It is my experience that irrespective of the nature of the organisation, the successful ones are remarkably similar. They are [to paraphrase the first line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina],

“happy organisations are alike; while each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way”.

I have been fortunate to work in wide variety of industries, private enterprises, family businesses, independent schools, universities, listed entities, charities, and more. Without exception the successful ones share the following characteristics.

They have a compelling direction; a clear vision, purpose and strategy. Their leaders are committed to and live this vision. They use the vision to trade in hope and create the image of what the future will look like.

They are serious about talent; they recruit the best possible people for each position and empower them – they attract, train and retain talent. As Jim Collins commented, “people are not your greatest asset, the right people are”. Great organisations get the right people on the bus and hold them accountable.

They have an appropriate structure; their form fits the function. They constantly perform “paper audits” to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose, flat, efficient and functional.

They have clear roles and responsibilities; job descriptions are clear, concise, and relevant so staff know exactly what to do. These roles are directly linked to the strategic objectives of the organisation.

They have effective measurement and feedback systems and processes; these are built in as part of a continuous improvement, growth and development, and striving for excellence process rather than a “surveillance and annual tick box exercise”. Staff know at what level they are required to operate. KPIs are one thing, but having OKRs is critical.

They celebrate their successes; when you measure success, you can celebrate it. This creates a culture of positive reinforcement and an environment where employees become ‘winners in the workplace”.

They have enabling environments; with high levels of emotional intelligence where staff are mentored by senior staff and encouraged; what I call HERO environments where the leaders create a culture of Hope, Effectiveness, Resilience and Optimism.

They encourage and respect multipliers people who perform above the requirements of their job functions. People I refer to as valuable citizens, people who possess good sound values. These are staff who continually check in on their colleagues, who support them, who are loyal to the organisation, who are team players, and create positive work environments. They deal in the intangibles, building relations, developing communities building within the organisation and outside. They are the ones who steer the organisations moral compass. They are the ones who allow stakeholders and shareholders to sleep at night.

With reference back to Anna Karenina, what are the traits of an “unhappy” organisation?

When I perform an organisational effectiveness survey, it always the case that one, a combination of, or all six of the abovementioned characteristics are absent.

The most common one in alumni organisations (as it is in schools) is the absence of effective measurement and feedback system.

I conducted an audit at an independent school recently and began by saying, “why is it that the quickest way to empty a staffroom is to talk about appraisal/performance review systems”?

Staff went swiftly on the defensive, “because we fear the commoditisation of education”, came one answer. “We have no control over the calibre of student we receive”, came another. “Some of our greatest successes come from getting the most difficult student to simply pass”.

There were many other reasons given. I responded by asking the question, “do you measure your students?”, “yes of course”, came the answer, “why” I asked. “So, we can evaluate their performance, give them positive feedback in the areas where they are doing well, asses areas for improvement and put in place measures to help them develop to their full potential”. The school has a comprehensive record of every intervention, every test, every exam and every assessment with a pupil that follows the progress of the student through the school.

“Well it may surprise you that this is exactly what an effective staff review system entails”, I replied, you measure the aspects of your job that are within your control. You do not measure the “uncontrollable”.

The purpose of an effective set of key performance areas is in order to assist the employee in performing their function optimally, provide the support they require, the assistance in terms of mentoring and training to do so, and the opportunity to receive what I call “feed-forward”. A concept based on Marshall Goldsmiths concept of always looking forward in an attempt to become the best version of ourselves we can become. It has a strong element of mentoring and is a co-created, collaborative relationship.

In short, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. The best organisations build the striving for excellence into the DNA of the organisation. It becomes built into the processes and policies. It becomes more than just an outcome, it is a way of working.

My experience of having worked in and evaluating alumni departments leads me to believe that the successful ones are successful because they are run along the lines of successful organisations.

Where they are unique is in that they operate in an environment where there are multiple stakeholders – the university [including current staff and students], the alumni [who range from last years graduate to a 99-year-old farmer in the Karoo], donors, and future alumni.

Furthermore, they have had to evolve rapidly [as Robert Forman commented], from “ex-coaches who are good at golf, fine story-tellers, and know lots of people to professionals required to operate in a highly competitive field of work as executors of strategy, event coordination, liaising between the various constituencies and delivering on strategy. How one measures them is critical to the success of the organisation.”

As Bill Gates who battled initially when establishing the Gates Foundation commented, “In philanthropy I see people confusing objectives with missions all the time. A mission is directional. An objective has a set of concrete steps that you are intentionally engaged in and actually trying to go for. Its fine to have ambitious objectives, but how do you scale it? How do you measure it? I think its getting better though. Philanthropy is bringing in more people from high performance business environments, and they are tilting the culture.”

When we measure the effectiveness of an alumni relations department, we look at the following:

Is there a purpose or a vision? Is there a clear concise strategy to achieve the support the purpose and achieve the vision? Is this known to employees? Are employees absolutely clear as to what their roles and responsibilities are in delivering the strategy? Are there a clear set of metrics to measure an evaluate progress and performance of employees in achieving delivering on the strategy? It is this final point I wish to elaborate on as it is the single biggest short-coming in alumni relations organisations.