5 Small Ways You Can Reduce Your Plastic Consumption

Originally written July 20, 2018


The environmental nightmare that comes with our over-reliance on plastic products is no joke. So what can you do to help? We have a few ideas …

It’s now in vogue to ditch plastic straws, with Starbucks and a handful of other retailers phasing out the hollow plastic columns in an effort to shrink ocean pollution — and for good reason. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans throw out 33.3 million tons of plastic. Less than 10 percent of that ends up being recycled.

All of this trash has environmental ramifications. Plastic bottles, for example, take close to 450 years to fully decompose, which harms ground waters and soil.

But for all the hoopla surrounding them, plastic straws are a very tiny fraction of the problem. (According to Bloomberg, the real culprit polluting our oceans is discarded fishing nets and other fishing gear.) Even still, anti-straw activism is certainly a step in the right direction. And here are a few other pain-free ways to ply plastic from your life, both at the grocery store and at home.


Getting rid of plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores has been a hot topic among state legislatures for the past few years, ever since California started charging customers for them in 2014. Since then, there’s been a decrease in plastic bag consumption across the state and as a result, a number of other cities have followed suit, with Washington, D.C., touting a 60 percent reduction in bag usage (though that number is contested).

For eco-conscious consumers, canvas tote bags are the holy grail of recycling accessories. Since they’re reusable, they’re obviously superior to single-use plastic bags, but do keep in mind that amassing a bunch of totes isn’t necessarily the best option for the environment, either. (Cotton takes more resources to produce and distribute than does conventional plastic bags.)

Your best bet? Tote bags made from recycled plastic, not cotton.

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In an effort to reduce plastic waste, Starbucks plans to phase out straws from its 28,000 worldwide stores by 2020.Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


It’s good that big companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s are working toward eliminating plastic straws from their stores, but relying on companies to get rid of to-go cups has been more of an uphill battle.

An estimated 60 billion paper coffee cups end up in landfills every year because they’re not easily recyclable — and it takes over 20 years for a single cup to decompose.

An easy solution? simply bring your own thermos with you to your local coffee shop. (Bonus tip: Starbucks gives you a discount for doing so as well).


Here are two sobering statistics that should scare you:

  1. Globally, humans buy almost 1 million plastic water bottles per minute.
  2. Ninety-one percent of all that plastic is not recycled — including those very bottles.

As anyone who’s had to pound the pavement during a sweltering summer knows, it’s all too easy to snag a bottle of water while on the go, and then just as quickly toss it away. What’s more, companies are profiting hand over fist by bottling and selling water. Even entertainers have caught on to the money-making potential of bottled water: Justin Timberlake is an investor in Bai Brands, which among other beverages sells antioxidant water, and 50 Cent made millions from his stake in Vitamin Water.

To correct for that, conscientious consumers have been snapping up reusable water bottles, and the market for them is expected to reach over $10 billion in less than six years.

While not enough studies have been conducted to determine the ecological impact of stocking reusable water bottles, anecdotally at least, there are benefits — both for the environment and your wallet.

A simple, one-time $20 purchase of a reusable water bottles means less plastic ends up in landfills or clogging up the ocean. It also means you can save some dough. If you’re like the average American, you buy about $5 worth of bottled water a week. Make the switch, and not only will you have paid off the price of your own bottle within a month, you’ll also save about $200 a year.

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Buying in bulk is a simple way to cut back on plastic packaging.Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images


Buying individually packaged foods is incredibly wasteful, but buying things in bulk — be it from a grocer that offers bulk buys or your local Costco — is incredibly helpful in reducing plastic waste.

It’s also advisable to bring your own containers to stores, as many grocers stock plastic bags for you to put your produce, nuts and other goods in, which obviously defeats the purpose.

One word of caution: According to a study by the University of Arizona, buying in bulk oftentimes results in enormous food waste, especially when it comes to perishable foods that could rot or go stale before you’ve had the chance to eat all of them. Instead, stick to bulk-buying items that can either be frozen or won’t go bad.


Plastic bottles, cups and straws are straightforward examples that help illustrate the problem of the plastic ravaging our oceans. But another environmental menace are the microplastics — or tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size — that lurk in common items like polyester clothing and personal care products like toothpaste and face scrubs.

These small pieces of plastic are so microscopic that they get flushed into sewage systems every time you wash clothes made with synthetic fibers or rinse off an exfoliating face wash. Eventually, the harmful particles reach the oceans, where they account for anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of marine plastic pollution.

In the U.S., the Microbead-Free Waters Act, signed in 2015, will eliminate the itsy-bitsy plastic pellets from all cosmetics and toothpastes by next year. A similar law was recently passed in the UK. These government actions help, of course, but it’s also worth your while to check out which companies are still manufacturing products with microbeads (see the list here), and which aren’t (that list is here).


Source: Nation Swell

Getting the Best Possible Failures in Philanthropy

By Jen Ford Reedy

We in the foundation world talk a lot about embracing failure, but it’s not something to take lightly. When a social or environmental investment fails, it can negatively disrupt people’s lives and erode community trust. It can also have a huge opportunity cost, taking resources and energy away from other efforts. This is why risk mitigation planning is a standard part of good philanthropic practice, and why we regularly ask ourselves: How can we design our strategies to reduce the chance of failure?

But while success should always be the goal, it’s important to remember that not all failures are created equal. There are good failures and bad failures. Many investments don’t achieve their intended outcomes, but they nevertheless: 1) contribute knowledge to the field, 2) have a significant, positive, but unintended consequence, or 3) increase the capacity of all involved to try other approaches.

Given this, I suggest we add another element to our standard practice: failure optimization planning. How can we design our strategies so that if they do fail, they will be good failures?

1. Failures that contribute to knowledge in the field

A good failure means the entire field learned, not just a single institution. It means that people in philanthropy or the field where you intervened know something they didn’t know before, and it will change what they do going forward. It means that the intervention tested something truly new, that we know it didn’t work in the way we intended, and that we shared the lesson with others in an actionable form.

For all we talk about learning, foundations rarely hit this high bar.

The best example I can find of this is the Rockefeller Foundation’s Minority Single Parent Demonstration project, launched in the 1980s. It was a large-scale, welfare-to-work initiative, involving 4,000 women in four cities. It actually had a control group, which is very rare in foundation initiatives. This allowed Rockefeller Foundation to more truly evaluate impact than is usual in our field. The foundation documented and shared lessons from the initiative broadly—for example, the importance of child care in supporting women to work—informing both public policy and philanthropy. (For more on this initiative and the other good failure examples I use here, see Joel Fleishman’s The Foundation: How Private Wealth Is Changing the World and its accompanying casebook.)

How can we make this type of failure more common? First, we must ensure that we are trying something new by doing the up-front work to understand what others have already done and incorporate lessons from previous efforts into our project design. Foundations must familiarize themselves with relevant research, and test ideas and plans with both colleagues at other foundations and leaders working in the space. Second, we have to actually assess the results and share what we learn. If we have wonderful learning conversations in our offices, but don’t share our knowledge with the world, it’s not a good failure—others might be reinventing wheels and repeating our mistakes.

2. Failures that have significant, positive unintended consequences

Successful or not, interventions usually don’t go as planned. But most philanthropic failures have some silver lining. Something good almost always happens, even when the overall effort does not go well. If that good thing is very significant—the test is if you would have made the original investment if you’d known it would have that positive outcome—it’s a good failure.

Ford Foundation’s efforts in the 1960s to build strong university economics departments in Indonesia is a good example of this. Ford sent Indonesian students to get doctorate degrees at Harvard and Stanford, and trained them for careers in academia. Then, when Suharto became the second President of Indonesia, he brought a number of those folks into government. This undermined the original goal of strengthening the country’s economics departments, but it had an equally—if not more—positive impact by strengthening Indonesia’s capacity for economic planning and policy.

With this type of failure, the positive outcome is unintended and is therefore usually unexpected. We can’t exactly plan for that, but we can improve our odds of this kind of good failure by making our strategies flexible enough to take advantage of new paths and opportunities that emerge. And if we are clear about our biggest-picture definition of success at the outset—for example, for an educational initiative that might mean framing the ultimate objective as preparing kids for life success vs. proving that a specific program works—it is a lot easier to recognize those paths and opportunities. We can also make it clear to grantees and partners that we want to hear the real truth about how things are going and help problem-solve when things go awry. This makes it easier for us all to let go of plans and focus on having the most possible impact, whatever happens.

3. Failures that increase the capacity of systems to try other approaches

Sometimes in philanthropy, we delight in the idea of “disrupting” systems. But when “disruption” goes wrong, it can become destructive—particularly when it comes to critical human-support systems. If, however, our partners emerge from a failed effort stronger and better-positioned to address the challenge in a new way, then I call that a good failure. Then the failure is not a step back, but rather a step forward.

My favorite example of this is the Lasker Foundation’s work to get the US government to wage a “War on Cancer.” It is regularly cited as both one of philanthropy’s biggest failures and one of its greatest successes. How did it earn both distinctions? It did not achieve its goal of curing cancer, but it had an enormous impact on the capacity for medical research in the United States, and the resulting research extended many lives. Over time, public expectations for and commitment to the effort increased and, along with that, the number of and strength of research institutions engaged in the effort grew tremendously. The system was left stronger, and progress continued long after the original timeline for success.

This is the type of good failure philanthropy can most consistently achieve. We can improve the odds of making progress by designing strategies that build lasting capacity in people and organizations. In other words, rather than defining our work as advancing a particular intervention, we can think about it as building capacity toward that intervention. The difference in mindset might be subtle, but it can change a lot. In practice, this means understanding the current capacity of central players, and investing in developing the necessary individual skills and institutional capabilities. It means setting a timeline that allows partners to plan and manage the work well, and not pushing a particular intervention at the expense of other critical elements of an organization’s or a system’s health. It also means ensuring that we design all our strategies to leave the systems we work in and the partners we work with stronger than we found them.

No matter how clever we are, there is always a chance our investments will fail. Optimizing our failures may require moving more slowly, being more flexible in our goals and plans, and conceiving of our work a little more broadly. Fortunately, the same strategies we would use to optimize our failures will also increase our chances of success.

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Wielding Philanthropic Leadership With, not For

By Grant Oliphant

On a recent summer evening in East Pittsburgh, Pa., 17-year-old Antwon Rose’s life came to a violent and premature end when a police officer shot him three times in the back as he ran from a traffic stop. The teenager, a popular high school student preparing for college and adulthood, was unarmed and posed no threat to the officer or the public. Antwon was black.

What does the unjust killing of a young African-American have to do with courageous and moral leadership in philanthropy? Everything, I believe.

One might ask the same question about an immigration policy that criminalizes asylum-seekers and tears children from their families. Or the sight of the most powerful men in the land maligning a woman for accusing one of their own of a disqualifying act. Or a census designed to undercount vulnerable populations. Or the targeting of DREAMers. Or official rhetoric denigrating black football players when they take a knee to protest racial injustice. Or any of the other abhorrent ways in which values of tolerance, compassion, and fairness are deliberately supplanted by hate, prejudice, and discord.

In a time when we often feel submerged in daily madness, it can be tempting for philanthropy, steeped as it is in patience and privilege, to believe its high-minded role is to stay above the fray. Certainly, part of philanthropy’s presumed value is its capacity to identify and sustain action on issues beyond the realm of the daily news. Before the last US presidential election, a Center for Effective Philanthropy survey showed that foundation executives were already ranking equity and wealth disparity along with climate change as the most important issues of our time.

But we can never use our devotion to solving society’s defining issues as an excuse to stand apart from its defining moments.

We are in one of those moments now. We cannot wish away the toxicity that has so insidiously risen to the surface in US policies and rhetoric as a passing moment. The angry roar of tensions that run deep in our culture represents an ancient struggle over power and privilege, gender and race, and discrimination and oppression that has been with us for generations.

Philanthropy has always claimed to stand on one side of that struggle—on the side of freedom versus oppression, and on the side of a genuinely just society consistent with our stated values versus the vicious defense of a status quo that works only for some. Yet even at a moment like this, when the stakes are so high for everything we profess to believe in, we struggle to find our voice.

Little wonder. We find ourselves in a place where it can feel “political” for nonprofit organizations simply to defend and uphold their long-held values and missions. At a time when decency, civility, and respect are under assault; when a free press is under threat, along with trust in science and our democratic systems of government; and when leaders ridicule the idea of a diverse and inclusive future, and instead espouse a grim, zero-sum, Darwinian fight for control of the future, the civic sector itself can be seen—as it is in totalitarian societies—as inherently subversive.

So it is easy to fall quiet. But the price for that is high, and we pay for it in the sacrifice of our own values. As my friend and colleague Darren Walker, president at the Ford Foundation, has so aptly put it: “Look, we’re afraid of sticking our necks out, and we’re afraid of what people might think, and we play it cautious. This is not a time to play it cautious.”

The essence of defining moments is that they force us to decide where we stand and what we stand for. What does it mean to lead morally in such a time? What is this moment calling for us to do? I have pondered these questions long and hard. I have written and spoken of them many times, and, still, they keep me awake at night.

I always return to the unequivocal belief that we, as foundation leaders, and our nonprofit partners occupy a supremely privileged and opportune position. And with that comes enormous responsibility and obligation.

If I have one wish for our field right now, it is that we would finally weigh our silences as carefully as we do our words. For the sake of all the communities we claim to support, it is our role to speak out as clearly and as forcefully as we can. Not in a truly partisan way, but as an unembarrassed, bold embrace of the principles we believe in.

When someone infringes on those principles, it is neither political nor partisan to call that behavior what it is. When leaders advance policies that will hurt and marginalize the vulnerable, poison our air and water, or harm our children’s future, it is neither political nor partisan—nor really all that courageous—to fight for something better and to express that through all the tools at our disposal.

Sometimes a voice can feel a lonely and inadequate thing. I have adopted as a kind of personal mantra a couplet from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” about the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany: “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie.”

Foundations, of course, have more than a voice—and frankly, much more to learn in this leadership moment. More than ever before, being a courageous and ethical leader in this field is about doing with not for, and learning to listen. And we must get better at sharing the power we like to pretend we don’t have by encouraging, empowering, and enabling others.

For example, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial on Martin Luther King Day excusing President Trump’s use of the phrase “shithole countries” to describe African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador, Pittsburgh Foundation President Max King joined me in responding with an unequivocal public rebuke. We posted the response on The Heinz Endowments’ website, and our message reached more than one million people across the United States via social media.

Additionally, in the wake of events surrounding the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, last year, The Heinz Endowments hosted almost 400 grantee partners at a seminar called “Nonprofits and the Call to Moral Leadership.” The seminar gave grantees a platform for expressing their concerns and challenges at a time when their long-held values are under threat. We will host a second seminar this fall.

But in an era abound with “folded lies,” the power of our voice is essential. It is through our voice that we can state the values that drive the purpose that defines all the other resources a foundation can bring to bear on its giving, its leadership, its networks and its reputation.

We know that our country and our communities have no future unless they continue the great journey toward a more inclusive, equitable, and compassionate future. Our own efforts must match the sacrifices of those who over generations have carried us along in that journey.

In her book Tomorrow is Now, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “The battle isn’t won unless it’s your business, unless you care with all your heart that it should be won, unless you hold fast and refuse to panic when the going is rough, unless you reject all attempts to frighten you, unless you refuse to be overwhelmed by any possible dangers that may never arise …”

If we truly care about creating a more equitable future, philanthropy must embrace every moment in the struggle as its own, every Antwon Rose as a personal loss, every infringement on the dignity and lives of others as an infringement on the lives of us all. We must make it our business and not be afraid to speak.

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How to Create Better Nonprofit Executive Teams

By Libbie Landles-Cobb, Henry Barmeier & Kirk Kramer

In just 13 years, the Achievement Network (ANet) has grown from a Boston-based start-up to national organization with an integrated system of tools and training that supports great teaching. Much of its growth has taken place since Mora Segal became CEO in 2011. ANet’s national footprint, budget, and staff all have tripled over the past seven years, a tribute, Segal readily acknowledges, to the effective functioning of the organization’s executive team.

Leading any enterprise is a challenge, especially for organizations growing in size and complexity. The job readily expands beyond the capacity of any single leader. That’s why CEOs of many nonprofits establish executive teams—groups of senior leaders who work together to chart the organization’s direction and keep it on track toward its goals.

Shaping a high-performing executive team is no easy task, as Segal discovered. The senior leaders she inherited had done a good job of leading their individual departments, but they were not clear about the role that they should play to support a growing organization. As a team, they faced a number of challenges, including making timely decisions, communicating with ANet’s geographically dispersed staff, and gathering input from growing numbers of school and district partners.

Since her arrival, Segal has led ANet’s executive team on a journey to address these and other issues, including a more explicit focus on tackling the issue of educational inequity through an anti-racism lens. Today, the team has a shared vision for the important work it must do. And it functions as a close-knit group, with increased trust helping to unlock individuals’ ability to engage together on organization-wide questions, in addition to contributing in their respective areas of functional expertise. Making the most of their collective talent has been crucial as the team has guided ANet through a period of rapid growth.

While Segal played a critical role in mapping this journey for the team, she deflects taking sole credit. “I learned alongside and with my team,” explains Segal, who views the team dynamic as one of shared ownership. She also emphasizes that fine-tuning the team’s effectiveness has been “a slow, methodical, thoughtful process—not something that happened overnight.”

Unlike ANet, most nonprofits falter when it comes to executive team effectiveness, characterized by capable CEO leadership, clarity on the team’s role, and productive group interactions. Only 25 percent of the 362 executive team members responding to a recent Bridgespan Group diagnostic survey “strongly agreed” that their CEO effectively addresses team dynamics and performance challenges. Only 19 percent strongly agreed that their team focuses on the right work, and just 17 percent strongly agreed that they use their executive team meeting time well.

Our survey results came as no surprise to leadership coaches we interviewed. “Executive teams are an underperforming asset,” says consultant and leadership expert Peter Thies, president of The River Group. “It’s a huge investment and opportunity cost whenever you have top executives spending time together, yet executive teams tend to provide the fewest tangible results among leadership teams.”

Nonetheless, the survey also showed that roughly half of the respondents rated their team’s performance as “good,” or a three out of a possible four on overall effectiveness. But good isn’t necessarily good enough. The upside potential of more effective CEO leadership, more clarity around the work of the team, and more productive team interactions can yield big gains for an organization—something we’ve seen at Bridgespan in our work over 15 years with hundreds of nonprofits. In short, the challenge is to advance from good to great.

The Role of an Executive Team

Most nonprofit CEOs have a set of direct reports that meet regularly. At the most basic level, this group shares departmental information and receives updates from the CEO about recent decisions. While the direct reports comprise a group of senior managers, they do not necessarily work together as a team.

By contrast, an executive team takes on tasks that stand apart from the work individual members do as department heads. An executive team collaborates to shape organization-wide decisions and shares responsibility for the organization’s results.

Not all nonprofits need an executive team that performs such work. For example, small nonprofits may only require a group that meets regularly to share updates. The decision to create an executive team rests on the size, complexity, and level of cross-organizational decision making required to lead the organization.

For nonprofits with an executive team, the team’s effectiveness is essential for the organization’s success. But despite their importance, surprisingly little has been written about them. In the for-profit arena, leadership experts have built an industry around executive leadership development and team building, though with minimal focus on executive teams. Nonprofit executive teams have gone virtually unnoticed.

Our research is informed by and builds upon the leadership and team-building work of others to address the singular needs of nonprofit executive teams. Our survey, a diagnostic self-assessment, received responses from 362 nonprofit executive team members. In addition, we interviewed more than two dozen nonprofit leaders and an equal number of experts or coaches from academia and consulting. We also drew on our advisory experience in five cities with more than 200 nonprofit executive teams participating in Bridgespan’s Leading for Impact program, a two-year engagement that helps nonprofit executive teams hone their management skills. Out of this research, we distilled a sequence of five steps, framed as questions, that have helped most executive teams increase their overall effectiveness—even move from good to great.

5 Questions to Guide an Effective Executive Team

1. Is the CEO Effectively Managing the Executive Team?

The CEO is in charge of the executive team. As head of the organization, CEOs are accountable for results and responsible for determining what the executive team must do to achieve those results. This played out in our survey, interviews, and in our experience with clients: in high-performing executive teams, the CEO takes charge of the team’s form and function.

Specifically, these CEOs set expectations and define the executive team’s work, steer meeting agendas, and support team members to grow while holding them accountable for performance. Managing the team does not require doing all of the day-to-day work of team coordination. In fact, many CEOs choose to delegate certain tasks to a deputy or other executive team members, such as getting input on potential meeting agenda items. (See “Delegating Without Abdicating” at end of article.) However, effective delegation is not a substitute for the CEO’s engagement in the team’s work.

Managing an executive team effectively also requires that CEOs must understand their own decision-making style and preferences and set clear expectations on which decisions will be their call (or another team member’s decision) based on team input and discussion, and which will be consensus decisions. Once those ground rules are established, it’s important to follow through on those expectations. Lack of clarity or inconsistency here can create problems for the team, such as when a CEO seems to guide a team toward a consensus decision only to exercise a pocket veto if the decision wasn’t what the CEO personally preferred.

Many nonprofit CEOs lack the experience to perform their role as executive team leader. Nonprofit boards often prioritize external capabilities—such as fundraising or advocacy—over internal leadership skills when they search for CEO candidates. And even those who have strong internal capabilities are commonly stretched thin. As a result, it’s not surprising that only one in four survey respondents strongly agreed that their CEO addresses team dynamics and performance challenges in a timely and effective way.

Skillful team management makes a big difference. The executive coaches we spoke with agreed that CEO leadership was the single most important factor in making teams highly effective. “The CEO sets the tone for the executive team,” says Leslie Bonner, an adviser to nonprofits and a leading expert on nonprofit leadership. “If they don’t prioritize the team’s work or embody the productive behaviors required to do that work, it is very difficult for the team to work effectively.”

CEOs also set the culture of the organization “by identifying the underlying values that support the organization’s mission,” says Maria Hernandez, practice leader with InclusionINC, a global consulting firm specializing in inclusion and diversity. “People can be organized around great task management and great processes, but miss the mark on living the vision and mission of the organization that is to serve a diverse community.”

Jerry Rubin’s experience reshaping the executive team at Jewish Vocational Service of Boston is instructive. Rubin, president and CEO since 2007, leads one of the largest workforce development agencies in New England, employing about 160 staff with an annual budget of $14 million. For years, Rubin had delegated management of the executive team to the COO, with whom he had a close working relationship. The COO’s retirement in 2017 led to a cascade of promotions and new faces on the executive team, and created an opportunity for Rubin to rethink how he managed the group.

Rubin began by re-imagining the basic architecture of the executive team. He clarified which critical decisions the organization’s leadership needed to make, and exactly who should make those decisions. With this clarity, he saw the need for two different teams: a smaller executive team focused on strategy and policy, and a larger management team (including the executive team and programmatic vice presidents) focused on cross-organizational operational issues.

Then, with the help of an executive coach, Rubin took a more active role in the work of the executive team, taking charge of its agenda, and being explicit about the role he and other members would play. Rubin and his new COO took the opportunity to re-set norms across the teams. They also created a leadership onboarding program for new members of both teams, including relationship building and training in core management skills.

Rubin has seen the benefits of taking a more active approach to leading the executive team. “We now have a genuine leadership pipeline and some real options for leadership succession in the future,” he says. “And, faced with some major challenges as we seek to sustain our rapid growth, we have substantially increased the level of strategic thinking, and thinkers, engaged in our most central strategic challenges and opportunities. That has a big impact on how quickly you can respond and react.”

2. Is the Executive Team Focused on the Most Important Work?

Getting clear about the most important things for the team to focus on—and just as important where it shouldn’t spend its valuable time—is critical in determining who should participate and how the team should conduct its business. Clarity, however, eludes many teams. Only 19 percent of our survey respondents strongly agreed that their executive team focuses on the right work.

Typically, the right work involves guiding the organization toward achieving its top priorities and ensuring effective cross-departmental decision making and resource allocation. The executive team also provides an effective forum for input and discussion that helps the CEO make better decisions. In short, executive teams help CEOs do their job of leading the organization.

The team, however, doesn’t necessarily need to play a role in all of an organization’s priorities. Some may best be addressed by the CEO alone (like strengthening key funder relationships) or in consultation with specific departments or functions (like making specific programmatic decisions). As organizational behavior expert Ruth Wageman puts it, the trick is to determine “what are the critical few things that only this team of senior leaders, of all people in this organization, need to accomplish together versus individually or by other groups?”

Executive teams can home in on the handful of critical areas by focusing on those issues that meet the following two criteria:

• What issues are the most interdependent? Those involving multiple units or functions where cross-leader discussion is critical for effective decision making.

• What issues have the highest stakes? Those having the most impact on the organization’s strategic clarity and priorities, programmatic and organizational effectiveness, development of future leaders, external reputation, and financial sustainability.

The hours the executive team spend together are the most expensive on the payroll. The more the executive team focuses on issues that are highly interdependent and have the highest stakes, the greater the return on investment the executive team will have for the CEO and the organization.

The more the executive team focuses on issues that are highly interdependent and have the highest stakes, the greater the return on investment the executive team will have for the CEO and the organization.

Once an executive team is clear about its work, it needs to determine what role it will play in that work. For some issues, the team’s role will be to provide input on a decision that someone else (either the CEO or other individual or team) is responsible for making. For others, the team may make a decision itself. It is likely the team’s role will differ by priority, or even by specific elements within a priority, so continuing to clarify what role the team is playing is critical to optimizing the team’s time together.

Maria Kim came to understand the importance of zeroing in on high stakes issues after she became president and CEO of Cara Chicago in 2014. Cara Chicago is a $10-million workforce development social enterprise with 80 employees. Kim had been with the organization for nine years when she took the helm. After some time leading its executive team, Kim identified two important ways the group could distinctively support Cara’s success.

First, Kim saw a need for the executive team to facilitate more agreement between the board and the staff. She had observed that the two were not always on the same page about strategic priorities, such as how to evaluate new business opportunities. For instance, a new social enterprise contract seemed like an opportunity for some and an economic risk to others. The lack of consistent alignment led the organization to waste time and energy. To make progress on this front, Maria clarified the executive team’s mandate to “source up and share out”—meaning that the executive team decides which priority issues to bring to the board for advice and regularly keeps the staff informed of board decisions.

Second, Kim clarified the kinds of topics for executive team discussion and decision. Previously, the executive team spent much of its meetings “sharing random, miscellaneous stuff, as opposed to things that were thorny and really either advancing or hindering strategy,” Kim recalls. By agreeing to focus only on high stakes issues, the executive team has begun to increasingly look at the bigger picture. For example, when the lease on one of their sites recently came up, they elevated the discussion from the operational question of whether to sign a new lease, to the strategic question of how much value the site was delivering.

Better alignment with the board and greater clarity around executive team tasks “has increased our operational efficiency,” says Kim. “If the team is humming, the rest of the organization moves faster, and people work better together and get more stuff done.”

3. Does Executive Team Composition Support Its Ability to Do the Work?

CEOs who rated their teams as highly effective balanced two critical questions: Does the team have the key perspectives and competencies to do its work? Is the team a manageable size?

Finding the right combination of perspectives and competencies may not result in a team composed only of the CEO’s direct reports. While it’s critical that all executive team members be able to take a big-picture perspective and have business acumen, CEOs may choose to include non-direct reports whose unique skills are essential to the team’s work. For instance, executive teams may include the director of human resources or a director of measurement and learning even if these individuals do not report directly to the CEO.

Diversity among executive team members is another critical consideration. Currently, most nonprofit executive teams systematically under-represent people of color and do not reflect the diversity of the communities their organizations serve. This issue has drawn increasing attention, with stepped-up efforts to address it. (See “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the end of this article.)

Including all the right perspectives can sometimes be at odds with keeping the team a manageable size. In fact, many nonprofit executive teams are too big. Almost one third of survey respondents reported having eight or more members, the upper limit of what research has found to be an ideal team size to have effective strategic discussions and team cohesion. A common rationale for a large executive team is to increase inclusion and ensure leaders across the organization stay informed and coordinated. In these instances, CEOs could consider having two leadership teams—a smaller executive team for making critical organization-wide decisions, and a larger management team for maintaining coordination among departments. Executive and management teams should continually seek to augment their expertise and perspectives by gathering input from stakeholders (such as staff, clients, and community members) central to the issues on which they are working.

Whatever the team’s size, changing who sits at the table is difficult, but maintaining a status quo that isn’t working comes at a greater cost to team and organizational effectiveness. Significant change events, such as the arrival of a new CEO or strategic pivots, present opportunities for reconsidering and altering a team composition. Many CEOs told us, however, that they wished they hadn’t waited for the perfect time to make changes, particularly when it came to removing detractors who held the team back.

Nick Turner’s experience speaks to the challenges of reshaping an executive team. In August 2013, he became the fifth president of the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization with a budget of $107 million and 210 employees. He spent two and a half years working with the board, staff, and stakeholders on a plan for a strategic shift that would require considerable change in the organization’s business model, infrastructure, and culture.

The plan also required a retooled executive team. Within a year of beginning this shift, five of the six members of the original team had left the organization. Some didn’t have the needed skills. Others chafed at the transformation from a “risk-averse and ‘small c’ conservative organization” to one with big, bold dreams for the future, recalls Turner.

To carry out the new strategic plan, Turner sought executive team members with two qualities: a sense of loyalty to the institution and its well-being, and the ability to disagree with one another constructively. He also sought to increase representation of leaders of color.

Even with the right people in place, Turner concedes that he has struggled to unify them behind the longer-term strategic direction. “One challenge of leading a changing organization is that the place where you show up to work is operating in part on old conventions, expectations, and systems. That is where people’s heads and habits are,” says Turner. He has asked all team members to carve out 10 to 15 percent of their time to concentrate on elements of “the Vera we envision in five years,” in the belief that a team engaged together on “slow-simmer, future-state” issues has the best chance of advancing the institutional transformation Vera is seeking.

4. Do Meeting and Communication Processes Support Superior Decisions and Execution?

Well-managed processes around meetings and internal communications are essential for a successful executive team. “Meetings are the lynchpin of putting this all together,” says Pat Lencioni, a best-selling author on leadership and organizational health. “They’re the place where everything else comes to life, and where you demonstrate whether you are an effective team or not.” Yet, ineffective meetings and poor staff communications stood out as major pain points in our survey. Only 17 percent of our survey respondents strongly agreed that they have effective meetings, and only 11 percent said they communicate well with the rest of the organization.

Effective meetings require establishing the right practices, such as sufficient advance notice, clear purpose, the right amount of time and right location, and, often, pre-reads to prepare everyone for productive discussions. The most productive use of time also requires management of agendas to ensure that the urgent—immediate or unanticipated problems—doesn’t consistently crowd out the high-priority work the team needs to do.

Effective teams use different types of meetings for different types of work. Regular weekly or bi-weekly check-ins are effective for sharing updates and addressing immediate issues. Teams often need longer, less frequent planning meetings to wrestle with important decisions or dive deep on ongoing issues, such as developing talent or budgeting. Sometimes teams may need day-long or multiday retreats for team building, annual planning, or strategy sessions. The timing and cadence of these different types of meetings should be planned around the organization’s calendar, including talent reviews, budgeting cycles, and board meetings.

Effective executive teams tend to conclude their meetings with agreement on decisions and actions, and a plan for following up and communicating with staff. Doing this well builds trust in the leadership, generates clarity around organizational priorities, and improves overall execution. Yet, our survey respondents gave executive team communications with the rest of the organization the lowest rating of all the questions we asked.

“Productive action begins with productive communication,” says Dekkers Davidson, a strategy consultant and former CEO of companies large and small. “You have to be sure your communication is actually building alignment between the executive team and the rest of the organization.” To build alignment through communication, CEOs and experts we interviewed said that executive teams can connect ongoing updates and decisions back to the organization’s top priorities, and communicate overall progress against these priorities several times a year.

Mora Segal made effective meetings and follow-up a priority at ANet. After struggling to find the time to assemble team agendas, Segal delegated the process to her chief of staff, who recommends agendas for Segal’s final approval and then coaches team members on how to prepare for effective presentations of their agenda topics. Segal expects team members to come prepared with a clear, well-informed recommendation that sparks discussion leading to a final decision.

Meeting preparation also includes pre-work for the team, ranging from 15 minutes to one hour. Pre-work caters to the processing style of those who need time in advance to absorb new information, accommodates different thinking styles, and improves decision making by increasing productive engagement in the meeting. During the meeting, the team uses a variety of structures to engage in dialogue including silent reflection, conversation on a Google Doc, full group discussion or pair discussions “to make sure that different learning styles are honored and each individual is equipped to bring their best to the group,” explains Segal.

The attention to process has helped the team to develop “a more iterative style with rounds of discussion, feedback, and debate,” says Segal. “We’ve become much clearer on how decision making happens.”

ANet also has honed its process for communicating executive team decisions with the rest of the organization. Taking the advice of several executive team members, Segal created a four-person working group, a subset of the executive team, to design the content and process for communicating major decisions to the staff. “Our goal is to ensure that the organization has trust and confidence in the leadership,” Segal explains. Focusing on the process of decision making and communication of decisions distinctly “allowed us to develop them as separate muscles.”

The working group is pushing the envelope for more transparency around decisions that affect people’s lives and jobs. “When something is complex, we spend time together thinking about the key message, and then the sub-group figures out how to communicate it,” says Segal. The working group shares proposed messages with a broader leadership team to get feedback and ensure consistent understanding before communicating throughout the organization. The results have been encouraging. Staff retention has remained steady and organizational confidence in ANet’s long-term direction has improved. Staff decisions are also more consistent with ANet’s strategy as they continue to test new levels of transparency, says Segal.

5. Does the Team’s Dynamic Foster the Right Conversations and Results?

Building a cohesive executive team is essential for organizational success. A cohesive team also sets the tone for the rest of the organization, modeling the importance of collaborative behavior. Thirty-six percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that their executive team members work well together, higher than most survey responses. Even so, our interviews suggest that many teams underinvest in developing a productive working dynamic tailored to their specific work, expecting this to happen without intentional effort.

“When people are together just by virtue of sitting next to each other, that is not enough to make a team,” says Kim, Cara Chicago’s CEO. Organizational strategy adviser and best-selling author Jon Katzenbach underscores that, “the successful teams we’ve observed all gave themselves the time to learn to be a team.”

Executive teams often must grapple with a pervasive culture of conflict aversion—a characteristic typical of nonprofits. In interviews with executives of nonprofit organizations, we frequently heard that team members hesitate to question a colleague’s view or openly disagree. This reticence reflects a common nonprofit ethos of “we’re all in this together” so don’t rock the boat. But conflict aversion can come at a significant cost. Not only does the team miss out on the opportunity to wrestle together with hard questions, but disagreements can surface in hallway conversations, breeding mistrust.

Our research identified a set of dynamics that support productive engagement for an executive team:

• Shared ownership: Joint responsibility for agency-level tradeoffs and decisions beyond the work of an individual’s department.

• Trust: Psychological safety that enables interpersonal risk taking and confidence that the team will not embarrass or punish someone for speaking up.

• Constructive conflict: Comfort with and encouragement of diverse perspectives and productive disagreement as necessary ingredients to innovation and good decisions.

• Collaboration: Active listening, building on and connecting the ideas of others to solve each other’s problems.

• Accountability: Commitment to team processes, the decisions of the team, and holding each other accountable for expected performance.

• Equity and inclusion: Shared commitment to elevate underrepresented voices, value diversity, and understand and disrupt bias and privilege in the team and its work, and in the organization’s culture.

Once the team has agreed on a set of key behaviors, they hold each other accountable for sticking to them—a process the CEO leads and models. For example, to promote constructive conflict, team members might agree always to generate several meaningful alternatives to ensure they don’t fall into group think. Finally, effective executive teams continue to invest in building personal relationships with each other in and outside of their formal interactions.

Louise Langheier, CEO of Peer Health Exchange (PHE), a health equity nonprofit employing 75 people in five cities, hit reset on the organization’s executive team two years ago after PHE missed its revenue goal and had to lay people off. That crisis was “a real turning point in needing to commit the executive team to delivering results for the organization,” says Langheier.

As a result, she took several corrective steps, starting with redefining the team’s purpose as owning the strategic plan. That meant ensuring strong performance on impact and financial goals, and building an organizational culture more inclusive of people of color. While retaining ultimate ownership for team performance, Langheier assigned Chief Shared Services Officer Robin Rich the task of ensuring that the work of the executive team is accomplished. And she set new expectations for strong interpersonal relationships among team members and clear standards for accountability.

This new clarity of purpose and accountability revealed some latent tensions among team members that needed attention and resolution. Echoing PHE’s culture of care, the team resolved to be each other’s “loving critics,” which meant providing honest and solutions-oriented feedback. Honest feedback included acknowledgement that unconscious bias—reflexive judgments influenced by background and experiences—can affect decision making and dealings with others. With team members both supporting each other and holding each other accountable, PHE is back on track to meet its financial and operational goals. “The highest performing time for us has been the last 21 months,” says Langheier.

Putting Effective Practices Into Action

Only one in four of our survey respondents rated their executive team highly effective. If your team is among the other 75 percent, imagine the productivity boost for your organization, and you personally, if the team were to advance from good to great.

Effective executive teams help CEOs do a better job of leading the organization. But it’s up to the CEO to chart the team’s course and manage its journey. Every executive team success story we’ve seen in our research and client advising work was spearheaded by a proactive CEO.

Just as important, when an executive team is humming, each member benefits. They gain greater visibility across the organization, which informs their own work. And they participate in and learn from rigorous decision-making practices they can then bring to their own part of the organization.

The benefits are clear. Investing in executive teams can pay dividends for organizations and for their impact in communities they serve.

Dive Deeper: Delegating Without Abdicating

CEOs delegate tasks to executive team members for a number of reasons. Delegation frees up time for the CEO to focus on issues outside the realm of the team, helps to groom future leaders, and develops expertise across the team.

Many CEOs seek support in managing team logistics, turning these responsibilities to a deputy, chief of staff, or strong administrative assistant. This role can include gathering input on topics for meeting agendas and processes, ensuring meeting preparation and follow-up happens, and rounding up supporting materials for team discussions. Some CEOs also empower this person to help shape agendas and serve as a thought partner for managing the team’s time.

CEOs with strong team players can distribute leadership across the executive team by assigning individuals as stewards for specific topics central to the team’s work, such as diversity efforts, talent development, communications, or budgeting. For example, a topic steward may be responsible for identifying, in collaboration with the CEO, the critical discussions the team needs to have over the course of the year; setting the agenda and objectives for each discussion; coordinating pre-reads, meeting materials, and discussion plans; and ensuring follow-up. Being a steward does not mean the individual is responsible for all of the content and decisions involved in a particular topic. The steward, however, serves as a single point of accountability for making sure the team engages in the most productive way.

Delegation does not, however, mean abdication. To be effective, the CEO must maintain ultimate decision-making authority over what the executive team focuses on and how it does its work. For any type of delegation to work, CEOs must clearly define the role and decision rights involved, and ensure they have a strong, trusting relationship with their delegates. Successful delegation requires CEOs to invest significant time upfront, but they will more than make this up if they are intentional in creating the right structure and support around delegated duties.

Dive Deeper: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Teams

Executive teams at nonprofit organizations typically don’t represent the diversity of the communities they serve or even of their staff. Among organizations that took our diagnostic, one-third have no people of color on their executive team. Prior surveys by Compass Point and The Meyer Foundation and by Board Source found that fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit CEOs are people of color. Yet researchers have determined that leadership diversity isn’t just important from a representation standpoint. It also contributes to better decisions and stronger outcomes.

The nonprofit leaders we’ve worked with, and the CEOs and leadership coaches we interviewed, are well aware of the need for more diversity on executive teams, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity. They described a variety of efforts to increase team diversity and guide their organizations to make equity a core value:

  • Make a strategic commitment to hire, promote, and support people of color. CEOs determined to improve the diversity of their teams and organizations put resources and accountability behind their commitment to equity. This can include setting hard targets for recruiting and retaining people of color and actively tracking and reporting progress, and requiring that a certain percentage of candidates for jobs be people of color. “When executives understand that their performance evaluation is linked to inclusive workplace cultures, you will see a more concerted effort to actually do the hard work,” says Maria Hernandez of InclusionINC.
  • Increase equity competencies in all team members. Having a diverse team is not good enough. Everyone on the executive team needs to take accountability for leading a diverse and equitable organization. This requires helping individuals on the team build their skill and comfort in behaviors like seeking out and valuing diverse perspectives, creating a culture of inclusion, and mitigating bias (explicit and unconscious)  that create barriers for people of color. Trainings on topics like how to counteract unconscious bias can help increase awareness, understanding, and competency on these issues. Training also promotes a culture of vulnerability where team members self-correct when they recognize themselves making unfair judgments and assumptions.
  • Embed equity in executive team decision making. In making decisions, an equity-focused executive team doesn’t necessarily have to achieve consensus. However, it’s important to be transparent about decision-making processes and ensure inclusive input. Make time in discussion to draw out and amplify diverse points of view on the executive team. In weighing options, it’s also important to consider differential impacts of any decision on people of color.

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