Most nonprofit CEOs know that the effectiveness of their most senior leaders—their executive team—is critical to the organization’s impact. Yet, inspiring high performance in the executive team isn’t always easy. Through our research and experience working with nonprofits for nearly 20 years, Bridgespan has distilled a sequence of steps that have helped many executive teams increase their overall effectiveness—moving from good to great.
One leader who adopted Bridgespan’s nonprofit executive team tools to restructure and refocus her executive team is Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. When losing one team member to retirement and needing to add two positions to her team, McWhorter embraced change as “a perfect opportunity” to undertake work on team effectiveness. “Committing to the process is critical because it is as much about the process as the tools. Embrace it as a process and not a miracle tool.”
Here, in her own words, is what she found.
Doing the right kind of work
The first order of business was to solidify our purpose as an executive team. We defined and refined our organizational priorities, and in doing so, decided that the full executive team needed to be focused on refining our organizational theory of change. Everything else the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago did would flow out of this strategic work.
To gain this focus, my team switched from assigning all priorities to small committees to making individuals accountable for driving different priorities within the executive team. This shift produced the additional benefit of helping team members align their own team’s tactical efforts with the strategic priorities, leaving the executive team as a unit to focus on interdependent and high stakes decisions.
Putting the right people in place
Team composition for us is really driven by what we want to accomplish. I don’t know how much leaders really take the time to reassess their composition, but I think it’s important to have the ability to step back and decide if your team composition will get you to 95 percent of where you need to go. Getting specific about the kind of work the executive team should focus on enabled the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago to identify the key roles and capabilities we were missing.
We’re currently working to backfill identified gaps with consultants until we’re are able to hire the right individuals or build the required skillsets with existing team members.
Meeting and communicating
Before using the tools, my leadership team managed the work of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago as a committee; meetings involved providing updates on work across the organization. Now, the team recognizes that we had been wasting valuable time; we’re much more disciplined about how we use our time, focusing on the specific work we identified for our executive team to work on together rather than individual updates that can be shared via email or memo.
Frankly, using these tools helped me to better understand what my team needs from me, including the creation of a new structure for the team’s meetings and norms. For example, investing time in developing meeting agenda templates was critical for the team. The team now proposes agenda items via a shared Google spreadsheet, and I make decisions about what is moved to the final team agenda, ensuring these items relate to the work the executive team identified as priorities.
Google spreadsheets enable a much more transparent agenda setting process than before, when team members emailed potential topics to me directly. Now, the team can see what topics have been accepted and rejected. I can also use a “Notes” section to suggest when an excluded topic should be covered in a different meeting. What’s more, team members can see each other’s input on the agenda.
We set agendas three days before scheduled meetings, which gives presenting team members time to prepare and other team members’ time to complete any required pre-reading. Ultimately, we’ve found we’re now putting as much attention and structure into internal meetings as we’ve always done for external meetings, and getting much more out of them.
Finally, we no longer do updates for the sake of updates. If we are going to have this much meeting time, we better be doing truly significant work in them. Happily, I don’t spend more time on meetings than before; but the time I do spend is quality time.
Establishing behavioral norms
In the past, we had no established behavioral norms to speak of. Through our work with the tools, we identified 12 behaviors we collectively agreed to strive for. YWCA Metropolitan Chicago is a diverse team with very different personalities, so establishing behavioral guidelines ensured that each team member’s world view could shine through. We wanted to demonstrate behaviors that we want everyone else in the organization to adopt as well.
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Establishing trust was particularly important as the team members did not really know each other and operated very independently. We needed to build a base of trust. I’m delighted to report that I’ve heard firsthand from individuals reflecting on the productive conversations they’re now able to have with each other. The executive team has also shared the norms with their teams, cascading trust and transparency throughout the organization and reducing the number of interpersonal problems percolating up to leadership.
Ultimately, I’ve come to see it’s not just about what we do but also how we do it. The “how” is what makes any team effective and is what makes a difference at the end of the day.
Using these executive team tools helped McWhorter better understand what the team needed from her and helped her organization get more from the team. “As a result, we are now more focused on how we work together,” McWhorter says, which in turn, allows them to drive the entire organization forward in meeting its goals.
The tools and approaches McWhorter used in her work with the executive team can be found in Bridgespan’s Executive Team Effectiveness Toolkit.