Kent Layden is a principal at Second Wind Consulting, LLC. In his more than 30 years of practice, he has conducted over 300 organizational development projects for corporations, governments, and non-profits to improve efficiency, energy, teamwork and communication. Recently, he shared some of his ideas with me.

JATHAN JANOVE: If an organization is serious about improving the leadership and communication skills of the individuals within it, how should it start?

KENT LAYDEN: First, determine if improvement is needed, and if so, determine if there is enough trust among members to work together to improve the organization. My experience suggests that most people want to do a good job and make their organizations work effectively—even efficiently. If the initial assessment seems affirming, then conduct a needs assessment to find out the details. Generally, people within an organization know what’s going on—the good as well as the bad. So I conduct interviews with a representative cross sample of employees to gain their perspective. Preferably, these are in-person interviews.

JJ: What do you ask  during these interviews?

KL: I ask four questions. What about the organization works well? What needs improvement? What suggestions for improvement do you have? And, if you were “king or queen” for a day, what would you do? I probe their responses to gain insight, and I keep what they say confidential.

JJ: What do you do next?

KL: Once the interviews are complete, I prepare a summary report of what I’ve heard in the interviews. This report lays out the answers to the four questions, plus my observations. We then convene a strategic planning retreat and review the report together. What did I get right? Was anything wrong? What did I miss? From there, I ask the group to forecast on a scale from 0-100 how well it will do in accomplishing its goals by the end of the retreat. This prediction lets me and the group know what the group’s confidence level is as we begin. Then we develop a strategic plan together to capture where the group wants to go and how it plans to get there.

JJ: What are optimal conditions for such a retreat?

KL: First, all key leaders must be present. Second, the retreat should occur off-site to avoid distractions. Third, the retreat should extend over at least one night so that participants can interact outside of the meeting and ideas can germinate. More often than one might think, the most productive discussions happen at breaks and outside of the formal meeting.

JJ: What approach have you found useful at such retreats?

KL: I facilitate discussion about where the organization is and where we want it to go. Beginning with the summary report, we assess what we call the company’s SWOT or strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. We brainstorm as a whole group or in breakout groups. As we proceed, we report our findings to one another so that all are informed of our progress. In this way, we develop the main components of a strategic plan together: short and longer term goals; action items with timetables; assignments detailing who is committed to do what, by when, and for how much time and resources; and develop explicit evaluation criteria that define how one would know if the action items were being accomplished.

JJ: What should happen after the retreat to keep momentum going?

KL: The group should finalize the plan and make sure that it is endorsed by all involved. Then, over time, hold quarterly (or so) check-ins with leaders and stakeholders to assess progress and identify successes and obstacles that have been encountered in implementing the plan and reaching the group’s goals. Where appropriate, I facilitate review sessions that update the plan based on the experience of the group. I note accomplishments and make modifications or additions depending on what’s happened, and I report this information to all. I believe it’s important that all members of the group have access to information about the results of the plan’s ongoing implementations at each step of the process.

JJ: For organizations contemplating such an initiative, what steps would you recommend they take?

KL: Getting an organizational “second wind” is rarely an inside job. Search out experienced external help. Look for a consultant who has compatible values, who truly listens, and who tailors his or her approach to your organization’s needs. Look for someone who has developed organization-tested and proven techniques and processes to speed transitions to more effective and efficient teams, while taking into account organizational dynamics, stakeholder relations, resources and structure, and the organization’s overall big picture.

Kent Layden is a principal in Second Wind Consulting and can be reached via Second Wind’s website.