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
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.
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