Strategic planning: Lessons from the field

This past year Benefits Data Trust decided that we needed to step back and take a good honest look at who we are, what we are good at, and where we want to go. We interviewed a slew of consultants and found the right fit for us in Community Wealth Partners. We set up an Advisory Board that promised to really push us and help guide the process, and then we got to work. It was hard work – harder than we thought – and we learned a lot about ourselves, our business, and what we need to be successful. I also got a bird’s eye view of how to make sure strategic planning is worth it. Here are some key lessons that resonated with me and my team:

  1. Know what you want to know – Focus is so critical in building out a strategic plan. You must know what you truly want to know. If you don’t, I guarantee that you will get trapped trying to answer questions that don’t really matter. It is easy to get distracted. In order to keep your collective eye on the prize you need to all agree on what specific question you are trying to answer. Then you need to constantly check yourself and make sure that the work you are engaging in is helping you know what you want to know. Don’t be surprised if this part takes a long time.
  2. Open up – Let’s face it, consultants are expensive and we all have a lot of work to do. Do not waste your time or money hiring external help if you are not going to be truly, TRULY transparent. In any relationship you feel guarded at first, but it is absolutely essential to be utterly honest with your team and your consultant partners. A couple of times we asked ourselves, ‘do we want to share that’? The answer is yes, you need to. Open up about where you are vulnerable – that is where we all have room to grow and improve.
  3. Push through – For me – and this is the most important lesson I learned – wow can this work be frustrating! It is tedious and nuanced work. But when you are shaping the strategic direction of an organization nuances matter and you have to get them right. There were times when I thought yeah, this is close enough – but lying awake at night I knew it wasn’t – we had to get it just right. While leading the strategic planning process you need to set the expectation (with yourself as much as with your team) that there will be points of extreme frustration, but if you have the persistence to push through you will get to the point where you know in your head and your gut that you got it right.
  4. Engage – I learned so much from my team during our strategic planning process – they provided so much thoughtful insight. It matters that individuals from across the organization are truly engaged in the strategic planning process from the beginning. By fostering positive and comprehensive engagement across the organization you will get a more informed strategic plan, more engaged team members, and a stronger commitment from your team to the new direction that you create together.

The BDT family is informed, energized, and motivated by our strategic growth plan. The work was hard and it took a ton of time and resources. In the end – because we were clear about what we wanted to know, we opened up, we pushed through, and we engaged team members from across the organization – we have a plan that sets a clear road map for our growth. The next step now is to operationalize the plan and make it more than just an idea. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Ginger Zielinskie, MBA

Executive Director, Benefits Data Trust

Ginger Zielinskie, Executive Director of Benefits Data Trust, leads a diverse and dedicated team committed to transforming how people in need access public benefits. She oversees all organizational operations and strategic growth activities for the 501(c)3 non-for-profit. Beginning her tenure at BDT in January of 2006, Zielinskie started as a program manager and progressed to a leadership position in the fall of the same year. In this role, Ginger works to advance BDT’s organizational mission while keeping in sight the hundreds of thousands it serves.