Nonprofit Staffing: Maintaining Corporate Identity When Growth Occurs
Corporate growth is almost always a good thing. It can augment the bottom line, create new jobs and open new business opportunities. Yet, expansion can sometimes create unforeseen human resource issues, especially in small organizations. In a rush to fill the personnel gap growth creates, companies often accelerate staffing actions without first assuring structures are in place to maintain organizational identity.
Seven years ago, I shepherded the expansion of a 49-member direct marketing agency into the digital world. We doubled the year-one revenue projections in my business plan and, by year two, had reached almost $2 million in billings. Digital was no longer a foray into a possible new business line. It was an essential, revenue-generating component of the organization. To keep pace with customer demand, we upped staffing levels quickly, almost doubling staff size.
The influx of new personnel included new managers, particularly at the entry and middle levels. On the upside, we were able to ramp up operations and launch a viable business line that met the needs of a growing customer list. The downside was that outside hiring meant that some of our managers had not come up the ranks. Thus, they had missed the acculturation process that is so vital to perpetuating the values and traditions established by our founders. These core ingredients set our organization apart and were essential contributors to our success.
Maintaining Organizational Culture
To avoid a total change in organizational culture, you need to institutionalize core values and a process for their transmission to employees. A formal management training program is the best way to achieve this goal. However, most small organizations must start from ground zero—often after all the hiring has occurred.
Start by becoming an expert yourself. Invest time and effort into reading management books and attending seminars and webinars to identify and extract best practices. Then, use that knowledge—and your own understanding of what makes your organization unique—to create entry-level, midlevel and master's-level management training tracks to assure that all managers, regardless of length of employment, learn and understand your organization's core values. In this way, they can be role models who transmit these ideals to staff directly and indirectly.
Be sure to include practical and time-tested techniques that give managers tools for managing, too. For example, many managers feel uncomfortable giving criticism. They are afraid that staff will not like them if they offer critiques. They don't understand that being best friends is not part of the job description. What is important is guiding staff development through constructive feedback, both positive and negative.
An Effective Technique
One effective training exercise asks the new manager to write down the top six functions an assigned staff person must perform. Next, ask that manager to give that piece of paper to the employee and ask him or her to self-assess by assigning a rating of one to five to each item. Invariably, the employee will self-grade higher than the manager.
Then, ask the manager: "If John Doe gave himself a four and you think he deserves a two, what does John need to do to get a five?" Even the novice manager is rarely at a loss for identifying specific steps that would lead to a five rating.
This process gives the manager a practical means to establish work goals for every employee supervised. It also provides a goal sheet that the manager and employee can discuss jointly at regular intervals. (Weekly progress discussions are optimal, workload permitting.) From this point on, everything that manager does with that employee is training toward goal accomplishment. The beauty of this approach is its simplicity and straightforwardness. Once learned, it becomes an ingrained technique.
Looking Toward the Future
With a structure in place that addresses both culture and staff development at all levels, organizational goals then shift to retaining qualified staff and keeping employees happy. Giving every new employee a chance to meet with the organization's leader at the time of hire—and holding an informal chat weeks or months later—conveys that management is interested in employees and their well-being.
Instituting company bonding activities is important, too, in building staff cohesion and loyalty. Key examples include offering monthly team-building social activities on company time, sponsoring charitable activities such as food and clothing drives, promoting a staff book club, and holding an annual staff retreat and/or holiday party. Of course, elements of the organization's benefits package can play an important role as well.
Expect that 50 percent of your lower-level hires will leave the organization no matter what. These staff members are often experimenting with career choices or just looking for new experiences. Don't feel that some flaw within your organization is precipitating their exit. However, monitor the situation through exit interviews to gain insights about each employee's work experience while in your employ. If there is a recurring theme, it likely warrants your attention.
A Piece of Advice
Here is my No. 1 piece of advice when growing your organization and expanding into new fields: Hire people who know more than you do, and learn from them. Impart to them all you know based on your past experience, and listen and absorb the knowledge they possess in their chosen field. Together, everyone will learn and pioneer many new and successful strategies that will contribute to the success—and ongoing growth—of your organization.
Kim Cubine is president of Chapman Cubine Adams + Hussey (CCAH), a full-service direct marketing firm with offices in Arlington, Va., and San Francisco. She possesses over 20 years’ experience as a strategist and communicator for progressive causes and political candidates. She has managed the direct marketing programs of some of the largest, most prestigious campaigns and global nonprofit organizations, including Obama for America, EMILY’s List, Clinton-Gore ’96, The Wilderness Society, NARAL Pro-Choice America, AARP and the Democratic National Committee. Since assuming the presidency of the firm, she has been instrumental in developing CCAH into the first and leading, full-service direct marketing agency in the country.