Strategic Planning Tips for Staff & Teams:

Hyper-focused:

Get hyper-focused both individually and as a team to increase the ability to produce desired outcomes and staff morale.  There are a variety of approaches that staff teams and managers can utilize to improve their management capabilities and outcomes. 

The Job Post: 

Define the purpose of each job function, prioritize the work, and standardize each function across the organization. This will ensure everyone is operating from a place of common understanding and alleviate workload fatigue. 

Process Improvement: 

Define and build understanding of existing processes. The more managers and staff define the existing processes, the more they will be able to improve or change them for better service delivery or operational functionality.

Data Collection: 

Technology is affording us the ability to capture information and data and, perhaps in the very near future, the ability to monetize the data. In order to capture data, senior leadership will need to provide the proper systems, but then it will be up to managers and staff to determine what data is relevant to producing outcomes for clients.

Outcomes: 

In order to generate data, improve processes, and ensure staff are focused on what is important, teams need to first define what types of outcomes they want to generate and for whom. Only then can the discussion begin around what data points feed those outcomes and how will operations need to change to achieve them.

Strategic Planning Tips for Senior Leadership:

Strategic Focus: 

Focus on the big picture, meaning organization-wide initiatives. Capacity is critical to successful implementation so focusing on a smaller number of large initiatives will achieve the greatest impact. 

Structural Alignment: 

Be sure to align organizational structure to strategy. In order to drive change and alignment to strategy, there are instances when organizational structure must be fundamentally shifted. While this can create tension and challenges, it will ultimately create a solid foundation for continued growth and future viability. 

Staffing Talent: 

Develop a talent acquisition strategy for hiring from outside the organization. The process of fulfilling strategy can, at times, require organizations to bring in talent that cannot be found internally. Introducing new talent, which brings different skills or management style, can disrupt or generate change in organizational culture. Having a comprehensive strategy for integrating new talent in to an organization is critical to implementation success. 

Systems: 

Consistently assess whether the right systems are in place to manage from and to deliver outstanding service. The systems we use to govern operations have the ability to alter behavior and shift workflow into new directions. The advancement of technology means these systems are constantly evolving 

Resource Allocation: 

Move resources to areas of strategic investment to ensure proper utilization and return. With many of the big paradigm shifts happening in every sector and industry, designing strategic plans can involve a significant amount of risk taking with new business models or services. Establishing the proper utilization of resources will help ensure investments are forecasted and understood thus increasing the speed of decision making

Let's Put the Strategy Back in Strategic Planning!

The days of Strategic Plans comprised of 5-10 goals that address market shifts are over. Organizations and Teams are stretched thin and with limited resources there simply isn’t enough capacity and bandwidth to implement and drive such all-encompassing plans.

Instead, initiative fatigue sets in and organizations find themselves on track to accomplish few goals, or worse yet, none at all. The strategic plan loses creditability, implementation comes to a halt, and organizational advancement and culture is negatively impacted. 

To avoid these pitfalls, leaders need a more focused strategy, with 2-3 targeted goals that, when accomplished, will have the greatest impact on relevance and sustainability. While the process of narrowing goals can be challenging, isolating a smaller number of major initiatives will keep employees focused and help drive transformational change. 

In collaborating with countless organizations over the years, we have seen first-hand the implementation and execution success that organizations achieve when narrowing the focus to a smaller number of key initiatives. 

It’s time to create more carefully designed strategic plans. Plans that are focused, clear, and prioritized around 2-3 change or transformation efforts that when implemented, will dramatically increase the probability of organization-wide success. 

The Philanthropic Evolution

What happens when a nonprofit that is organized for the purpose of helping others and making a difference in their community, needs help themselves? 

Lack of surplus (profit) margins, rising costs, competition for labor, and the decline in Federal and State funding is making it increasingly difficult for nonprofits to sustain themselves financially. There is even the question of whether the government will be able to continue their support of nonprofit organizations. 

This is where Philanthropy and the evolution of philanthropic giving can help.

Unlike for-profits, nonprofits do not carry margins large enough to fund growth and they lack access to capital markets, venture capital, or equity/ownership options. Nonprofits need resources to fund investments in growth, change capital, build capacity, acquire necessary talent, support consolidation, and to make improvements in technology infrastructure. Many organizations are in need of one-time investments to bring them into a competitive or viable position, while others require larger, on-going funding.

Foundations and donors are beginning to realize this need and the importance of investing differently but it is critical that the pace and geographic reach of this evolution increases. 

Philanthropic giving is positioned to become the new funding source for those nonprofit organizations that would otherwise be forced to close their doors due to the decline in government funding. This will allow countless capable organizations the ability to continue to add value to our towns, communities, and country. 

Start the conversation today and let’s help those that are helping others.

Developing Organizational Culture and One Person’s Paradise

In a small-town in northern Massachusetts, you will find a gas station owner and operator who lives each day as if it’s a day spent in Paradise. While many would automatically assume the location of his business to be idyllic, this man’s paradise is actually his state-of-mind.

He greets each customer that enters his doors with the word “Paradise!” and shouts it to those driving by. The walls of his business are covered with signs that read “Paradise”. He does all of this to share the joy he feels for being alive; running his own business; serving local customers; and for it simply being a new day.

He derives daily inspiration from his notion of paradise and his message has had a profoundly positive effect on the culture of his community. Visiting his gas station has become an experience that reminds people to appreciate life and enjoy the things that truly matter. More importantly, it inspires people to share that enthusiasm with those around them.

Now, consider for a moment how this concept may extend to a business or a nonprofit organization. If one man’s outlook can so positively influence the culture of an entire community then the same must hold true for leaders wishing to foster their own positive organizational culture. 

Taking the time to align expectations to messaging and then making the commitment to delivering the message clearly and consistently, is where building a Leader’s Paradise begins. 

Ask the Board Chair: Tim Allen, Board Chair of CLASS, Inc.

Recently, Tim Allen, Board Chair of CLASS, Inc. sat down to answer 5 questions about mergers:

CS: Many organizations are considering some form of consolidation or merger these days. As the Chairman of the Board of Directors at CLASS, Inc, how did your organization come to the realization that considering a merger was an important strategic move?

TA: There were a number of considerations, the first being the financial pressures that agencies like ours have been experiencing. Our operating costs increase with each fiscal year but our state and federal reimbursement rates have not kept pace with these increases. We needed to take a step back and consider all options that would allow us to preserve the mission of our agency. We needed to find a way to survive and thrive, and consolidation was our best option.

CS: The merger process requires a great deal of time, capacity, and energy from the Board of Directors. What should Boards considering mergers be prepared for?

TA: The Directors should be prepared to address new issues and a level of complexity that they may not have experienced ever before, both of which require the assistance of subject matter experts to help along the way.

We were fortunate in that we had people on our Board that had previous experience with for- profit mergers and acquisitions. While that has helped us a great deal, we still lacked the expertise in the non-profit space.

Finding someone to guide the Board in understanding the process, what it takes, what needs to be done, as well as the disruption that it causes, is critical in ensuring success.

CS: The merger process does not come without challenges. What are a few of the obstacles or challenges you have faced as Chair? As a Board? And how did you overcome them?

TA: Getting the right Team together, keeping that Team together and understanding what it’s going to take to keep the process moving forward.

As Chair, it was a challenge to keep the merger Team that we established as a subset of the Board in one piece. Every Board experiences turnover for a variety of reasons and we are not exempt from that. It’s a big commitment seeing this process through and holding that Team together. This was something we struggled with. My challenge was to keep that Team together because we needed the knowledge, experience, and comfort that we were accustomed to, during a time of great disruption and uncertainty.

Another challenge stems from the reality that there are many internal and external groups invested in the process that have a seat at the table. We worked hard and found success by keeping open communication with everyone throughout the process. We made sure that everyone was part of the process from its inception and that the level of engagement remained consistent.

It is important for Boards to remember that any challenges, such as those I mentioned, shouldn’t outweigh the benefits of a merger.

CS: Successful mergers are about culture and people, such as Board Members, Staff, and Clients. What insights do you have concerning working with and unifying two Boards?

TA: The best thing we did was to establish a working committee from each organization.

Early on, we arranged a meeting between the two committees. We got to know each other, established a working relationship, and developed a respect for each other. This became our foundation and the mutual respect we had for each other had a trickle-down effect. We took our excitement and comfort with each other back to our respective Boards and that had a very positive impact.

CS: What advice would you give other Board Chairs or Board Members that are considering a merger?

TA: First and foremost, if you don’t have anyone on your Board who has ever been through a merger or acquisition, get help fast. It is always going to be more work than you thought and there is always going to be something that comes up that you didn’t anticipate. Those are the biggest takeaways.

I would also advise the Board to take a close look at other agencies that they can work with and how that relationship will play out. Consider agencies they could partner with to more effectively meet the needs of those served. Seek-out an agency or agencies that have resources that can be shared that may be too expensive to acquire alone.

Industry Trends: The Speed of Decision Making

The amount of time that leaders once had to make decisions has greatly diminished over the last two years.  In today’s on-demand world, CEO’s are now expected to process and react at a much faster pace.

As CEO’s work to keep up with this increase, they must also consider the impact this acceleration has on the working relationship between the Board of Directors and Senior Leadership Team.

In many cases, decisions made by the CEO must first be approved by the Board of Directors. While this is important in regard to checks and balances, which is part of the fiduciary obligation of the Board, and in creating a culture of Teamwork, the outside world is far less understanding and forgiving as they wait on decisions. 

So how do we balance the demands on CEO’s to make swift and sound decisions with the legal oversight and responsibilities of the Board of Directors? 

Solutions may vary but we have 6 tips for empowering CEO’s to make decisions while ensuring the fiduciary obligations of the Board are being met:

  • Be sure your strategic plan reflects the alignment of the Board and Leadership to common decision making

  • Set criteria, such as spending limits and partnership expectations, ahead of time for ease of decision making

  • Create and empower a Board task force to tackle decisions related to specific topics in a more timely manner 

  • Allot for time at each Board meeting to discuss and gain preliminary approval on any potential decision the CEO will need to make on behalf of the organization

  • Change policies that limit non-material decision making

  • Keep honest and open communication to ensure the Board is never caught off guard or surprised by new information 

The pace of decision making and the pressure on leaders to move quickly is positioned to continue to increase. Stay ahead of this trend starting today and determine ways your Board can be adaptive and engaged in this new landscape.

Merger Announcement: Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. & North Shore Elder Services

Please join us in congratulating our client, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. on their merger announcement!

The Boards of Directors for Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. and North Shore Elder Services have announced their intention to merge these two organizations effective July 1, 2019. 

Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley will remain the sole entity of the merger agreement and continue operations at both current locations in Danvers and Lawrence after the July 1st merger date. Services in the communities of Danvers, Marblehead, Middleton, Peabody, and Salem will continue under the name, North Shore Elder Services. Joan Hatem-Roy will be the Chief Executive Officer for the combined organization.

This merger brings together two strong, highly regarded aging service organizations that have been serving older adults and their families in northeastern Massachusetts for more than four decades. The combined strengths and resources of these two organizations will create many opportunities for innovative and expanded services.

The success of this merger must be credited in large part to the incredible Leadership from both organizations, working together to unite their Staffing Teams and organizational cultures. 

At Curtis Strategy, we feel privileged to have been chosen as the facilitator and advisor for this merger, working collaboratively to bring these organizations together. We would like to thank the Leadership and Staff that we had the opportunity to work with throughout this journey, and we wish them great success as they forge ahead as a united Team. 

Ask the CEO: Jean Phelps, CEO of LifeLinks, Inc.

Recently, Jean Phelps, CEO of LifeLinks Inc. sat down to answer 4 questions that are on the minds of many Human Services leaders today. We would like to thank Jean for her time and her insights and it is such a pleasure for us to be able to share them with you:

CS: What do you think the human service sector will look like in 5-10 years?

JP: There will be fewer agencies in the sector as overall government spending on traditional programs is capped or cut off.  Agencies will merge or collaborate in order to retain market share and some will be forced to close. 

A greater focus will be placed on private pay or insurance coverage for programs that the government used to pay for.  For those programs funded by the government, regulation and oversight will become even more stringent. 

Less services will be provided overall, as a result of more stringent eligibility requirements for consumers.  

There will be more emphasis on families as caregivers with a focus on supports that are provided in the person’s home rather than in a program. This will result in less need for facility-based programs. 

CS: What does an organization succeeding in that sector look like?

JP: It would be nimble, flexible, and willing to try new ways of meeting the needs.

It would be both internally focused on quality, outcomes and measurement and externally focused on partnerships and collaborations that will enhance and augment internal operations.  

It would be well-partnered with government so that, to the extent that it’s possible, they can influence the coming change. 

CS: What major changes do leaders have to start planning for now?

JP: There are major shifts in funding methodologies.  (We were somewhat caught unaware, when we asked for and finally received a rate methodology for funding of state contracts. We didn’t anticipate the ensuing ongoing utilization review process.) 

Our workforce is dwindling in the immediate future there will not enough bodies to do the work required in human service.  As families become caregivers, staff roles will need to evolve to accommodate supporting families and for oversight and monitoring.

Organizations need to evolve to accommodate change quicker.  We will need to invest in and embrace a heavier reliance on technology and related infrastructure and resources to support service recipients and those who support them. 

CS: What advice would you give other leaders operating in today’s eco-system?

JP: Pick your head up and look at what’s going on around you.  Become informed; go to meetings, conferences, read journal articles to know what’s happening in and around your environment. 

Assert yourself as needed with authority and confidence into discussions that are happening about you but without you.  Create your image as a confident expert who brings added value to every conversation. 

View change and risk as opportunities.  Make mistakes and learn from them. 


Jean Phelps’ career in human services management spans almost 40 years.   Her strong skill set in the areas of administration and finance, programming and strategic planning along with expertise on issues related to developmental and intellectual disabilities has been instrumental in guiding organizations to meet their strategic goals.  Jean has been CEO at LifeLinks/ The Arc of Greater Lowell since 2008.  Since then, LifeLinks has expanded and re-envisioned itself, developing a reputation for high quality, innovative and cost-effective programs that support more than 600 individuals and families in the LifeLinks service network. 

Jean is a Regional Representative to the National Council of Executives of the National Arc.  Jean is the immediate past board chair of the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP) in Massachusetts, is active in AAIDD and is an AAIDD Fellow.  Jean holds an MSW from Boston University and a BA in Psychology from Clark University.  She lives in Saugus, Massachusetts with a very supportive and patient husband, a Norwegian forest cat and a not so patient Labrador Retriever. Travel (especially to the UK where her oldest son and his wife live), reading and coloring for stress relief fill her minimal free time.

Are Mergers on Your Mind?

Conversations concerning mergers are now occurring across the country more frequently than ever before. We are seeing collaborations and merger discussions across every sector, including healthcare, human services, and even higher education. We believe there is real value in considering mergers as a strategy, but many organizations may not be prepared for the journey. This leaves many to wonder: What needs to be done while considering a merger?

There is no quick answer to this question due to the numerous factors and variables involved. However, we’d like to offer you the following tips from our own merger facilitation experience to help get you started:

  • Engage your Board. The Board of Directors is the single most important stakeholder when considering this type of strategy, so setting a plan for Board engagement and communication is critical. Even more important is making sure that the Board is part of this process from its inception and that the engagement remains consistent. 

  • Your why. What needs are you trying to fulfill in your organization? What value and benefit would a collaboration add? Understanding what your organization needs and how it can be improved, provides the foundation to support assessment and decision making.

  • Build it or Buy it. For those organizations that have reached a size where organic growth is no longer a viable approach, considering mergers as a means of addressing growth strategy, cost savings, quality, or competitiveness is a viable solution.

  • Understand risks and capacity demands. It takes a significant amount of time to build strategy, find candidates, manage the deal, and then integrate once the merger deal is finalized. This could translate to an organization being unable to undertake any other initiatives during this time. Factoring this in to planning avoids the pitfalls of being overburdened or strained.

  • Answer difficult questions first! Once the process is underway, there are several critical questions concerning the surviving entity that need to be answered in order to avoid wasting time: Who will serve as the Executive Team and Board Officers? What will the surviving brand be? Who will serve on the Board of Directors? Answering these questions early on will make decision making much easier as the process moves ahead.

  • Make the tough decisions. Once the merger contract is signed, the implementation process begins. It is during this phase that decisions need to be made around restructuring. These decisions are often very difficult and stressful but, with the right approach, frustrations can be minimized. For our insights on restructuring during an Organization Design project, click here.

  • Mergers are about people. An organization’s culture is formed over time through shared values and mergers begin with the people who make up that culture. In part, a merger is the unification of two cultures, so you’ll need to allow ample time for due diligence. During this phase difficult questions will arise as an in-depth review of financials, governance, human resources, organization charts, and planning documents will occur. This is also a time to become more familiar with people and their abilities through engagement, communication, and feedback.

Considering a merger is a significant decision for any organization but preparedness is key. A successful merger will help an organization eliminate competition, acquire talent, save money, expand geographic impact, and improve quality of service, among other countless benefits. Most importantly, a merger can ensure survival in a highly competitive marketplace and allow organizations to continue the positive impact they have on society.

If you have an interest in learning about merger strategy and discussing whether it is a viable approach for you, please connect with us here.