5. Organize and calibrate your “funnel”
Having established the team, you need a disciplined process – and one that largely doesn’t involve you – to establish priorities, process the many potential external activities in which you could engage, and allocate your time. The prioritization, as discussed previously, should flow from an assessment of what activities will add the greatest value, given the amount of time you have budgeted for this work. It’s all about making (and critically having others help you make) the right trade-offs. Michael Porter famously said that “the essence of strategy is deciding what not to do.” That’s true, but the essence of execution is actually not doing what you decide not to do and this takes discipline. What you need is a “funnel” into which flows the wide range of offers and opportunities you will have and out of which comes the focused, coherent, value-added set of activities in which you will engage. It’s your job to build the team that runs the funnel, and to provide them with the prioritization criteria that governs its workings. It’s their job (with some oversight by you) to make the prioritization and scheduling process run like a proven algorithm.
6. Share the load
You shouldn’t be the only executive shaping the external environment for your organization. In addition to your support team, other members of the executive team (e.g., your General Counsel for government regulation, head of business development for potential acquisitions, CHRO for employment branding or CMO for key customer relationships) should help develop the external engagement strategy, leverage their networks to support it and have clear roles and responsibilities in its execution. You also could engage leaders at lower levels in the organization, especially facility-level leadership, to exert influence in their respective communities. In hospital systems, for example, each hospital is a substantial employer and customer embedded in a specific community. The leader of each hospital, therefore, has the potential to be an influential figure in that community. Thus, leaders at many levels can play valuable roles in helping to shape the external environment in which your company can thrive.
7. Create a robust system for supporting external-facing work
Finally, it’s a tremendous help if everyone – including the involved executives and the external relations support team – uses the same concepts, terms and tools to guide this work. Identifying and understanding key stakeholders, for example, is an essential foundation for effectively in shaping the external environment. There are good, simple-to-use tools available for mapping stakeholders and understanding networks of influence. Likewise, there is a lexicon of common influence strategies, such as the use of sequencing (deciding the right order in which to have conversations with key stakeholders) to build alliances. It also makes sense to have a system for issue tracking and management. While it is important to have the right tools, the key is to have everyone, to the greatest extent possible, using the same ones. So, you should bring your support team to the table to evaluate which will be the best to use.
We are mindful that there are no guarantees in good governance. In healthcare, especially, we have learned over the years that what works in, say, Des Moines or Tacoma may produce different results in Trenton or Tampa. But by adopting this set of seven organizing principles, you will find it much easier to manage your time and be effective in shaping the external environment. In doing so, you and others on your team will be better able to make a lasting difference in your community and your organization. After all, isn’t that what effective leadership is all about?