Case Studies: Developing Organizations

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AAEP uses horse sense to improve teamwork and customer service

AAEP uses horse sense to improve teamwork and customer service

In 2007, American Association of Equine Practitioners executive director David Foley CAE had a sense that, even though the association’s members consistently praised AAEP’s staff for their level of customer service, the increasing complexity of the nation’s equine issues was increasing the stress on his team of 18 people. AAEP asked Pierce Management Development’s Tom Pierce to come to Lexington, Kentucky, and assess the situation.

David explained, “I knew we had some internal issues and I think everyone else knew it too, but until we measured and labeled them, we weren’t certain what to do about it.”

Every individual has a certain level of emotional intelligence (EQ) that can be measured. By practicing new behaviors to retrain the brain, a person’s EQ can be enhanced. But could an entire association staff’s emotional intelligence be measured and improved?

In spring 2008, Tom Pierce asked each AAEP staff member to respond anonymously to the questions on TalentSmart’s “Team EQ” assessment. The Web-based instrument then created a composite EQ score, derived from scores in each of four team-oriented competencies:

  • Emotional awareness
  • Emotion management
  • Internal relationship management
  • External relationship management

In June 2008, at the beginning of AAEP’s annual staff retreat, Tom revealed the four scores that the team had, in effect, given itself. Their “internal relationship management” score was off the charts…but in the wrong direction! Everyone just sat there in shocked silence.

Fast forward to one year later. Prior to AAEP’s 2009 staff retreat, “Building Our Strengths to Build Our Team,” Tom again asked staffers to complete the same Team EQ assessment. He began the June 2009 retreat by announcing that AAEP’s “internal relationship management” score was off the charts…but this time in the right direction, skyrocketing a remarkable 30 points!

David Foley recalled that “when this score appeared on the screen, the room broke out in applause. Not only was there relief on my part, but I could see it in everyone around the room.”

What made the dramatic difference? During How Emotionally Intelligent is Your Association?”—our presentation at ASAE’s (American Society of Association Executives) Annual Meeting in Toronto—David Foley and Sally Baker, AAEP’s director of public relations, explained that personnel changes during the year accounted for some, but not all, of the improved emotional intelligence and teamwork.

David looked first at his own leadership. “I took a hard look in the mirror and wondered what I was doing…or not doing…to contribute to this, through my own management style. I began to make some changes.”

He listed “increasing transparency and being a more open communicator, as well as trying to foster more communication within the office through regular staff meetings…more of an open door policy…if you hear something that doesn’t sound right, ask me and I’ll tell you. Trying to nip things in the bud before they spin out of control.”

David made it clear that everyone on the AAEP team has a responsibility to help shape the type of environment they want to work in. “By labeling this dysfunction and discussing problems and solutions together with Tom’s guidance as facilitator, we were able to work through the issues.”

Sally described a few of the “back-to-basics” changes in communication and collaboration:

By the close of the 2008 retreat, each member of the team committed to changing his or her attitude and behavior, starting immediately. Because all team members shared that retreat experience and commitment, they felt empowered to monitor each other in positive ways.

They also shared a common language to identify inappropriate workplace behavior. Example (with credit and thanks to trainers Ben and Roz Zander): “Downward spiral conversations” are conversations of no possibility. The AAEP staff noted the importance of more personal interaction in the office, reminiscent of MBWA—management by wandering around. One smiling staffer quipped, “We’ve even learned to recognize whose footsteps are coming down the hall.”

Here’s how Executive Director Foley wrapped up ASAE’s Toronto Learning Lab: “Unlike your IQ, emotional intelligence is something you can change and develop. As we’ve experienced as an office, and as Sally and I both have experienced individually, it can have such an impact on every aspect of both your personal and professional life. We’ve even introduced emotional intelligence concepts to our board of directors and future leaders at AAEP’s Emerging Leaders Workshop that Tom facilitated in October 2008.”

David concluded, “So is AAEP now emotionally intelligent? We’ve made progress. We have a ways to go, and we have to be certain we never slip back into the behaviors that were eroding excellence.”

In his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defined a learning organization as one which is “continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” Clearly, AAEP is a learning organization that knows when to bring in outside expertise…and then how to become own change agent.

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Owing to Tom Pierce's strategic planning leadership, we came away from the Retreat with unanimous support for the steps needed to achieve sustainability while at the same time revising our business model. Tom's facilitation style -- moderating discussion and debate, conducted with a firm but understanding ... Continue Reading

Barry N. Stone, Past Chairman of the Board
ISHA - International Skiing History Association, Manchester Center, Vermont

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