The People Pivot Conundrum

When your business model pivots, your team’s roles and responsibilities also need to shift. Here’s how to start the process.

Written by Alex Jimenez

Last week we shared our thoughts on what organizations need to do when beginning to pivot their business operations model. We hope that you found the first part in this series valuable, even if it only served as a gut check for what you and your organization had already put into motion. This week, we want to address what is arguably the hardest part of the pivot: the people! Yes, even though you are a start-up now, you do have staff in place who will need to support your new operational model. Let us dive in.

In general, people are creatures of habit (just ask my wife). People crave structure, even if it is not well-defined (especially in their professional endeavors). In my experience, organizations that have well-defined roles and responsibilities, documented processes and procedures, and a mature operating structure tend to have more success and reduced attrition. If you were one of those organizations, good on you, but now you are a start-up and you will likely have to “blow up” the prior operating structure to create a new one that supports your pivot.  That well-defined structure people had latched onto will become nebulous for a while, and it is going to take every leadership tool on you have to get your team to move into the future successfully. If you do this right, there will most likely be some tough decisions you’ll face as you navigate the path. But, if you’re candid with yourself, transparent with your team, and committed to your future, then success will undoubtedly follow the pain. 

Say No to The Staff Retrofit

I fortunately have been (or unfortunately depending on your perspective) involved in five organizational mergers/acquisitions in my twenty-year career. I have also experienced nearly a dozen re-organizations in that same timespan. This experience has allowed me to see the successes and failures close-up, and I will tell you, the failures outweigh the successes two to one. The biggest issue I have encountered is, simply put, the staff retrofit.

When you are re-imagining the delivery of your services, the worst thing you can do is build your new delivery structure based on the talent you already have.  Does this mean you will not leverage your current talent pool? Of course not.  This means you need to start the process by simply imagining that you have no employees. Bob from accounting does not exist and neither does Sharon from member services (I like them both too, but for this exercise you must forget them). This is exactly what you would do if you were starting the business from the ground up.

  1. Create the organizational chart of your future business.
    Do not worry about the reporting structure, just list out the positions you believe will be needed to support this new business model.

  2. Define the top five responsibilities for each role. 
    These should be the tactical responsibilities for the role, not the skills needed to be successful. That will come later. 

  3. Vet your progress with a leader from your team.
    Make sure you help them avoid the typical “Bob would be great for that role” rabbit hole—remind them that Bob does not exist right now.

  4. Start documenting the key skills and talents that will be required to be successful in each role, once you are confident in the outcome of steps 1 through 3. 

  5. After completing the above, you are ready to create the organizational chart with a reporting structure. 
    This does not need to be formalized yet, but it should be in a clear, concise format that can be explained to others. I would recommend creating a responsibility and skill matrix in a table format to support the visual org chart.

Now that you have the visual org chart and the responsibility/skill matrix developed, it is time to begin planning your implementation approach. How you align the updated organizational structure to your current talent pool will be as critical (if not more so) than the structure itself. 

The Talent Alignment

Now that you have a well-defined outline for the talent and roles that your organization will require to deliver on your new service model, you need to align your existing talent with the new roles. If you adhered to the chronological approach outlined above, then, at this point, you will likely encounter gaps while aligning existing talent with new roles. This is to be expected, and, honestly, if you did not encounter gaps you would need to question the outcomes of the prior exercise. Just remember, an operational model is a perpetually evolving thing, and it will never be perfect. Your #1 goal should be getting your talent to align as best as possible in the short term, while planning for incremental improvements in the medium and long term. Here are a few reminders as you proceed with this stage of your pivot.

  • Focus on skillsets for the new positions, not performance in prior ones.  

Your new events will be digital, so does the talent pool on your events team understand that reality? Are they innately strong with digital, or have they shown the ability to embrace digital tools?  If no, this can be an opportunity for your team to grow, or this may be a gap that needs to be addressed to deliver your new services.

  • Attempt to re-purpose your professional development budgets/plans to help your team learn the new skills that will assist them in their new roles.

This will go a long way in developing the skills of your team and expediting the success of your pivot. 

  • Be prepared to have candid conversations with your individual team members and get their feedback and thoughts on what you are proposing.

The successful business shifts I have seen always include the broader team in discussions to ensure engagement and buy-in.

I have always been a believer that most employees do not fail because they are incapable; rather, I believe it has more to do with being in the wrong role. The leadership teams that are the most truthful with themselves about the talent they currently have and how it aligns (or does not) with their new business model will be the ones most likely to flourish in the long run. Do not try and fit people into roles they simply cannot excel in. You will be doing nobody favors. While everybody should be a given a chance to grow, some team members will not be able to grow in a particular role. Do not force it

Creating a Successful Pivot

Before you sit down with your team members, there is one more task you need to address. You need to ensure you have defined the measurable outcomes for the new business model, at both macro and micro levels. You will not be able to create a successful pivot without metrics, and you need to make sure these are clearly defined, measurable, and ownable by all. You need to have a well-defined process for monitoring and communicating them. Next week, we will wrap up this series with some thoughts on this component of pivoting your business.