instead promote diversity – and recruiting talent that reflects this – is the challenge facing every recruiter and talent acquisition leader today. The #MeToo movement is, of course, leaving its mark on recruiting – and in this issue that is examined as well. Five incoming chief diversity officers making a big difference by putting a special emphasis on diversity are also highlighted. Get the free issue now!


Associations must have more than a strategic plan to ensure viability. They must also have the foresight to have plans in place that provide direction and manage change. When he spoke of succession planning, Mr. Zaniello referenced Christine McEntee, executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, who said, if we don’t think about change until the day it happens, it’s too late.

Multiple Plans

“Preparing for change requires multiple plans – one for an announced transition and one for an unexpected departure,” said Mr. Zaniello. “At the leadership level – what process will your association use to identify new leaders? How will responsibilities be shifted to ensure that your association’s operations continue as seamlessly as possible?”

Related: The Importance Of Recruiting The Right CFO

Succession planning should cover more than just leadership changes. Top leaders, said Mr. Zaniello, should ask themselves how their group is developing and growing its staff and volunteer leaders. What are the plans for changes in non-management staff and volunteer leadership, and how are your new leaders being developed? What is the pipeline for growing talent and skills in your association? Should you undertake talent mapping to evaluate the resources that are already available to you?

“Succession plans are living documents,” said Mr. Zaniello. “They cannot be created, shelved and allowed to gather dust. They need to be frequently reviewed – perhaps on a schedule similar to your strategic plan reviews – to ensure they continue to serve your association in the best way possible and address any changes, including new talent, key stakeholder populations and title shifts.”

Transforming your organization can be an electrifying experience. To make the most of it, Mr. Zaniello advised that leaders rely both on questions that they ask internally and the collective wisdom of other association leaders. “Study your organization down to its foundation and then ask stakeholders what needs to be changed,” he said. “Armed with such knowledge, talk with other leaders about their experiences. The excitement of seeing ‘New and Improved’ is felt not only by the customer but by the person who made the changes. Prepare for that excitement as you undertake your organization’s transformation.”

Related: New Recruiting Gig: Finding Culture Leaders Who Transform Companies

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

Share This Article

RECOMMENDED ARTICLES

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of