November 10, 2020

How to Adapt Executive Team Practices During a Crisis

There's no time more critical for your team to work together effectively than during a crisis. Adapting these few key practices can help nonprofit executive leadership teams guide their organizations through the uncertainty.

By: Dave Moore

Nonprofit executive leadership teams help chart an organization’s path and act as mainstays to ensure their nonprofits reach their goals. And there’s no time more critical to working effectively together than when in crisis. In the best of times, executive teams can struggle to perform optimally. During crisis, shifting priorities require teams to adapt quickly, and the pace of decision making quickens, potentially increasing stress, introducing bias, and causing conflict within the team.

Bridgespan research shows that executive leadership team effectiveness relies on doing five things consistently:

  • The team is focused on the most important work
  • The team’s composition supports its ability to do this work
  • Meeting and communication processes support decisions and execution
  • The team’s dynamic fosters the right conversations and results
  • The CEO is effectively managing the team

In tough times, executive teams can lean into these practices, considering several adaptations to respond to the changing context.

Reprioritize and remain nimble
In stable times, the “work” of the executive team typically focuses around six areas: impact and strategy, programs, operations, talent, finances, and governance. There are usually 10–15 priorities across these areas, and their time horizons extend from one to two years out. During a crisis, it’s important to recalibrate your priorities (starting from scratch if necessary) and reduce the list to 4–6. This revised list might include more immediate priorities that focus on the need to react to the near-term externalities, and longer-term priorities that keep the organization focused on its strategic goals.

During a crisis, focus your executive team on priorities that are both high stakes and cross-functional, i.e., those that will have an impact on the greatest number of stakeholders across your organization and outside it, while preserving your core mission and services. After establishing your immediate priorities, create secondary ones that you will need to decide for future implementation. Decisions that fall outside the team’s focus should be delegated to functional managers or individual team members and the CEO.

Maximize your meeting time
Executive team meetings usually follow a predictable schedule with consistent agendas. During a crisis, teams end up meeting more frequently, often two times a week or more. One weekly meeting might be a “huddle” to focus on the tactical issues of managing through the crisis, monitoring progress, and trouble-shooting problems, while the second meeting creates space for the team to look ahead, planning the organization’s future while it manages a volatile present.

Resources for Executive Teams
Bridgespan offers a plethora of resources to help nonprofit leaders navigate their organizations through tough times. We encourage you to explore them here. We also offer two general resources to help you manage executive teams more effectively. One is our free Executive Team Effectiveness Toolkit that distills Bridgespan’s 20-plus years of research and consultation in the nonprofit sector. The second is an online, team-based program, Strengthening Your Executive Team, designed to help executive teams improve their performance—in good or tough times.

In terms of agenda, replace the standard, departmentally oriented “go-arounds” with question-based, action-oriented agenda items that make team members accountable for following up on decisions that impact the whole organization. Consider creating an agenda template that establishes how the meeting will be run, including each topic, the purpose for discussing it, who is accountable for leading the discussion and follow up, specific preparation required of members prior to the meeting, and an estimate of how much time should be devoted to the topic in the meeting.

Despite the speed at which some decisions will need to be made, it’s imperative that you keep good decision-making processes in place. Your team’s process should be transparent, inclusive, and well-considered as time permits by collecting information and perspectives needed to make the best decisions. Consider soliciting input from key stakeholders—staff members, community members, board members, or partners—as well as those who will be impacted the hardest by decisions. Communicate the progress of your decision making often (if appropriate) through email, Zoom, or whatever relevant methods.

Establish ground rules for behavior
Those who serve on executive teams are only human, and their members are likely to have biases, triggers, and interpersonal tensions. Even in the calmest of times, these dynamics exist; during a crisis, challenging dynamics can throw an organization into a tailspin.

You can address such dynamics by aligning as a team on several key commitments. These might include:

  1. Trust: Team members are willing to be vulnerable and make the team a psychologically safe place that encourages a) interpersonal risk-taking among people unused to working in stressful situations together and, b) the confidence that one may speak up without fear of embarrassment or ridicule from team members.
  2. Collaboration: Commit to active listening and make a deliberate effort to build on one another’s ideas and solve problems for the greater good of the organization.
  3. Accountability: Show a healthy respect for the processes your team has put in place to function more effectively during a crisis, such as more meetings or faster prep time. Support the team’s decisions, holding each other accountable for executing on decisions.
  4. Shared ownership: Take joint responsibility for organizational-level tradeoffs, no matter the implications for any individual team member’s department or position.
  5. Constructive conflict: A crisis is no time for soft thinking or going through the motions. Challenge each other’s views vigorously, but evenly and constructively, to come up with new ideas and workable ways of implementing them. Be just as quick to encourage great ideas that aren’t yours as you are to contest those with which you disagree.
  6. Equity and inclusion: Even in a constantly shifting crisis environment, keep matters of equity and inclusion top of mind. You can do this both by keeping an eye and ear open for implicit bias among team members (and yourself) and seeking out underrepresented perspectives during the information gathering period.

A crisis can quickly overwhelm even the best of executive teams. Keeping these practices in mind, and adapting as necessary, can guide your team and your organization through the unexpected challenges and potential opportunities your organization may face.

Dave Moore is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about purpose-driven people and organizations. He lives in Lee, New Hampshire.


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