January 7, 2020

Executive Team Dynamics/Behaviors: Peer Perspectives

Executive team work relies on collaboration. Here’s how one nonprofit CEO established behavioral norms that helped maximize her team’s work together.

No two executive teams are alike when it comes to team dynamics and behaviors. Each team comprises a set of unique individuals, all of whom have their own approaches to work and personalities. Yet the effectiveness of the team relies on collaboration and alignment. One key lever a CEO can pull to ensure time together is well spent is to establish clear behavioral norms of how the team will work together.

Kirstin Chernawsky, the executive director of Erie Neighborhood House, found that focusing on her team’s norms helped her create a path to increased nonprofit team effectiveness. (See the "Executive Team Dynamics and Behaviors" section of the Effective Executive Teams Toolkit for a list of behavioral norms that the executive team of Erie Neighborhood House developed.) Here she tells us how she did it.

How did your team develop its behavioral norms?

“We went through and named as a group what we thought our norms should be. Then, we went around the table and had each individual person say, ‘Yes, I buy into, agree to, and am committed to these.’ This made a night and day difference for us, because at first, we simply asked the group if anyone had objections, and no one said anything. It wasn’t until we went around one by one that objections were surfaced. If we hadn’t done this, I think we would have moved forward with our original set of norms, which would not have been successful. We went through one to two further iterations before we were all in agreement. It was a difficult process, but the front-end work was worth it; it made the norms that much more successful thereafter.”

What have been the benefits of establishing these norms?

“The process of coming up with the norms itself can be a way to air grievances directly or indirectly. The process of working together to develop and agree on these norms is almost more valuable than the norms we landed on themselves. The norms also make it easier to have courageous conversations. They make us feel empowered and comfortable to call out ways we aren’t being accountable to them, and also to celebrate when we have done a really good job of living into them. They have served as a way to keep us on track and remind us of the work we put into this process. They have also been helpful for bringing new team members into the group.”

Which norm has had the biggest impact on team dynamics?

“One of the biggest norms in terms of importance is our norm that Erie Neighborhood House is your number one team. This captured that team members need to balance the needs of their staff and program participants with the leadership team’s overall responsibility for the success, leadership, and culture of the organization. We use this as a reference point when making decisions. This norm took the most time to get everyone’s buy-in, but of all the norms, I think it was the most revolutionary for our group.”

How does the team hold itself accountable to upholding these norms?

“We list out our norms on every one of our meeting agendas. Then, at the end of each meeting, we designate five minutes to actually read through the norms and do a self-audit of whether or not we adhered to them. There are two purposes to this. First, it helps keep the norms front and center in our minds because we are actually re-reading them. Second, the self-audit exercise helps ensure we stay accountable.”

Do you have a plan in place for updating your norms?

“Yes. We agreed that our list of norms should be a living document, not something that’s set in stone. We have established opportunities in our team’s annual calendar to revisit the norms and ask ourselves: ‘Are these working? Is there anything missing? Do we need to revise these?’ This way, we don’t feel constrained by the current list.”

Do you have any other advice for organizations on establishing behavioral norms?

“If you are a new executive director, do this as soon as possible. You almost aren’t a team without it. Even if you come into an organization and group that has established norms, take the time to revisit them and get clarity on what they mean to each member of the team.”

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