Creating an Environment for Excellence | Athletic Business

Creating an Environment for Excellence

This article appeared in the June issue of Athletic Business. Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

Jordan Shenker is CEO of Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J.Jordan Shenker is CEO of Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J.


What inspires your team to achieve excellence? What inspires you to lead your team to excellence? Find these answers and you will know what drives excellence in any organization. Without a clear understanding of what drives their workers, organizations are challenged to maintain excellence over time.

Last June, I took on my current role as CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, N.J. At the time, this JCC was facing some financial challenges and had experienced layoffs and budget cuts. The future sustainability of several business areas was in question, and staff morale was low.

During the first months, I met one on one and in small groups with most of the 175 full-time employees and surveyed hundreds of full- and part-time staff to gain more insight into the organization's situation. We learned there were challenges with communication and understanding organizational direction, as well as low levels of staff satisfaction. There were also, however, high levels of personal engagement — staff members really cared about their work but felt disconnected organizationally. I viewed this as great news, as a passionate and committed workforce could be engaged and their impact leveraged with strategic intent.

As a service-based business, staff engagement was critical to achieving any of our desired objectives, so we developed an action plan that positioned staff as the architects and builders of our success. Critical to our plans were the key concepts of attitude, imagination, courage and action.

Ab16 Show Logo 200Jordan Shenker will be speaking on budget development and using metrics to manage your business at the Athletic Business Show, Nov. 17-19 in Orlando.

Positive energy is a key ingredient in achieving excellence and critical to any organization's success. The power of positive thinking is an invaluable characteristic and difficult to teach, so the best way to make sure your team has the right attitude is to hire people who are already positively focused. Hire for attitude, not aptitude, to increase the likelihood of achieving goals. Do you want staff to focus on opportunities or challenges? Solutions or problems? Options or obstacles? People with a positive attitude see what is possible and work toward getting there.

Find people who not only see the glass as half full, but who ask for the pitcher or water source to refill the glass or fill the glasses of others. This is the positive aspirational attitude that will be a key difference-maker on any team or in any company.

Surround yourself with people who think differently than you and welcome different points of view. The more diversity you embrace on your team, the greater the possibility for imagination and growth. As Mark Twain said, "It is not what you do not know that gets you into trouble, it is what you know for certain that just is not so." Challenge every assumption you think you know for certain and encourage team members to push ideas in new directions. Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn; pivot and try again to encourage experimentation to find the best possible opportunities.

People who have unique and creative ideas are more likely to help build strong teams and organizations. Ask how we can enhance the experience, add value or further differentiate ourselves in the market, and then push your organization to control the narrative of that message.

Change is difficult. We tend to instinctively resist change and are far more comfortable with what we have done even when we know that our current behavior is not working. Albert Einstein said, "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got."

If you want different results, you need the courage to change. Often the best time to change, innovate, expand, improve or go in a new direction is when things are going well, not in times of crisis. Rejecting the philosophy of "that's the way we've always done it" makes room for innovation. It allows us to embrace the possible positive future and the ability to champion change.

Attitude, imagination and courage are aspirational ideas, but only when we take action can we put these ideas into practice and make a difference. Connecting the dots between the first three concepts and the fourth is the essential key to achieving excellence, and through excellence we achieve success.

What does success look like? When you are ready to act, make sure all staff members share a common understanding of the answer. If you want to know if everyone is on the same page, walk around your company and ask staff members what the most important part of any key initiative is and see how many answers you get. The answers should all feel similar and share common language. The entire staff needs a common vision of what we want to accomplish, how to recognize when the objective is achieved and how to measure progress to make sure we are on track or need to change course. If you connect the dots to each of these questions for all staff members working on any initiative, you will significantly increase the chances for success. This clear definition of success provides the bull's eye on the target that action seeks to achieve.

These concepts were critical to the action plan we developed to reroute our organization's course. Attitude had to start with our key management modeling positive behavior and demonstrating belief in the expectation of success. Imagination gave us the ability to see beyond our current structure and identify new possibilities. Committing to a staff-first rather than customer-centric strategy required courage at every level as we transitioned from management control to self-directed staff teams. Action turned the plan into a reality, as we empowered staff to do what was needed and gave them the space and time to achieve results.

Over the next several months we developed several self-directed staff teams that crossed functions, departments and hierarchy, tasked with addressing specific aspects of staff needs: internal communication, professional development, strengths initiatives and staff recognition.

The internal communications team identified what communication systems were working to inform staff what was happening, what was not working and what needed to be created. The professional development team created three sub-teams: social/interpersonal, job-related education and personal wellness/development. The strengths initiative team launched a project to focus on strengths-based leadership and focus staff members on leveraging their areas of strength. The staff recognition team developed criteria for staff awards and identified ongoing opportunities to recognize the achievement of staff members. Each team identified action plans, shared its plans at staff meetings and took initiative to implement its ideas, and each team continues to evolve based on ongoing assessment of needs.

Ten months after our work began, the impact was evident: profitability was up 5 percent through our second quarter, staff satisfaction levels were up 40 percent, collaboration between departments had increased significantly, participation in programs was up, and customer feedback was consistently more positive.

Planning for our next program year this fall has begun and the trajectory for participation and engagement is up in every key program area throughout the organization. Despite the impact we have already seen, we know we're just getting started. We must continue to course-correct on an ongoing basis to keep us pointed in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Creating an environment for excellence"


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