Building a Team-Oriented Culture

Author: Michelle Russell       

Arlene A. Pietranton, Ph.D., CAE, has served as CEO of The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) for the past 14 years, but her association with the organization goes back much further. She joined ASHA — which serves nearly 200,000 audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists — as a member in the late 1970s, and then as a staff member in 1994. As part of its January cover and CMP Series storyConvene spoke with Pietranton about how ASHA’s work culture manifests itself in its organizational structure and physical layout of its headquarters office.

If you were to sum up your work culture is in a few sentences, what would it be?

It’s one that is very collaborative, very team-oriented. We recognize that the work of the organization [is such that] very few things happen only on one person’s desk. We really want people to share ideas, develop ideas, brainstorm with one another. We want people to take risks. If things don’t work out, we want to learn from those mistakes.

Two things that I think are the embodiment of that: One is managers are seen as coaches and team leaders. It is their job to help support and engage and develop the skills of the folks who report to them, so we don’t use the term “supervisor.” Everyone in the organization knows who they report to, but the person they report to is really seen as his or her coach — the person whose responsibility it is to make it clear what their goals and priorities are, what the expected work results are. And then to work with that person to make sure they have alignment of the resources and the work to be done and that they continue to develop so that they are learn- ing and growing, and of course the organization’s getting the benefit of that.

We don’t have what many organizations would call an executive management team. We have a facilitating team, composed of six chief staff officers and myself, and we really function as a team. It is shared leadership, there is shared decision-making, and we always keep in mind the good of the whole.

Those six chief staff officers aren’t coming to me competing with one another for resources. We are talking together. Of the project requests that we have, [we evaluate] what are the ones that are most important from an enterprise-wide perspective.

“Facilitating” a team sounds so much more inclusive than executive leadership.

Thank you for picking up on that. You know, I think those of us who are in a position of responsibility within the organization, our biggest responsibility is to engage as fully as possible the talents within the organization.

How is your organizational culture reflected in your office’s layout?

When we outgrew our national office, we built and moved to a new building in 2007 [in Rockville, Maryland]. That allowed us to really be thoughtful about the physical layout and the physical environment that we were work- ing in, and how it supports the culture that we desire to have.

At the time when we were designing this location, we set it up [so there’s] a mix of workstations and offices with a door. And the offices with a door are for the folks who are the coaches, and those offices are on the interior of the building with large glass panels, so you can tell who’s in the office. There’s a degree of privacy, but it’s also transparent.

That sounds like the opposite structure of most offices, where the cubicles are on the inside and outside offices are for people at a higher level.

Yes. The workstations are where people are in these communities, these clusters of teams. Those are located in the periphery of the building so that the sunlight that comes from the windows gets shared by everybody — it comes first across those communities of workstations, and then into the interior offices.

work culture


We’ve long thought that the only way to lead others — whether you’re the CEO of an organization or managing a small team — is top-down. But as organizations struggle to navigate a rapidly shifting economy and increasingly complicated marketplace, a slew of experts say it’s time to ditch that model. They point to a different way forward: It’s called humble or servant leadership. We explore what that means in our January issue’s CMP Series stories linked below.

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