January 7, 2020

Work of the Executive Team: Peer Perspectives

The Interdependence/Stakes Matrix tool helped these nonprofit CEOs determine the work their executive teams needed to focus on to have the most impact on their organizations.

Without clarity around the work they must do, many executive teams fall into a cycle of unproductive meetings and feelings of dissatisfaction with the impact they’re having on their organizations. One tool, the interdependence/stakes matrix, can help teams avoid these. (See the Interdependence/Stakes Matrix tool in the "Work of the Executive Team" section of the Executive Team Effectiveness Toolkit.) Here several CEOs and a chief of staff describe how they’ve used the tool and how it’s benefited the work of their executive teams.

How did you use the tool to identify the work of the executive team?

One CEO of a healthcare organization used the tool to measure a priority’s relevance to the whole team. “The value of the tool is a five out of five,” she reflected. “By placing priorities in each quadrant, we determined if it was something for all of us to talk about as a team or only some of us to talk about.” Her chief of staff added, “We asked ourselves, ‘Where do we have department crossover, versus where do we actually need the entire senior leadership team to work on this?’ We learned the idea of shared responsibility—and if the full team does not have shared responsibility for an item, it does not belong in the top right quadrant,” he said. “Deciding what is in each quadrant is something that has to be done with the entire group present. Having all of those voices in one place was so valuable.”

Also critical is agreement on the number of priorities: the matrix is a visual way to quickly assess if you’re taking on too little, or too much. “In getting to a manageably sized list of priorities owned by the executive team,” noted Eric Robbins, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, “the team had to have the discipline to sit down and say, ‘We can’t accomplish everything, so what are the most important things for us to do? What are the priorities?’ If you have too many priorities, they all lose something.”

What have been the benefits of using the tool?

For the chief of staff of the healthcare organization, using the tool had multiple benefits. “This process helped us streamline our priorities, identifying if something fit squarely in a particular department, or if it was shared across departments,” he said. “If it was shared, one of the biggest things that came out of this for us was getting more clarity on the amount of time required by us together as an executive team for that priority. This exercise gave us greater clarity, even on team members’ individual roles. When it’s a priority that is a shared space amongst the whole executive team, that’s the most difficult—figuring out who’s in the driver’s seat. This process helped us answer, ‘What is my responsibility within a given project or task?’ Finally, something that has been a huge-value add for us is having universal language about our work as a team. This has been very useful for onboarding new hires, too. We have a guidepost.”

Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, highlighted additional benefits. “The exercise gave us a structure and purpose for being together, which made us more effective. We also realized through this process that our work to refine our theory of change is something that the entire executive team should own. Before, we assigned that as a responsibility to one individual. In using the matrix tool, we realized that this should be a shared responsibility because everything else in our work flows from this.”

How have you managed the work of the team on an ongoing basis?

“One of the challenges we had was that we would say, ‘Oh, this could be four people’s responsibility to achieve this particular priority.’ But we realized that having multiple individuals responsible like that means that no one is truly accountable,” McWhorter said. “We had to overcome this and get comfortable with assigning one point person who will really drive a priority forward for us and be the point person for how and when the ET should engage.”

Besides accountability, it’s also important to review whether the priorities you originally set are still relevant. “Instead of this being a standalone document that you do once, every year we revisit the priorities and make sure they are updated,” Robbins of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta said. “I also make sure that what I am accountable for to our board speaks directly to this list.”

The chief of staff of the healthcare organization said his executive team pulls up to review its work quarterly. “We have quarterly half-day sessions, and one of the guaranteed agenda items at these meetings is looking at our matrix to say, what got completed? What can we put a check mark by and feel good about? Also, is there anything that needs to shift or change? At our next quarterly meeting, we’re also going to flesh out the responsibilities of the individuals who have been named as primary and secondary leads on different executive team priorities.”

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