I had the opportunity to lead a roundtable during the Resilient Business Summit a few years ago – here are some of my thoughts.
Finding and holding onto the pulse of your many stakeholders – Community engagement as the conduit.
I arrived on campus during the summer at the elite private school. No one was around. I wasn’t sure if I needed to call the cable company, or how to place a phone call. I didn’t know the area or which restaurants to avoid. I was brand spanking new to this school and community and felt very alone.
It became immediately apparent why so many people early in a new job or locale make the decision to leave. They have no real connection to the community and so the decision to leave is an easy one.
Tip #1 – Welcome
One of the most impactful things that you can do to get any new relationship off to a good start is a warm welcome. Making people feel seen, answering their questions, being thankful that they are there, and acknowledging them are all helpful in this process. While you don’t have to roll out the red carpet, it doesn’t hurt. A friend in Denver told me that she was greeted with a case of beer and warm smiles when she moved into her home in a new area with her partner 6 years ago. A gay couple had decided that they were going to change the neighborhood and make it more welcoming so they committed to doing just that with every new arrival. Since then my friend has moved across the street, and she is committed to living in the neighborhood because of the community.
My response to my situation of feeling alone that year was to reach out to other new teachers and ask questions of anyone that I could find. I did alright but it wasn’t my ideal. The solution that ultimately came from the experience was to started an outreach at my next school to welcome new teachers with all the information that they would need to get them through the first few weeks.
Tip #2 – Engage Outside of Work: Don’t Forget to Play
Developing relationships through team work experience outside of a typical project can be beneficial to your community both inside and outside the workplace. Getting business doesn’t always come from putting ads out. Having a life, engaging with others outside of work brings in business. If you are relying on networking to bring in business you are not using the most effective means at your disposal. Imagine a new customer at a hairdresser. Why is she there? Probably got introduced to the business by a friend, neighbor, or co-worker. What about the auto mechanic? Are you looking in the yellow pages? Possibly, but more likely you are checking in with friends.
Friends and acquaintances come from many places – softball league, the local bar, neighbors, your children’s friend’s parents, knitting group, book club, et cetera. If you notice these groups are focused on what you do outside of work. Outside of work, you know, for fun. It is possible that people who work too hard to remember to spend time playing and hanging out with others have to work so hard because they aren’t allowing these relationships support them. That doesn’t mean that your friends are your only stakeholders, only that you build relationships with those that you spend time with. If you are only spending time with others while at work, well then you probably aren’t getting the ‘down time’ or the enjoyment of playing which is when the real magic happens.
Tip #3 – Listen
Periodic feedback with follow up after the fact is important to develop a culture in which people feel listened to. Feeling collaborative engages stakeholders in the process. Have you ever had a conversation with someone that wasn’t listening? After awhile do you keep talking or just be quiet? While some people will keep going to make sure they are heard others with just stop talking and then there are those who won’t bring anything up in the first place. In order to have a well rounded organization you need to hear the feedback from everyone who is using it, otherwise some of the key criticism and potential for growth can get missed.
So how do you ask and what do you ask? It depends on what you want to know. I’d avoid online surveys, even with a prize few people will go to take them. What you want to do is make it easy for people – By this I don’t mean putting a stamp on an envelope to hopefully get more back. Get people on the ground level, and by this I don’t mean by stopping them on the street. Those tactics make me cross the street or say thanks, but no thanks, even to groups that I otherwise would support.
As an example let’s use outreach. Are you calling people, emailing them, sending paper mail, or…? Have you ever asked what they’d prefer? And not just ask, but then only contact them based on their response? I have a number of non-profits that I’ve supported over the year that I stopped supporting when they either over asked (it made it seem like they weren’t listening) or didn’t respect my request for a particular form of contact after they asked me what I’d prefer. So I repeat again. Don’t just ask, listen.
It is worse to ask and ignore than not to ask. It is better to ask and listen than not ask and assume. Don’t assume that responding or listening through review sites will be helpful, but if you engage the audience that connects there you will have further opportunities to develop that community because your communication will be visible and transparent. It’s better your mistakes are public and responded to than in the closet and ignored. Showing up to accept your criticism and make better on wrongs goes far to developing credibility.
While these may seem like simple steps they are really the fundamentals of engagement and relationship both in work and personally. If they seem easy, that’s great! Now you just have to do them.