Is the executive team at your NFP effective? These 5 questions can guide your organisation from good to great

The leadership of your NFP probably has an outsized influence on the success or failure of the whole organisation, and the impact you’re able to have.

They decide the strategy for what the organisation will do for the next one, three or five years. They set the culture of how individuals and teams work with each other. And they make the day-to-day decisions about how your organisation as a whole works.

Yet a recent survey of 362 NFP executive teams across the United States found that only about 1 in 5 nonprofit leaders agreed that their executive teams were highly effective.

Just 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.

When the stakes are so high, moving an organisation’s executive team from average to good – or from good to great – can make a huge difference to how successful the organisation as a whole is.

The Bridgespan Group is a leading social impact management consultancy and advisor to NFPs, philanthropists, and investors across the US.

Through surveying and advising hundreds of NFP leadership teams and interviewing dozens of NFP leaders and executive coaches, they’ve distilled five key questions to help NFP executive teams to focus and increase their overall effectiveness.

Their five questions can help make the leadership team in your NFP more effective and potentially transform the impact your organisation can have:

1. Is the CEO effectively managing the executive team?

Not all NFPs need an exective team. Small organisations may just gather senior managers together to share information, but the group may not need to work as team.

If your NFP needs an executive team that collaborates on making important decisions and shares responsibility for results, then it’s your organisation’s CEO who’s responsible for defining and creating the team, and defining what work the team needs to do.

Intentionally managing an executive team isn’t always easy, especially for CEOs who have been recruited primarily as a spokesperson, fundraiser or advocate for the organisation.

The Bridgespan researchers list 18 key behaviours for CEOs who want to lead their executive team effectively.

Free Bridgespan tool: CEO Checklist for Managing Executive Teams (PDF)

2. Is the executive team focused on the most important work?

What should the team’s scarce and valuable time be focused on? Defining and focusing on the organisation’s top priorities is important, but it’s easy to try to do too much across too many priorities.

Bridgespan suggests focusing only on issues that are:

  • Highly interdependent – that is, they affect multiple parts of your organisation, and benefit significantly from having multiple leaders weigh in on decisions; and
  • High stakes – that is, they potentially have the highest impact for your organisation as a whole, whether that’s on strategy, finances, people & culture, technology or operational effectiveness.

Try this tool to help priorise your executive team’s time and energy, and make sure it’s being spent on the most important work:

Free Bridgespan tool: Interdependence/Stakes Matrix (PDF)

3. Does the executive team’s composition support its ability to do the work?

The most effective NFP executive teams balance two key considerations when it comes to composition: finding an effective combination of different skills and perspectives, and making sure the team isn’t too big.

Different skills and perspectives: Your executive team doesn’t need to be only the CEO’s direct reports – it can include anyone who can take a whole-of-organisation perspective, and balance others perspectives and skills.

Size: There is significant academic and real-world disagreement about what the ideal size for a team is, but most experts agree that teams get significantly less effective once they hit double figures. Somewhere between 4 and 9 people seems to be the recommended size for greatest effectiveness.

Some organisations have two leadership teams, to make quick decisions when needed, but also allowing for diversity, multiple perspectives and input from all departments or functions.

Free Bridgespan tool: Key Questions About Executive Team Composition (PDF)

4. Do meeting and communication processes support superior decisions and execution?

Meeting processes can make or break any team or group, and the stakes are even higher for your executive team.

Some essential meeting and communication processes most NFP executive teams need to work on include:

  • Planning the agenda
  • Ensuring members have read relevant materials in advance
  • Developing team members ability to present their agenda items effectively
  • Ensuring communication of decisions with the rest of the organisation after every meeting
  • Time for evaluation and reflection on meeting effectiveness

Free Bridgespan tool: Agenda template, instructions & examples (PDF)

5. Does the team’s dynamic foster the right conversations and results?

Group dynamics are tricky at the best of times, but when decisions are big and important, and the implications affect many peoples’ lives, working well together becomes all-important.

Bridgespan identified six dynamics that effective NFP executive teams in the US had mastered. These are:

  1. Shared ownership of decisions;
  2. Trust & psychological safety;
  3. Constructive conflict and diverse perspectives;
  4. Collaboration and building on each others’ ideas;
  5. Accountability to each other; and
  6. Equity and inclusion of diverse and different voices.

If these sound familiar, it’s because they are very similar to the dynamics that the other teams in your organisation are likely to be focused on as well.

Free Bridgespan tool: Team behavioral norms template, instructions, & example (PDF)


Want more information?

Read the full article explaining Bridgespan’s research with 362 NFP executive teams across the United States.

PLUS get the full toolkit: Download Bridgespan’s full 34 page Executive Team Effectiveness Toolkit here (free!)

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