Ep 007 | Navigating the Unseen: Insights into Organizational Dynamics


Navigating the Unseen: Insights into Organizational Dynamics

October 11, 2023

About this episode

Embarking on a successful organizational strategy entails delving deeper than what initially meets the eye.

While factors like strategy, innovation, and change management are unquestionably important, they often remain obscured by more tangible organizational outcomes. Leaders must engage in a thorough exploration to grasp the underlying mechanisms responsible for a significant 80% of these outcomes.

Deborah Roethler, an Innovative Change Manager with extensive experience at companies such as Amazon, Caterpillar, the City of Peoria, and more, advocates for a flexible approach to strategy. This approach involves adapting to the evolving landscape rather than rigidly adhering to predetermined plans.

Join us as we delve into the complexities of organizational strategy and cover the following topics:

  • The adverse consequences of neglecting hidden organizational dynamics
  • Effective strategies for engaging employees, building trust, and managing change
  • Constructing an adaptive strategy that promotes transparency, agility, and active participation, ultimately fostering sustainable organizational growth

Guest Intros

Strategy Gap Podcast Guest | Vice President of Administration & Strategy at Advanced Medical Transport

Deborah Roethler

Innovative Change Manager

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Transcript 📝

Jonathan Morgan  [00:00:02]: 

Welcome back, everybody. We're here with another exciting episode of the strategy gap. I'm Jonathan. I'm Joe. And today we're joined by Deborah Roethler, Deborah has an extensive amount of experience with responsibilities that have included government finance, marketing, product development, procurement, operations, strategy, brand management, and much, much more. It's actually a boomerang government working worker having begun her career in DC as a consultant, and then returning several years later to become the assistant city manager for the city of Peoria. But beyond that, her industry experience has included many other industries like consulting, pharma, financial services, manufacturing, and of course, government. And she most recently served as the VP of administration and strategy for a regional ambulance company, Deborah is driven by a passion for the employee and deep experience in strategy, innovation and change management. She takes pride in developing the best environment for results to thrive, all supported by a data driven understanding of the organization. So, Deborah, welcome to the show.

Deborah Roethler  [00:01:04]: 

Thank you. Thank you. I'm glad. I'm glad to be here. Thank you.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:01:07] 

Perfect. Well, obviously, there's a ton that we can unpack in our conversation today across all your experience in different industries, and different types of organizations. But really, one thing that struck me from our initial conversation that I wanted to start with is your concept I think we talked about as the iceberg of an organization. No, there's all sorts of theories that say that, you know, 20%, of organization of work drives 80% of the results. But I think from your perspective, it was people spend a ton of time on what is at the top of the iceberg and often forget about what's beyond that. So maybe let's start there. How do you think about the concept of an iceberg in terms of organizational strategy?

Deborah Roethler  [00:01:47]: 

Yeah, so we, we had spoken about this earlier. And I think, when you think of an iceberg, and you look at it, and you see this majestic, amazing thing, and you if you're lucky enough, float by it, right, rather than into it, you think you're seeing it right. And yet, there's so much below the waterline, in fact, 90% of it is below the waterline as a rule of thumb. And so, when you're operating in an organization and trying to get things done, and trying to understand things, as a leader, especially, we tend to revert to thinking about our functions and our teams, in terms of what's above the waterline. And so, it's whether you call it a hidden factory, or whether you call it you know what, whatever language you use, there's all this stuff you just aren't immediately thinking about and understanding. And this is an increasing problem as folks get more senior and tend to get responsibilities over functions where they may not personally have deep expertise. And so that's one of the places where really having a methodology or having an approach to understanding what you're doing is really important. Because if you walk in and just look above the waterline, and you say, I'm going to use the 80/20 rules, and I'm going to figure out that 20%, I need to know, to really run this team, you're only going to find 2% of it. And that is really, really, really a disservice to your leadership. So that, you know, that's kind of where I was starting at what I'm talking about, what are you observing, as you're developing a strategy as you're understanding where you are. And as you're envisioning where you're going. It's so important to be aware to be really intentional about looking below the water.

Joe Krause  [00:03:46]: 

In your experience, which role in an organization is best served to do the peeking under the water, because you would think that there's probably only a select few that actually know what's happening under and the less that know, the worse you're off, I guess I suppose. So, who in your, especially with a change management lens? Who is the best person to peek under the water and see if it's the size of Mount Everest? Or if we're talking about a smaller iceberg, who's doing that work?

Deborah Roethler  [00:04:11]: 

So, I think as you're building a strategy, if you're going to be accountable for a change, you have to look. And frequently I think the form that this takes is using facts and data. And sometimes really focusing or figuring out how to focus on the proper outcomes is what's highlighted. And I think that's important. But if you don't have facts and data for the whole process, or the whole value chain, you're probably going to miss some significant opportunities when you're thinking about improvement and innovation for your organization or function. And so, anyone who's accountable for strategy, I think needs that type of look under the water mindset. There's a lot of ways to do it. But it's definitely, I think, part of the responsibility of any leader to have ways of doing that for your organization.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:05:13]: 

Got it? Yeah, that definitely makes sense. I think one thing that a lot of organizations struggle with is, so they may have access to that data. So, let's say I'm a senior leader stepping into a new role. I'm starting to understand writing to figure out what is under the waterline, I take a look at all this data, but you at times get analysis paralysis with too much information to look at, you know, if you are that new leader stepping into organization, where do you focus that effort to really identify the items underneath the waterline that can drive that impact moving forward?

Deborah Roethler  [00:05:42]: 

I always start with people. And it's surprising because you know, I've been talking about facts and data and building a value chain and things like that. But I always want to start with people. And most commonly, what I'll do is I will have essentially focus group sessions with my teams and ask them about how they feel when they walk in the door. And why. How do you feel when you when you walked in the door today? How do you feel when you walk in on Monday? Why? And we collect all of those responses and summarize them as a team. Then I have another meeting usually, that says, How do you want to feel. And I will tell you, in all of the years that I've done this, all of the times that I've done this type of exercise, no one has ever said to me, I feel exactly how I want to feel when I walk in the door. And so, by doing this, I think there's a few things that happen with this sort of approach. The first is that by talking about how you feel, it gives you a place I think, as an employee, to identify pain, without complaint. It gives you a place to be heard and connect with your leader. And for me, then to start to understand where I should be looking, what I should be looking at, right, and then the data comes in after that. And then when the strategy comes back, you characterize it in terms of what everyone wants out of the organization, which is to feel good when they walk in, to feel successful, to feel opportunities for advancement, lots of generic things. But when they come from your team, and you've really shared a moment where you say, we agree, this is the most important thing for us to be reaching for. This is the most important thing that we want to feel better about. You're giving yourself that proxy. And it's a place where I think people an approach where I think people are more likely to be astonishingly honest about problems. It's not a comprehensive approach. It doesn't unwrap every single problem. But it's a really great way to probably find some good low hanging fruit, a lot of these things can be simple leadership decisions. And it builds up the trust and credibility bank piggy bank that we all need to fill as leaders in order to really lead profound innovation, profound change. Because when that trust is there, maybe it's six months later, maybe it's a year later. And you really have that depth of knowledge to confidently say, we need to overhaul our overhaul our ERP, we need to invest you know massively in some area, or we're going to take a leap forward, the technology we're using is really based in on premise, and we need to go to the cloud or whatever that item is, that could be a pretty major change. The trust is there because they understand that your first priority when you walked in the door was them was making their job and their life better. And if you can't base your leadership in that, you're probably going to have a really tough time developing strategies that actually engage the whole team and have them all rowing in the same direction.

Joe Krause  [00:09:32]: 

To the end, you peek under the iceberg, you see a bunch of scary things down there, and you attempt to then engage those scary things to make them slightly less scary getting their feelings on things and making genuine strides to improve. But I don't know if your experience is similar to mine and Jonathan can speak to this as well. Most people view a strategy or strategic plan as extra work no matter how it's couched up, they go I have a day job and they're not saying it out loud. They're saying it in the Are corners of the hallways, I have a day job, I don't have time for this. And that's usually the default position that we that entered into like, nobody goes, Wow, I am so fired up on the strategy. I can't wait to work hard on that, in addition to everything else I have. So how do you balance that where strategy sometimes is extra, but it also needs to be done. And you also people do have day jobs? So how are you balancing that so that people actually want to engage in that change management exercise?

Deborah Roethler  [00:10:28]: 

So, there's a few things. First, you need to find the quick wins in any engagement process and any change management in any project, finding those quick wins helped help you get momentum. But second, I think you need to be very conscious, especially if you have a strained team, or understaffed team of limiting your goals. And that is, you know, let me say this again. Where did I start?

Joe Krause  [00:11:04]: 

Strain teams?

Deborah Roethler  [00:11:06]: 

Yeah. First, if you have a strained team, you definitely need to find the low hanging fruit, the quick wins, to bring to the table and you need to be willing to deploy those. But secondly, as you look at employee engagement, employee capability, employee skill, you have to be realistic about what's available to implement. And I think the key thing there is limiting the number of goals, be aware of how your goals are going to affect the team and who on the team is bearing the burden. I really, I can't emphasize enough, if you don't know who's going to do the work, then you again, you don't, you aren't looking below the waterline enough, right. And we don't want a situation as a leader, I don't want a situation where every single special project every single change, I go to Jonathan, I go to Jonathan, we go to Jonathan, what's going to happen between Jonathan and Joe on this team? Is that going to be harmony and high quality interactions? Or is there going to be maybe a little resentment that you are actually creating on your team tension you're creating on your team because of that decision. So, by keeping the numbers have goals low, and targeting a relatively smart spread in engagement, targeting the more energized employees, to be honest, you can really start to protect your progress. I'm missing a point. And I can't quite say it, I'm trying to figure out how to say it. I

Joe Krause  [00:12:48]: 

can circle back to the string team things if you want, because I had a question on that. Okay. So, you mentioned strategy, sometimes you have to be very less is more, I think we couldn't agree more on this podcast we talked about less is more all day. Because the smaller plan is not a, it's not a bug. It's a feature. But the idea of strain teams, if you were to ask 100 teams, are you strained? Or are you not? You're probably gonna get something close to 100% that would say their strain. It's sort of like, Hey, are you paid enough? No one's ever gonna say yeah, you know what? I'm paid more than I than I expect. It's one of those weird questions. So how do you I guess, discern who is really strained and who's like saying they're in the quotes you can't see strained? Where they actually might have some additional capacity, but they don't want to take on that work? How do you determine who's actually strained? and who isn't?

Deborah Roethler  [00:13:35]: 

He listens, you listen and ask questions? Do you really have to do it that way, you can't. You can't tell by arm's length, whether or not someone is struggling. And if someone's needing more support in terms of skill development, or more technology or better, you know, better technology, equipment, etc., to do their job. So, when you enter that situation, I'll tell you, people say a lot. People say a lot if you're willing to stop telling them what to think. And when you have those engagement moments, and that can be things like skip level discussions that can you know, being very thoughtful about how you engage employees to understand where the pain is in an organization and what the language is people are using to talk about that pain. You'll see processes or sub steps, or a task come up again and again and again. And so that may be a place where there's either a skill, an engagement, or an employment gap, you know, like how do we have enough talent During that process, but ultimately when you are strained, again, as a leader, part of your job is to understand those strains. And when you need more, you advocate for more. And it doesn't have to be permanent more, but you advocate for more.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:15:16]: 

So certainly a big aspect of this is listening as a leader and kind of having those conversations but being willing to listen, like one other problem that I've seen that organizations struggle with is, you can listen, but there's only so much that the other individuals may be willing to say, I think the phrase you used earlier was give people an opportunity to speak their pain without it being a complaint, which I love. How you can make it as welcoming as environment as you want, but you're still gonna have people like, yeah, okay, yeah, speak freely tell us your complaints. And they kind of know there might be something and wading through on the other end of that complaint in a negative way, what techniques have you used in your career that makes it so that it truly is an open conversation, instead of being perceived as a gotcha conversation?

Deborah Roethler  [00:16:02]: 

Right. So first of all, I think there, there is a lot to be said, for going out there and getting that training as a leader around difficult conversations, whether it's having to say no on something someone really is passionate about wanting to proceed to do, etcetera. And building those skills as a leader to ask questions in the least inflammatory way, you know, some of the common things that are talked about in these courses are things like working to couch a problem or a question in terms of how or what not why, or who, if you say, so what's bugging you about that? That's very different prop? That's a very different question to why is that a problem? Oh, right. And then for you, as a leader, having the discipline to understand something very robustly before you ask Act and the transparency that you are acting on something providing the provider that that's an appropriate thing to share, obviously. I think there's a premise that's running through this line of questions that I would like to take a moment to talk about. Sure. And that's that strategy has to have everyone from day one onboard and marching in the same direction. And in point of fact, change management works in a very different way. Right? Change Management works by starting with folks who are super engaged and motivated towards the outcomes, the events, the activities, that you're encouraging or wanting to get out of your organization. And it's starting there, and tooting the horn, when that success happens, finding that recognition moment, hopefully, your HR organization is going to help you understand pretty quickly what type of organization you have in terms of preferences around recognition and rewards. Use them. Don't be stingy, it costs almost nothing to write a personal card that said, you're amazing. This was an amazing job. And you know, when people are putting that effort in, and if you're getting that in response, that's important. If you can issue a spot bonus because you know, someone burned the midnight oil for a month, in order to produce, you know, a new data paradigm? Well, yes, let's make sure that we as leaders are doing our job because our job is to make sure you want to do your job, and that you want to do it really well. And that you're going to give us as much discretionary effort is possible. And so, I just want to kind of back into that, in terms of, you know, it isn't about necessarily everyone on day one. It's about wanting people to, to join you in that tent where you're having a great party, but you're working hard.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:19:10]: 

Now, I appreciate that. It is a great clarification. In you know, certainly we've talked a lot about kind of listening and all of this has focused on really that beginning phase of entering an organization or entering a strategic planning or whatever strategy process. I think kind of continuing through that overall process and execution. One thing I see organizations struggle with this, they create this plan, and it's completely final. And even if you knew all the listening, you kind of then take a step back and say well wait, you were incurred in conversation, but now that it's set in stone, we're not going to have a conversation anymore, as opposed to having some fluid strategy that's continually adapting, you know, what's your perspective on the balance between a final strategy and something that's constantly evolving?

Deborah Roethler  [00:19:55]: 

Yeah, I think if you are not regularly, I'm updating your team on a transformational journey about if you have 15 goals, you pick one, maybe two, depending on the structure and size of your team that you're going after you give regular updates, I frequently will have regular, probably weekly, usually team meeting, sometimes bi-weekly, depending. And you say, you know, here's the 15 things, I'm going to remind you how you felt, I'm going to remind you what you wanted to feel like, I'm going to remind you the 15 things that we were going to do to get there or change to get there. These are the two we're working on number ones doing this and number two's doing that. What do you guys know about it? Is there something I need to be doing to make this work better? Is there something new happening, right, and if you're stuck, that's where those questions are going to be especially important. If you have, especially in your head, a timeline like that should take about three months, and you're in month six, right? That's definitely a time when you want to step back and regroup. And also having those prioritization conversations with your team, you know, all 15 Things are gonna get done, some might have a logical order that you do a before being fine. But ultimately, if changing the PTO recording system, you know, is just as available as changing the badge access process for the front door, then you have to pick if you can engage the team on that pick. And, and they can feel that ownership, a lot of times that also can keep them on the path to keep beating that drum, but you have to be transparent, you have to be absolutely disciplined, that they are part of the solution. And if they're part of the solution, you have to be communicating. That is where you figure out whether or not the 15 items are still the right 15 items. That's where the team those meetings is where the team should be able to come to you and say, you know, there's a new product out. Microsoft, you know, I remember when pages came out, I'm dating myself, pages came out. And we were like, We don't need a steno pool anymore. We don't need to learn shorthand anymore. We have Microsoft, you know, we have pages, or we have Lotus Notes or whatever the first products were out there that were helping teams transform how they do work on a daily basis. You can't anticipate those things. But you can have a whole team of people looking for those things for you. If you make them included in the solution, included in the steps informed, help them feel like they're inside the tent. If you're outside the tent, you don't behave nearly as well as when you're inside the tents, you know. And so those are it sounds really trivial to say, communicate, communicate, communicate. But it's not just that it's really admitting, you know, this isn't going like I was thinking it would go what do you guys think? It's that little bit of vulnerability that allows others to say, I can be vulnerable to it's okay, if I'm imperfect, because my sharing that is now going to allow the team to be better, the organization to improve. And when people share those little vulnerabilities and you respond with, yeah, let's work on that. Or you know what, I want to spend some time with you on that I'm going to set up a meeting and people hear that people hear that attentiveness. That's, that's really important to making sure you're sustaining that energy over time. And keeping folks again inside the tent.

Joe Krause  [00:24:00]: 

I think you're bringing up a good point, the idea of we talked about earlier, you talked about the idea of like people love being recognized, that's a huge thing. It's a major motivator for folks, we use a system internally, as a HR management system called lattice that allows you to do shout outs, they're facilitated through slack. And it's a very popular thing that we have here. But the other thing that you talked about is that doesn't cost money, right. But the other thing that doesn't cost money is people feeling like they're in the tent. Right? The idea that one of the most famous songs from the Hamilton soundtrack is in the room where it happened, right? They already wanted to be in the room where it happened. It was the cause of all the angst and that whole story I remembered is really wanted to be in that room. You can argue if you should have been or not. But if the point is, if you wish, just a little bit in the room, maybe a lot of that could have been avoided. And I think sometimes leadership puts up walls and say, well, for these reasons these people don't need to be in this conversation versus there would be a probably a real material benefit to at least including them on some of those. So how do you balance it where not everybody the 10 can't have 100 people in it at all times. There's some decisions need to be made in a smaller group. When do you then make the decision to bring other people in. So, they feel like they're actually part of something, and therefore, it's our strategy versus your strategy.

Deborah Roethler  [00:25:09]: 

Yeah, so you know, this, this is sort of an interesting dynamic. So, when you get to a place where you're two or three levels removed from the frontline of an organization, you do start to talk about a different method of communication. And this is more about how you train your leaders to engage their staff. Again, it's it starts to transform so that you have a consistent expectation, you deliver that to your team, and you let them know explicitly what you're expecting from them in terms of how they're delivering to their team. And there's fantastic tools available nowadays, where you can really check in on the motivation, psyche engagement of a team very quickly and very easily and very consistently. So that you can see whether or not messages are hitting whether or not information is working its way through the organization in an appropriate manner. Or if hanging chads or getting attached to the message, which is always a little bit of a risk. So, you know, as a, as a senior leader, you know, not with those layers, you have to think through, how am I going to get this message out? And how do I invite people to be at the table. So, if you're using a product or a product, there's some micro survey micro polling products out there that are excellent and highly automated. That would be the kind of thing where you say to your team, I want to talk about goal one A with you guys, I want you to be prepared to have conversations with your teams about it, it's delayed, I'd like you guys to start talking about what are some opportunities to expedite or if we're doing something wrong? Are we on the wrong path? And then you have those tools, those engagement tools, reinforce both the message and the invitation to contribute. And you will get people who say I never answered those polls, I understand that, again, it's not all 100 people that need to respond in order to have a good strategy. Right. But it is some and so if the answer is zero, then you're getting your answer. Right. But I think it is as a leader about how you structure thoughtfully, not only the dissemination of that strategic information, but also an intelligent awareness or feedback loop in this again, it kind of depends on the size of your organization.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:27:44]: 

No, yeah, absolutely love that. And I think it's obviously important, not just the conversation at the beginning and keeping them involved, but throughout that process, and, and particularly when it comes to the problem issues, taking a diversion a little bit away from this topic, but still aligned as we have listeners, and speak with people across all different industries. And I know, one thing that they often are curious on is, you know, how similar or different are these types of problems and solutions based on the size or the differing sizes or industries or complexity of an organization? And you said, a unique perspective where you've been in many different industries and many different types of organizations on both the private public and government sector? I'd be interested kind of on any of these topics or strategy as a whole. Is it pretty similar across the board? Or are there distinct differences as you join different types of industries and organizations?

Deborah Roethler  [00:28:37]: 

I think if I was going to summarize a response to that question, it would be industry doesn't guide strategy industry doesn't trump strategy. Culture does. And so, when you enter a new organization, it's, you can name businesses that are in the same business but have wildly different cultures. Think of Sears Roebuck in the 1960s mass distribution of goods across the United States. Amazon. I'm telling you implementing strategy is going to be different in these two organizations. But they are largely speaking though the methodology is different, the same kind of organization, the same industry, sales, sales, up home, merchandise, home goods. And so, when you enter an organization while understanding the industry, it is important because there are regulatory limitations and all other legal things, all kinds of stuff that that can come up with that the culture of the organization is what you really need to operate inside of. So, I I've worked in high data organizations. Amazon is probably the most intensive high data organization that I've worked in. And I've worked in high touch organizations, small businesses, small, small consultancy in Washington, DC, where it's really just knowing the people inside of that 10 person office really well, that's going to really be important if you want to implement a change. And so, understanding how culture creates avenues of opportunity. And massive hurdles, is incredibly important. And if you aren't quite sure, building those allies to help you navigate pretty you know, in your early days, weeks months on a job is going to be important. Because if you come to a small business, that's all about the leader, and you say, here's the facts and data, here's the facts and data, here's the facts and data, okay, that could completely bounce off the surface. Whereas if you go into a high data environment, or a real data dependent environment, that might be all it takes, and suddenly millions of dollars are spent. So, I really would say that as we think about industries, I think we're more thinking about the personalities of major players within that industry. And that it really boils down to understanding the culture of your specific organization.

Joe Krause  [00:31:38]: 

Excellent. Thank you. for that. You bring up Sears Roebuck, I always found it fascinating that you said it was like sales for home goods and things like that, I realized you can actually buy a home back in the day you can get a prefab home through a catalog, and they'll bring it in, they'll build it on your property. I thought that was a wild concept.

Deborah Roethler  [00:31:54]: 

I have a friend who lives in one.

Joe Krause  [00:31:59]: 

It's not it's not a bad situation. I was funny watching them build it was like a layer cake almost. Yeah. But with that being said that we've enjoyed the conversation. And we have time for one final question. And that question is the question we ask all our guests is that if you can go if you could go back in time and speak to yourself at the beginning of your career and strategy, what advice would you give yourself?

Deborah Roethler  [00:32:24]: 

I would probably say to myself, listen to your gut. I think sometimes we know whether or not something's going to work. We know we don't know exactly why. We don't know. We don't exactly know maybe what a person is doing on the team or what their resistance might be. But your gut knows, and really tuning in and listening to that voice. I think that's a really important thing to develop over time. You're never going to get 100% of the choices, right? Never. In fact, it sounds you know, according to Pareto, you only need to get about 20% of the choices right to look 80% Good. If you get the right choices, right.

Jonathan Morgan  [00:33:15]: 

Perfect. Well, we appreciate all the insights. I know I learned a lot during this a lot of good quotes in there that I will be saving for later use. Deborah, we appreciate your time and look forward to talking to you more in the future.

Deborah Roethler  [00:33:26]: 

All right. Thank you. Bye, guys.

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