Developing the Senior Management Team Through Group Leadership
By John E. Henley
Developing the whole management corps may be a goal for every organization, but for voluntary agencies, the senior management team (SMT) can represent the key group for managing and leading the organization. A specific approach--development of the team as a high-functioning group--is necessary for the SMT to become the primary tool for agency organizational development and change. This premise acknowledges the pivotal role this group approach plays in defining the agency's leadership and operational issues.
The need to both manage and lead not-for-profits is particularly arduous and demanding, given the increasing rate of change human service agencies experience, both externally and internally. Service and business environments have evolved to the point that they are almost unrecognizable compared with what most of us operated in 10 years ago. Today's environment--characterized by a high degree of competition among providers, limited government resources, an increasing demand for demonstrating effectiveness, and a constantly changing public policy landscape--demands an exceedingly high degree of adaptability.
Internally, the challenge of developing a quality work force has never been more difficult. Turnover is typically reported at rates of 30%-50% annually. Correspondingly, the challenge to maintain a skilled and competent workforce capable of delivering increasingly sophisticated services is progressively daunting. Many practitioners believe this issue is the predominant organizational challenge for this generation of not-for-profits.
Whether we like it or not, all organizations are experiencing the dual challenges of external and internal change that generate a heightened demand for leadership and managerial acumen.
To respond to this climate of change, most provider agencies need a key group of leaders or managers, the SMT, to provide three key functions:
- Mold the change--making decisions.
- Operationalize the change--making it happen.
- Evaluate the change.
As with all organizations, not-for-profit agencies face a constant barrage of key business decisions. This reality is further complicated by the tension, inherent in voluntary agencies, between business objectives and mission-driven objectives. This tension has existed, presumably, since the inception of the modern, not-for-profit institution.
What has changed, however, is the frequency and variety of the choices that organizations must make today. Proliferation of service delivery models, seminal changes in public policy, and a fundamental change in society's attitudes toward charities and the people we serve, all contribute to the need to continually address key organizational decisions.
The need to consider choices that could make or break an agency is now almost commonplace. Should we abandon our core service or business based on changes in government funding? Do we need to make a huge investment in infrastructure? Should the agency invest substantial portions of its invested reserves on initiatives that may or may not prove to be the wave of the future? The issues can be dizzying.
The point is that the proliferation of key issues demanding effective decisions has become almost overwhelming. To mold the change into positive results for the agency demands, on the executive level, a process that can assess external and internal consequences of decisions on a regular basis. That process can be best realized through a highly functioning executive team.
The gap between what is intended and what actually happens within an organization--making it happen--is probably the key issue of management. In the context of a high-functioning management team, the advantage lies in a constant forum for focus and feedback. Once a decision is made to initiate a change in the organization--whether a new service area or a new policy--the group directs its focus on the best way to implement the change. What needs to be done to implement the change? Who needs to be involved? What outcomes are anticipated? What unanticipated consequences may result?
Once the change has been initiated, the group provides the arena to receive feedback and evaluate the effects of the change. If two heads are better than one, several heads have the potential to be the best--or at least the best most typical organizations can achieve.
Perhaps the most important advantage of a highly functioning SMT is in the process of evaluating management decisions and changes--referring in this context to a process that includes the review of outcome data, but certainly goes far beyond that activity.
Has the initiative or change been implemented as planned? Does it work? Are we furthering the mission of the organization? What unanticipated effects has the change brought about?
It is in the willingness to engage in ongoing, candid, and honest dialogue about the health of the organization--people, programs, and resources--that a highly functioning, core group of managers can best demonstrate the effectiveness of this model.
Autocratic styles of management, where the CEO plays the predominate role in deciding key strategic and tactical decisions for the organization, are unrealistic and doomed to ineffectiveness. The need for external as well as internal sensitivity and accuracy in reading environmental factors is too much for any one person to fulfill on a regular basis.
Highly democratic and inclusive models, which attempt to include broad participation of middle managers, supervisors, and even direct line workers, have many attractive features, but may ultimately prove too unwieldy and inwardly focused to be effective. Focusing on the established senior management group--paying attention both to its structure and function--can therefore be the key to successfully navigating the increasingly treacherous landscape of service provision in the not-for-profit arena.
In developing a highly functioning team, a series of structural and functional questions, if successfully resolved, can lead to the difference between a mediocre group and a highly effective one.
Most teams meet too infrequently to respond to the constant internal and external issues that emerge on a continual basis in most agencies. Discussions and decisions can be lost, forgotten, or diluted due to lack of documentation, such as minutes or action points, and simply too much time can be lost between meetings.
- Who should sit on the team? Is the choice predicated on position, such as the chief financial officer (CFO), the human resources director, or the operations directors, or specific individuals whose personal skills or talents might transcend the issue of job description? A manager with high entrepreneurial instinct or someone who is particularly sensitive to the organization's culture, for example, might provide invaluable contributions to the group not offered by incumbents in traditional senior management positions.
- To what degree does the CEO empower the group to engage in key decision-making and to share in his or her authority?
- What structural elements comprise the team's operation? How often do they meet as a group? Who sets the agenda, and how is discussion monitored and recorded? These questions might seem pedestrian, but in this regard, the devil is in the details.
Employing Group Process
Central to any discussion of developing a highly functioning team is the question of the CEO's competence and skill in leading and facilitating the group--in short, understanding group process. This issue goes beyond the typical focus on running a good meeting. In fact, one could argue that one of the most effective skills a CEO can possess, in the context of leading and managing an SMT, is excellent group facilitation skills. Through the chemistry of meaningful group interaction, the whole really does become more than the sum of its parts. Not surprisingly, the same set of skills is equally applicable to effectively working with boards.
In working with the SMT in a group context, several considerations merit particular attention:
In a highly functioning team meeting of senior managers, it should not be unusual, for instance, to have the CFO question the validity and relevance of a new program approach, or to have the physical plant director raise an issue about organizational morale. Traditional turf gets blurred when all members of the leadership team have been empowered and encouraged to own all the issues the agency needs to address on a regular basis.
- How open is the discussion within the context of typical meetings?
- What is the tolerance for conflict within the group?
- What is the tolerance of the individual members for abandoning assigned roles and job descriptions for the greater good of the group? Are they willing to accept criticism from other members of the group? Can they tolerate a high degree of transparency for their department, or themselves, to serve a larger goal? Conversely, are members willing to venture outside their own orbits of expertise to offer an observation or opinion in an area typically not their own?
The CEO's Role
In the context of a highly functioning SMT model, the CEO has to have the style and flexibility to assume multiple roles and exhibit varying styles. Three primary roles he or she must master, however, include:
Teacher. All leaders are to some degree teachers. But in the context of developing a highly functioning team, the role becomes particularly relevant. In this context, we refer not so much to the teaching of new knowledge, or even skills, but the process of helping managers accurately interpret and make sense of their own experience.
As business writer and consultant Peter Drucker has said, "Leadership is lifting a person's vision to higher sights."
Facilitator. Particularly in the context of working with the SMT in groups, the CEO must assume a facilitating role that fosters discussion, encourages constructive conflict, helps the group reach decisions, and encourages all members to grow, not only individually, but as members of a team.
Arbitrator. All CEO's have to be arbitrators. But in a functional team model, where frequent interaction among the members is expected and encouraged, and friction often arises and conflicts erupt, the leader must successfully negotiate these tensions into positive results. When dealt with effectively, this arbitration can represent one of the strongest assets of a vibrant SMT model. As senior managers evolve past role-playing and become more authentically involved, they learn to successfully deal with workplace conflict. They not only become more effective personally, but they transfer the skill of successful arbitration downward to their subordinates and ultimately help create a significantly more healthy organization.
This transfer of skill, developed at the senior management level, can cascade downward to become the norm for the management and leadership of the entire organization. Ideally, development of a highly functional SMT, far from creating an exclusive club, should result in the replication of this phenomenon with all teams and groups within the agency.
Effective group leadership is, to a degree, a natural talent for some, but also a skill that can be acquired. CEOs and other managers should strongly consider taking an inventory of their own skills in this regard and, if lacking, consider availing themselves of training or other learning opportunities. Additionally, agency leaders can benefit greatly from reviewing the level of functioning of the key groups with whom they work. Commitment toward developing highly functioning teams through effective group process offers the promise of healthier organizations and better results overall.
John E. Henley is Executive Director of Elmcrest Children's Center, Syracuse, New York, and facilitated CWLA's Executive Leadership Institutes at both the 2005 and 2006 National Conferences. This article is based on a workshop presentation at CWLA's 2006 National Conference.
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