Cultivating the Staff Requires Patience and Resourcefulness

Recently I have been working with the director of a non-profit organization to develop two staff retreats. The first retreat focused on summarizing and evaluating the activities during the past year. The second concentrated on planning for the coming year. Since their program year is from September to August, it was an appropriate time to have both full day meetings.

During the first day, each of the staff members presented a powerpoint presentation of their programs. They were asked to cover the aims and goals for the year, the accomplishments and the challenges. You could sense the pride and ownership the participants felt in the way they prepared the presentations and in the way they reported on each of their departments.

In addition to the presentations by the staff responsible for implementing programs the director of the organization and the coordinator of resource development also prepared powerpoint presentations and reported to the group. This provided an opportunity for the staff to develop a broader understanding of the agency. The staff was able to appreciate that their individual departments were not isolated entities but were an integral part of the entire organization. In a number of ways the most significant part of the reports was the focus on the challenges the staff members had to confront in their departments.

During the staff presentations it was possible to identify the common concerns and issues each one of the departmental directors confronted during the year and what they shared as they looked forward to next year. At several points during the reporting session the director became uncomfortable by comments that he perceived to be either inappropriate or were critical of his leadership. The question was, could the discussion be refocused so it would be helpful to the director and the organization.

Even with the most democratic professional leader who delegates responsibility and provides opportunities for the staff to have a sense of “ownership” in their work, there is always going to be some tension between the chief executive officer (CEO) and those who are responsible for implementing the agency’s services and accountable for the line staff members. It is at these times that the CEO needs to permit free expression and to allow for the staff to voice their concerns and even criticisms in a respectful manner. In many situations the freedom to question the administration of an organization can often provide opportunities for developing new approaches to both the administrative structure of the organization and its ability to provide services to the community.

The process can be viewed as multi-level. Initially, the staff members are given the opportunity to ventilate about their experience at the agency. It is important for people to have the opportunity to “get things off their chest”. In order to build a team within the non-profit people should be able to risk and share their thoughts and feelings openly. When creating an atmosphere conducive to this approach is accomplished by both the CEO and the staff then there is an opportunity to both build and strengthen the organization from within.

When staff members know there will be no punitive response to their sharing their thoughts, perceptions and feelings, then as the openness is generated and supported the group can become more cohesive. By everyone sharing both their understanding and their assessment of the past year they can then begin to look at the coming year with a fresh approach. Because they have been able to discuss issues and challenges openly they can begin to share their collective knowledge and experience to assist each other in planning to utilize each other’s positive experiences. At the same time they can assist each other in dealing with the challenges that have to be understood and responded to by both the department heads and the line staff in each department.

During these discussions it is quite possible that people will express their frustrations or make comments that are not always helpful. When this happens it is most important for the director and the other staff members present to support the positive aspects of sharing openly with each other. Openness needs to be supported and commended. However, it must be done in a way that is neither insulting nor overly critical.

When a staff member crosses the line between being assertive and becomes aggressive then this should be pointed out and redirected so the experience can be used in a positive way. For example, a staff member became overly critical of the lack of detailed information about the agency’s financial situation at this point in time. It is 6 weeks before the new program year and the new fiscal year begins and the departmental directors do not know their budgets.

The professional approach to responding to these concerns is to inform the staff about the confirmed and outstanding sources of income. A report should be prepared that provides detailed information on the sources of incomes and expenses as well. There are times when a CEO will feel that this is confidential information and in reality sharing the data allows the staff members to feel they are an integral part of the organization.

The approach to cultivating staff is all inclusive and it relates not only to supervising the staff in regard to their day to day responsibilities but also includes involving them in discussions about the broader issues. This process brings the staff members into the discussion that can focus on most issues and it helps them develop a better understanding of the challenges the agency director and the board of directors confront on a regular basis. Having the patience to work with the staff on these issues is a worthwhile investment and will be beneficial to the agency in the long run.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.