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9 Secrets to High-Performing Teams


By Ellie Burke

Collaborative Conference Panel

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s said that the sum is only as good as its parts, but high-performing teams can only achieve their greatest level of collective impact when they have an effective leader.

And while you can learn leadership best practices in many ways, sometimes it’s most impactful to hear advice from people who are right in the thick of it.

That’s why at the Collaborative, we asked industry experts to share their personal experiences as leaders of high performing teams. In this post you’ll hear from:

*This panel was facilitated by Cindy Jones-Nyland, co-founder and CMO of Brite Dandelion.

Here are nine takeaways from their session on how to be a successful leader of a high-performing team.

1. Everyone Needs to Be a Plank Holder

According to Jake, leaders need to create a culture where everyone’s top priority is the mission’s success.

In the nonprofit sector, we don’t have equity that we can give away to our employees to attract and retain talent. So what is it that we can provide them that gives them some sense of ownership in the organization?

For Team Rubicon, they discovered early on that they needed to reduce the stratification of the organization for team members to feel a sense of ownership around the mission. Jake describes all members of his organization as “grey shirts,” no matter the person’s role.

Additionally, in every job interview they don’t ask, “how are you going to assimilate to our culture?” but, “how are you going to add value?”

2. Authentic Leadership Is Key

Chandini revealed how important it is to be an honest leader. In her work, especially at both Susan G. Komen and the Livestrong Foundation, she found it crucial to acknowledge challenging situations candidly.

She told her teams:

We have to move forward together and if we can’t band together to say, ‘These are the next steps and this is the vision that we are setting forth for a turnaround,’ then we can’t do this as a team.

She also realized her role in setting an example for her team. She made every effort to “show up the way you want others to show up.” This meant demonstrating personal and professional life balance.

I was the youngest executive female, woman of color, and I had four babies in three years and I will tell you that that was hard. But I also felt like I owed it to every woman out there to prove that it could be done.

3. Be a Coach, Not a Boss

Leaders who adopt this mindset change the entire way they manage their teams. Through coaching, leaders demonstrate an interest in understanding the individual strengths of their team members. They also indicate a commitment to growth, patience, and success at an individual level.

According to Danny, Gallup would say, “your strengths and your talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be productively applied.”

Assessments and tools like Strengthsfinder can help you get to know your team. When you know what motivates each member individually, and where their natural abilities lie, you can use your role to maximize their potential.

4. Worry About the Horse, Not the Mail

Danny also shared this helpful saying with audience members.

Don’t worry about the mail getting there, worry about the horse delivering the mail. If the horse is doing well, the mail will always get there.

Danny Kim

He went on to ask the crowd, “When you lose an employee, how much time does it take to fill their shoes? Way too much time, right? Why don’t we just invest in the people right now that we have right now? Why don’t you invest in yourself because we don’t want to get burnt out?”

Jake agreed, adding, “If we take care of our grey shirts, if we take care of our volunteers and our staff, then we are going to be able to maximize impact and the mission. Everything that we do is designed to maximize team performance by aligning them behind that purpose.”

Examine how your team’s efforts are focused. Where could you ingrain this approach in your organization? You could even poll your team to better understand how you can support them. Do they feel celebrated and appreciated in their roles? Do they feel their workload is realistic? Questions like these will give you the critical feedback you need to identify and address any necessary changes.

5. Over-Communicating Is Better Than Under-Communicating

Many of the panel members agreed that internal communication is a top challenge at nonprofit organizations.

Specifically, Jake spoke to a leader’s role in supporting open door policies. His advice? To go beyond just saying that you’re open to feedback.

“If you have an open door policy, you really have to celebrate when people use it.

You have to drive home that it’s real that people are going to be heard, that action is going to be taken, that you are going to empathize with whatever concerns that they bring to you.

If you have a great and real authentic open door policy, you are not just going to be hearing people coming in with concerns, you are going to be hearing people come in with great opportunities as well. And it’s when those opportunities are allowed to bubble up and there’s this ability for people to feel safe in coming with a great, crazy idea that the real magic starts to happen internally.”

Jake Wood

6. Care For Your Staff the Way They Want to Be Cared For

According to Chandini, the key to effective communication is the ability to listen well.

As a leader, it’s only when you take the time to understand how your team prefers to receive communications that you can deliver messages in a way that really resonates. If you listen to your staff members’ needs, you’ll understand the communication methods that help them to thrive. For example, some team members may highly value public recognition for their achievements, while others prefer private. This information will help you celebrate the work of your team members in a way that means the most.

This personalized approach and level of care demonstrates a leader’s capacity to truly activate team members so that they achieve their maximum potential.

7. Good Leaders Play Checkers, Great Leaders Play Chess

When it comes to coaching your employees, it pays to think of your team members as individual chess pieces, not checker pieces. Jake explained that in chess, each piece is unique and has its own advantages, strengths, and weaknesses. In checkers, every piece is the same.

“If you understand that, then you can maximize the battlespace or the board. In order to really get to a level where you are playing chess, you have to truly care and love the people that you are leading, you have to get to know them on an individual basis and it can’t just be window dressing.

That is really the difference between being an effective and authentic leader and being someone who simply has a title: truly caring about the people that are in your charge and doing everything you can to maximize their impact from 9 to 5, so that their lives after that 9 to 5 are happier and more fulfilled.”

Jake Wood

8. Be a Transformational Leader, Not a Transactional Leader

Transactional leaders are not invested in the success of their employees. They don’t devote time and resources to the personal growth of their team members. This type of leadership often results in high turnover.

Danny posed it to the group this way,

“What if we begin to say, ‘Where do you want to go?,’ ‘Where do you want to be?,’ ‘You want my job in the future? Let me help you get there.’”

The difference is in the attitude with which you approach your employees. Just as you want to be your team’s coach, you also want to maintain the mindset that you help to transform your team members in their respective professional journeys. This mindset benefits the individual by helping them see an even greater purpose in their role, but also benefits the team, as it contributes to greater retention and a more positive work environment.

9. Break Barriers With Personality

A sense of humor goes a long way in leadership. Showing your softer side lends a human element to your role and helps to break stifling feelings of hierarchy.

It also helps to alleviate some of the pressures that come with working in the nonprofit space.

“The reality is that the work we all do, it’s very important. It can be very serious. We often find ourselves taking on the gravity of the issues that we are facing…you can feel that emotional toll, it’s draining.

For your own individual sustainability, how do you recharge? How do you take care of yourself?

You have to be able to have some level of galley humor in all of that. I think we’ve built a really fun atmosphere at Team Rubicon that encourages people to understand the enormity of the issues that we are facing and the vision we have for tackling it. But, at the end of the day, we also ensure that we know when to unplug, we know how to have fun, and ultimately that’s not just fun for fun’s sake, we believe that that has a direct impact back on our ability to have impact in the mission.”

Jake Wood

Want to gain more insights from top nonprofit leaders? Check out the extended sessions library from the Collaborative: Virtual Sessions, where you can watch all the recordings from the event and hear from industry leaders on how you can succeed in your role and elevate your leadership skills.

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