Assessing an organisation

I’ve made a few moves during the course of my career which have involved assessing the strength of organisations and the opportunities that lie ahead of them, so I though it would be useful to capture some of the key elements that are useful to consider:

The team – it’s an old saw but it happens to be true: an organisation is its people. I’ve seen well-positioned organisations getting nowhere thanks to dysfunctional teams and apparently minor players punching well above their weight thanks to an ambitious, well-integrated bunch of people. Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest things to assess from outside which is why it’s always worth trying to spend time with the organisation (their annual conference is usually a good stress-test) before deciding whether to join them! A dysfunctional team can be sorted out, but it means you’ll spend a considerable amount of your early days (which are critical to establishing your credibility) looking inward and making ‘tough decisions’;

The senior team – alongside the wider question of the overall team, the strength of the Senior Management Team is really important. Do you like and respect them? Do they like and respect each other? Is the division of responsibilities clear? Would you be: confident asking them to cover critical external meetings? Do they give a good account of the organisation? Do they operate autonomously or are they used to checking everything past the CEO? Thankfully, I’ve been fortunate to work with strong Management Teams in my career but I know from working with other organisations the risks when a Management Team don’t get on (or get on too well!);

The market position – is the organisation well-positioned in an established market, nursing a declining market, neglecting opportunities for lateral expansion or transitioning into new areas? They all have their merits but to an extent organisations are responsive to the dominant external logic of the markets they serve. Understanding where the organisation sits in this dominant logic is key to developing your strategy and to identifying opportunities for growth;

The reputation – is the organisation well-liked? This can be a good thing – indicating that it serves an existing market well – or it can be a bad sign that it is coasting, serving an existing market with the ‘same old’ products and services and avoiding the risk of innovating. If you’re going to attach your personal brand to the organisation’s it’s important to be clear how that dynamic is going to work;

The business model – it’s amazing how many organisations (public and private sector) subsist for years with the wrong business model. Private companies delivering public services that would be far better off as charitable or social enterprises. Public bodies that should be membership organisations. Premium services that should be Freemium. Unpacking the wrong business model and transitioning to the ‘right’ one can be very hard indeed since it means diverting revenues and attention while continuing to serve the outgoing proposition;

Key financial indicators – some organisations (many really) are effectively zombies. They have reached an equilibrium model which allows them to survive but not to grow, change or adapt. Several years of deficit budgets can sometimes be a really healthy sign of risk-based investment in future growth. The real warning sign is an historic collapse in revenues followed by a 5-7 year period or ‘normal’ operation at a much reduced level. The organisation believes it has stabilised whereas often it is stagnating. Very often this is where the opportunity to join the organisation arises – the previous incumbent has given up after years of trying to pull the financial back up again.

The Board – the dynamic between a Chair and a CEO is critical, as is the relationship with the Board of Trustees. Some Boards operate as a proxy Management Team, while others turn up quarterly for meetings having only glanced at their papers. It is a good idea to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Board when considering the organisation. Are there obvious gaps in their spheres of influence? Is there a culture of persistently voting in the same people as officers? The quality of the Trustee’s Report in the annual Accounts (in public organisations) is often a good indicator of their degree of engagement.


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