This month we’re talking with some of our favorite Executive Directors about strategic plans. In this interview, Mark Roeder, of the Adult Congenital Heart Association (ACHA) shares his thoughts on the importance of a strategic plan to help you get through these interesting times.

Mark has been with ACHA for just over three years, and the strategic plan was one of his first undertakings. They created a seven year overall plan, with specific three year components. Mark believes having external facilitation allowed people to be more open when discussing their thoughts and fears. Watch the interview below and if you’d like to talk about starting your own strategic planning process, make sure to fill out our contact form.



Liz: Hi Mark. Welcome. I thought maybe we could start with you introducing yourself and the Adult Congenital Heart Association.
Mark: Sure, absolutely. So my name is Mark Roeder, and I’m the president and CEO for the Adult Congenital Heart Association, or ACHA as we are more commonly known. And our organization is the only national patient advocacy organization that is exclusively dedicated to the now nearly two million adults in the country who are living with adult congenital heart disease. And as most people may or may not know, congenital heart disease means that it’s a structural defect of the heart that individuals were born with. And oftentimes, when they are very young in age and going through their pediatric years, many of these individuals have had surgeries and treatments and whatnot. And now, with the advances in science and technology and treatment, more and more of these patients who are born with heart defects are living longer and longer lives. And that’s the whole purpose of our organization is to help to make sure that they stay in the specialized care that they need, they have the education programs and opportunities and social opportunities that they need, and that they really are taking care of themselves throughout life. This truly is a lifelong disease.
Liz: That’s great. Thank you so much. I think that context around the organization is helpful in just understanding the reach that you all have and who your members are. So today we’re here to talk about strategic planning. And I wondered what was ACHA’s decision– or what made you decide to use an outside firm to facilitate your planning process?
Mark: So we decided to engage in our next strategic planning session, which was back in 2017 now. It was an interesting time in ACHA’s history. I had joined the organization just a few months prior, so I was still at the point in time where I was trying to learn a lot of new terminology, trying to learn about a lot of new individuals, and just sort of the history and activities of the organization. The organization also was in an interesting place just in terms of its evolution. It was coming upon the end of its second decade and had primarily up until that time– although we were a national organization, we were still very much sort of operating as a sort of small grassroots– if you will, sort of a mom-and-pop type of operation. And so the decision, both in terms of sort of hiring me and also in thinking through the next strategic planning activity to really try and use this as an opportunity to start to move the organization forward in a much more sort of professional organized fashion with a vision of being a very different entity now moving into our third decade. And so I think to do that well we needed to have outside facilitation. And for me, I’ve been fortunate to be part of many strategic planning processes prior to coming to ACHA. Some of them that have been managed internally by either the person in my position and your members of the board, and also activities that were handled by outside facilitation. What I’ve always found is that when you use an outside facilitator. It allows for there to be much more open discussion, whether we– none of us intend to sort of allow our biases, if you will, to overwhelm a conversation. But when you are the staff person or even when you are a board member and you have been involved with an organization for such a long period of time, you develop certain biases about how you think things should be done, what you think is right, what you think is wrong. And oftentimes, you need that individual who can come into it and take a fresh look and really say, “You know what? I understand what you’re saying, but at the same time, have you considered X, Y, Z?” And so, my personal belief is that for a process like this to truly produce the best results, you have to allow that outside facilitation just to keep everybody thinking open-minded throughout.
Liz: So, I know a lot of people sort of dread a strategic planning process. So I wonder, were there any happy surprises or any positives that came out of it that might encourage people to want to embark on this sort of a thing?
Mark: As I think, with this last process that we went through, I think probably the happiest– well, there were two happy surprises, I would say. The final product that we wound up with, which was basically, we agreed to a seven-year vision that we call it ‘Vision 2025’. And basically starting in 2018 and goes through that. Is a vision that is very much– it extends the organization. It forces the organization to think differently. It is probably a much more aggressive vision than I think this organization maybe even intended when it started the process. And so, and the way that we, I think, then structurally organized it, we had this aggressive vision, but then underneath of that, we then worked through the first three years of that vision. So, what we were able to do was to go think really, really big picture and sort of, “Where do we want to be when we grow up?” But then had some very, very solid pieces that we put in place to get us through the first three years. And we’ve made very good progress on one of those first three years and now, believe it or not, we’re starting to think about the next round. And so, that was a happy surprise because, again, having been involved with many strategic planning initiatives, I had never done sort of that, if you will, that two-step approach where you have this vision that extends much, much longer than the actual sort of strategic plan that you put in place. And so, I thought that was a– the other sort of happy surprise, if you will, was one of the things when I was coming into this role at HCHA and was beginning to have conversations with various board members and whatnot was, I heard all these horror stories about past efforts that they had put in place in terms of strategic planning and oh my goodness, we’ve really had some disasters and we’ve actually fired several of our facilitators during the course of the process and this and that and whatever.
And quite frankly, it was our six-month process was a lot of work. I think on everybody’s part. And it was a lot of tough soul searching and a lot of tough conversation, but it resolved from a positive frame of mind and resulted in a product that is solid and I think everybody felt good about and there were no sort of, I would say, major battles along the way. So, that was a happy outcome.
Liz: I’d say that’s a happy outcome. Yeah, that’s great. So, no process is perfect though. So, if you were to sort of look back, is there any anything that you would do differently or any advice that you might give someone who’s embarking on this process?
Mark: So I think that– I think the obvious is it would’ve been great if we could have had a crystal ball and sort of known that COVID-19 was lurking on the horizon, right? I think the other thing that– and again, now that I have been with the organization for three years and sort of just see sort of the cadence of how things sort of work within the organization, I wish I would have encouraged us to dig even deeper into the research side. And we did some good initial survey work. But one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that when we do surveys in the organization, we tend to get sort of the same people who were responding. And so I wish that I would have really given some more thought and the team would have given more thought to how can we dig deeper? How can we try to get to input from that next layer of constituency? That one that typically doesn’t respond to us. They’re out there. They may or may not like actually what ACH has to offer. And probably doing that would have forced us to slow down the process a little bit. We were working as– as a unit, we were working on sort of a tight deadline to make sure that we had this plan before our board retreat and this and that. I wish I would probably said, ”Well, let’s slow this down a little bit. Let’s extend the timeline so that we can do a little bit of a deeper dive into the research on the front end.
Liz: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So one of the things that you mentioned earlier, and I just wanted to unpack it a little bit, but you said that you guys had really worked your plan over the last three years. And my question to you is how did that happen? Because so many plans really just sort of sit on shelves and people use it as sort of a visioning conversation, but then they don’t really do something with it. What do you think made that different for ACHA?
Mark: I mean, I don’t know if it makes us different from other organizations or not, but one of the things that I have always sort of required, if you will, or with organizations that I have had the privilege to lead is that the strategic planning gets visited frequently throughout the course of the year, and that’s by both board and staff. And so at multiple points with my management team meetings, we would go through, again, what we had anticipated that we would be accomplishing each year. We had sort of in that strategic plan, we had laid at year one, year two, year three, this is where we wanted to– the goals that we wanted to achieve then. And what progress were we making? And are we making? If we’re not making progress, why? What has changed? And being mindful of that, and doing the same thing with our board. We actually established a strategy committee. And so that strategy committee meets bi-monthly. And basically what they do is they take a look obviously at current events and current activities and what has seen and what’s happening out there in the environment that can force changes to the plan. But much of the time is spent, again, taking a look at okay, what did we say we were going to accomplish, and what have we accomplished? What progress are we actually making? And so I think by sort of holding folks to accountable to constantly reviewing the plan it allows it to not just become that thing that sits on the bookshelf. And again, some of the things that we had indicated in that plan were for our organization [inaudible]. We had said that we were going to launch a research campaign. The ACHA had never been involved in direct funding of research before. And, quite honestly, I really think even after the board passed the strategic plan, I don’t think some of the board members felt we would actually do that, right? And we made it clear in year one and year two. Year one was all about, “Let’s put the groundwork in place. Let’s lay the foundation. Let’s figure out how we’re going to put together a peer review program that actually is going to make sense for the medical community as well as make sense for ACHA and budgets and this and that. And then in year two, we launched it. And now in year three, we’re moving forward. And so, again, I think it’s just a deliberate move to make sure that that strategic plan remained fresh in the minds of board and staff.
Liz: That’s awesome. I love hearing the progress that you guys have made over the last couple of years. I think you’ve brought forward a couple of really good best practices around having a strategic planning committee, getting board and staff members involved, regular check-ins, spending some time on the front end, making sure you’re doing your research, thinking about this broader vision. Anything else that comes to mind for you that is sort of a must-do or any final thoughts around strategic planning?
Mark: I think the only thing I would say is we are in such interesting times. The current debate within the organization is, as I said, it’s now time for us to start thinking about our next– what would have been scheduled to be our next three-year phase. And we’re very much leaning toward– my goodness, it’s hard to even think what six months down the road is going to look like, as opposed to now trying to feel like we have a handle on three years. And so I think that what we’re ultimately going to wind up doing is we’re going to do just a one-year strategic plan for 2021 and kind of see where the world is at that point. And–
Liz: That makes a lot of sense.
Mark: Yeah. In some ways, I feel like that’s a little bit of a defeatist attitude, just saying, “Oh, we’re going to do a one year,” right? And so when I think of a one-year strategic plan, to me, that feels more like an operational plan, right? But I just think that our world is just evolving and changing so rapidly right now that I think even the way people think about strategic planning is really changing, so. That’s the direction we’re planning on heading, at least for the foreseeable future.
Liz: Great. Well, Mark, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely, always happy to talk about strategic planning. And I will give a plug just for you and for your agency. I think part of the reason why our process works so well– and again, I have had the opportunity to work with many facilitators through the years. Part of why I think it works so well with you and with Brighter Strategies is the ability of the facilitator to listen, which, believe it or not, I have run into many who really struggle with that, and to be able to pivot based on what they’re hearing. I mean, we always plan. We plan the agenda, and you think in advance of how the meeting’s going to go and this or that or whatever. And then invariably, when it starts to go down a different direction or the conversation shifts, that’s where it can become the real skill the facilitator comes through. And how do you pivot the conversation and make sure that it is still addressing what you’re hearing in the room and not just get so focused on, “This is where we want to take it.” And I think that that was, I think, one of the skills that you really excel at that allowed our process to really be such a positive experience.
Liz: Thanks, Mark. That’s really kind. I appreciate that. It was a fun process to facilitate.