December 8, 2011

Mobilize the Team

You will learn how to mobilize your nonprofit's team to support and accomplish implementation goals in Step 3 of "Living Into Your Strategic Plan."

Effective implementation hinges on getting your staff on board with the strategy. Executing on your plan undoubtedly will require that your staff do things differently, and helping them make those shifts can be difficult. For the purpose of mobilizing your team, it is useful to focus on two key elements for success: 1) communicating a compelling case for the change required, and 2) aligning individual staff member's performance goals to your organization's strategic priorities.

Communicating your strategy with your team is essential because your staff needs to know where the organization is going in order to move along with it. Start by articulating a powerful vision for a better organizational future by painting a convincing picture of an organization that your staff can believe in and will work to build. What outcomes do you envision for the people or causes you serve? Communicate your excitement for those outcomes, and for the nonprofit your organization can and will become to achieve them. Make sure your team members understand that they play a critical role in achieving progress on the strategy. Involve members of your management team, if not your entire staff, in considering what it will take to change your formal structures, cultural norms, and procedures to support the strategy. Convey empathy and understanding about the impact the changes will have on them, but couple it with a clear message that change is both important and inevitable.

Questions to Consider: Ongoing Communications

  • Who are your organization’s major audiences?
  • What information do they need about your strategy to support implementation?
  • What is the best format for reaching them (i.e., email, newsletter, regular meetings, retreat)?
  • Who needs to deliver the message?
  • When do they need information, initially and ongoing, as implementation progresses?

As Jumpstart’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) James Cleveland emphasized, "The real key to implementation is that we embed the strategy in every conversation we have as an organization." Jumpstart is a national organization that helps preschool children in low-income neighborhoods develop the skills they need to be ready to start school, setting them on a path for lifelong success. At the completion of its strategic planning process, Cleveland led an organization-wide video chat to launch the strategy. His objective was to articulate a vision that clarified where the organization was going, generate excitement for the new vision, and help his staff understand that there was no option but to move forward. The speech was recorded so that those who couldn’t attend could listen to it later.

To communicate the major shifts the organization would be making, Jumpstart used a framework for each programmatic and organizational change, describing: 1) what Jumpstart does now; 2) what they propose for the future; and 3) supporting data. This helped his staff and board understand where they were headed and why, as well as what they needed to do differently in the future. In almost every organization we researched, the leader gave a similar landmark speech to communicate the strategy and position their organizations for implementation.

Equally important are the ongoing communications you can utilize to remind staff of strategic priorities, the changes required to achieve them, and "strategy wins" as they occur. Jumpstart acknowledges successes through monthly newsletters emailed to all staff, which include a dedicated space for strategy updates from the CEO. Other organizations do similar things, keeping the strategy at the forefront and celebrating achievements to maintain focus and momentum. A Communications Plan can help you stay focused on delivering the most important messages at the right times as you implement your strategy. It’s also important to be aware that there is often a "disconnect" between what a senior manager believes has been communicated and what staff and other stakeholders have heard. (For more information, please see "Beware Your Leadership Blind Spots.")

Beyond communication, mobilizing your staff to execute on the strategy requires creating alignment between what they understand their jobs to be and their roles in implementation. This will be easier to do if you’ve involved your staff in defining the initiatives (see Step 1: Translate Strategic Goals into Actionable Initiatives) and in creating the roadmap (see Step 2: Creating a Blueprint for Change) that they will be following. Organizations that successfully execute on their plans use their strategies as the primary lens through which they view all of the work in their organizations. Just as you’ve done at the initiative level, encourage your staff to prioritize the activities they are engaged in, elevating important strategic tasks and de-prioritizing others. As a result, your staff will see implementation-related activities as their core responsibilities, rather than additional tasks on top of the work that they are already doing. It may not be entirely possible to do this, especially if staff members have ongoing roles and responsibilities that don’t fit neatly within a strategic priority or initiative. To help them prioritize strategically relevant tasks, the key is to streamline and simplify other activities where possible. Linking individual performance goals to initiative milestones can help facilitate this shift, ensuring your organization’s performance review process rewards accomplishments that support implementation.

According to Peter Long, CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, one of the most effective things he has done to mobilize his organization’s staff around the strategy has been to align individual performance goals with organization-wide and department-level goals. This process started with the CEO setting and taking responsibility for organization-wide goals. Next, each program director developed goals for their own departments and then iterated on these with the full leadership team. Ultimately, the leadership team honed a final set of department-level goals that supported the organization-wide goals.

The directors then worked with their direct reports to develop individual performance plans that supported their department’s goals. According to Scott Travasos, the foundation’s chief financial officer (CFO), this signaled a fundamental shift in the way the organization’s staff operated. Previously, individual performance goals were activity-based and not necessarily aligned to organization-wide objectives. Today, all staff members have specific, measureable goals that are directly tied to the strategy and are used in their annual performance reviews. According to Long and Travasos, the transparency of this goal-setting process has helped improve alignment and accountability across the organization. They look forward to assessing impact and alignment at different levels of the organization at the end of the year.

A Template to Enable Step 3: Mobilizing Your Team and Communicating Plans

The Individual Objectives Template will help you create objectives for staff members that align with your organization’s strategy. Once you’ve defined individuals’ roles in the implementation process, it’s important for managers and their direct reports to refer to these objectives over time, and build them into staff members’ annual work plans and objectives. Organizations that are rigorous about this ensure that managers use them in monthly check-ins, semi-annual check-ups, and annual performance reviews to assess if individuals are achieving their planned objectives. If progress on implementation is slower than anticipated, such checkpoints are opportunities for your staff to identify gaps in their capabilities and skills where they may need additional support or training; highlight areas where they are dependent on others’ actions to accomplish objectives so that they can proactively collaborate; and identify barriers that may be slowing progress down if not properly addressed. By drilling down from the strategy to individual staff members’ objectives outlined in performance reviews, you can create incentives and rewards that will help you stay on track as you implement and overcome challenges as they arise.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.