How to Address the Underbelly Work as a Chief Experience Officer at a Nonprofit

As CCOs, a lot of our work involves understanding what drives the culture of the organization. It’s about how the organization views its customers/audience, and vice versa. This deep dive is what I often refer to as the underbelly work. It’s about getting into the nitty-gritty and involves restructuring and reexamining how things have been done before. Like many of us, our guest today has had to dig into the multiple dimensions of her role and navigate the important underbelly work of people management.

Jennifer Severns, Chief Experience Officer at the American Marketing Association, a nonprofit organization, discusses some of the challenges she faced while coming into an organization that helps chief marketing officers, chief customer officers, marketers, and others, determine and understand their role in the world. Jennifer has been leading customer experience while also defining her own role within the AMA, identifying the work that needs to be done within the organization.

Jennifer came into the role at a time where the organization was dealing with a decline in membership, so she shares some of the steps she has taken to gather analytics, unite teams, and bring value to AMA members.

Determine Potential Bottlenecks Within Your Organization

Similar to our previous guest, Curt Balara, CCO of BelBrands, Jennifer started a 90-day plan for AMA before she fully stepped into the role. She did a lot of research beforehand, learning who the teams were, what the makeup of the teams was, and understanding how everything works together. 

Jennifer soon learned that there were bottlenecks within her organization which was slowing down production. She noticed that the work that was being created had to be funneled through one specific team for final approval, which created inner tensions and conflict. One group had too much power. Given the severity of this unbalanced process, Jennifer explains that she needed to understand the situation by speaking to and working alongside others within the organization. Simultaneously, she discovered the roles that silos play in her organization and how they can be efficient when all of the silos work together to each maximize their skillsets and outputs. 

Silos can be efficient only when all of the silos work together to each maximize their skillsets and outputs. #customerexperience #CXO Click To Tweet

Combine Data with Anthropology

Jennifer shared that the majority of the business strategy is comprised of content and data management. She devoted a lot of time to assess pieces of the business that impacted the member base, and their perception of the association’s value.

As a data-obsessed leader, Jennifer explains that she spent time with the analytics team, breaking down insights, and thinking through innovations to help create a new model for member success. She needed to understand the data and the journey of what’s actually happening in order to understand people’s behaviors.

Most of Jennifer’s job is about setting the AMA up to listen to members more effectively. They do this by tracking customer service calls, interviewing people, and generally using a combination of data and anthropology to understand more of the human aspect of the process. I loved how Jennifer mentioned that although they use data from surveys, she is aware of the bias that gets brought into the process. She understands the importance of checking your ego at the door and being objective when it comes to analyzing results and creating the survey itself, without leading people to specific responses. 

Address Ambiguity in Leadership Roles

Addressing ambiguity in roles can be a tricky situation to navigate in these C-suite positions. Jennifer explains that she works closely with the chief content officer, and though she and this leader manage different teams, they work closely together and have had to get clear on who does what part of the work. 

She stresses the importance of good communication between leaders so that each team can do the work effectively, which requires sometimes saying “this is what I need your team to help us with.” Open communication with a leader whose role may sometimes bleed into your own is critical, as you want to create less friction between teams and be successful as a whole.

Open communication with a leader whose role may sometimes bleed into your own is critical, as you want to create less friction between teams and be successful as a whole. -- Jennifer Severns, #CXO @AMA_Marketing Click To Tweet

What Do You Know Now That You Wish You Knew Then?

Jennifer says:

“I think that constantly trying to look at yourself objectively and look at the situation objectively focuses you on what’s happening right now. Having more faith in that and doing it more intentionally, I think it would have made it all happen faster and easier. It’s also easier for me not to take things personally, right?

It’s a really sensitive balance between working on the member relationships versus the work, the business product. Like, it’s really heightened when I have to work with a community and volunteers that are extremely sensitive about their roles, and feeling like they’re doing something that matters. It makes it you start to actually feel more deeply. I think anybody in a CXO type of role, or customer-focused type of role really has to hone being empathetic.”

About Jennifer Severns

As the Chief Experience Officer for the American Marketing Association, Jennifer Severns leads cross-functional innovation and guides digital disruption, as the association works to redefine the AMA membership model and refine the customer experience. She oversees marketing, R&D, design, community experience, customer service and live experience at AMA’s Global Support Center.

Previously, Jennifer led creative strategy for large-scale experiences serving Fortune 500 brands such as Allstate, Mondelez International, 20th Century, Fidelity Investments, Dell and Cisco. She built and led the creative and digital team for Omnicom’s social media agency, Zócalo Group, and she spent nine years directing the design strategy for Harpo Productions.

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