Light the Way

Creating a healthy and productive workplace culture is the key to unlocking your team’s brilliance

By Laurie K. Houck

Light the Way


One Sunday evening, not long after I began my role as vice president for development and alumni relations at The College of Wooster in Ohio, I sat at my desk writing about trends in philanthropy. The briefs would help educate the board of trustees' advancement committee as we planned our next campaign. But as I delved into how those trends had influenced the college, I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew. The next day, I asked my 30-person staff to work in groups to create presentations about trends in higher education philanthropy. Staff members jumped into the project and, because of their excitement and collaboration, the results were far stronger than anything I could have created on my own. After we highlighted the trends at our advancement staff meeting, we were asked to present our findings to the president's cabinet and, subsequently, to the board's advancement committee.

By corralling my team's energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm, I'd tapped into a culture of learning embedded in the ethos of The College of Wooster that led to the project's success. Before my team gave the presentations, we practiced in front of each other, and staff members later said that the session had been a safe place to learn from respectful, candid critiques. Everyone understood his or her role and the project's goal, and team members were proud of their work, later using it to fuel their annual plans. The team went on to achieve more, not only in meeting a challenging campaign goal in just three and a half years (and surpassing that goal by 30 percent in five years) but also by growing as a team, working side-by-side with eager curiousity to make a difference to the entire institution.

This story illustrates the importance of building a healthy and productive workplace culture and engaging staff in that process. Understanding why culture matters and how to implement staff engagement are key challenges of leadership. Culture is built with pieces of our institutional history, regional influences, and past leadership, as well as with institutional traditions. Furthermore, as advancement leaders, we are not the only ones defining our workplace culture. Our president, cabinet members, faculty, fellow staff members, and trustees are all working with an inherited culture to establish the culture that matters right now.

What Is Workplace Culture?

Building a healthy culture is not simply about being nice. A healthy culture is not being accommodating so that others like us. Rather, it consists of developing a shared set of values that gives us a framework for how we behave.

As leaders, we need to articulate to our teams both the environment we inherit and the one we desire, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the first in order to inform the second. We must know and inform others when we are intentionally modifying our current culture. We must also bring our teams with us so that they can strengthen the result and see their work represented. If we do this right, our teams will diligently work to protect and promote that culture in ways that one leader simply cannot do alone.

When he arrived at the University of Central Florida, Michael Morsberger, vice president for advancement and chief executive officer of the UCF Foundation, found low morale and disorganization among departmental roles. To remedy this, he formed a diverse committee to explore mission, vision, and values and to make recommendations for building a more enjoyable and productive workplace. "Folks got into it," he says. "Their enthusiasm rubbed off on others."

To keep this momentum going, he formed a human resources advisory committee to address employee engagement, culture, and retention. This group will help UCF better understand their employees' perspectives and what leadership can do to keep them productive. Part of that work is simply recognizing accomplishments and having fun: To celebrate end-of-fiscal-year success, he hired an ice cream truck to reward staff at the end of the day. "We even had our campaign chair out front thanking people for their hard work," Morsberger says. "It's a lived culture thing. You've got to walk the talk."

Why Does Culture Matter?

Intentionally developing an engaged organizational culture can offer solutions to some of our advancement world challenges. Our staff members are evaluated by their ability to raise money for purposes they might not have had any part in devising, yet we need to cast a wider net of ownership for these ideas, both with our donors and across campus. We often call this "campaign fluency" and expect our staff to readily relay it to others with full color commentary. Our teams are also often measured by short-term accomplishments even though advancement is a long game, with philanthropic cultivation determining larger institutional success. Our long-term vision—fostering decades of growth, not just the next quarter's results—must inform short-term evaluation of behavior, not just goals. When staffing up prior to a significant campaign, we have limited time to enculturate new members as we galvanize our work to be faster, better, and more productive. The strong foundation of an intentional, co-owned culture brings together a team that needs to deliver immediately.

"We are responsible for meeting ambitious and ever-growing institutional goals," says Fred Van Sickle, vice president for alumni affairs and deve-lopment at Cornell University in New York. "At Cornell, we believe our ability to achieve these goals is dependent in large part on our people and the extent to which they are motivated and engaged with their work. How we do our work is as important as what we do."

Know Your Why

A mission statement describes our purpose; it provides us a shared understanding of the organization's intended direction. If staff members don't know why we do what we do, they are far less likely to own the mission. We can tell, mandate, and instruct them, but until they understand the mission in their own words, it will remain abstract to them.
For that reason, many vice presidents launch their tenures by thinking through mission, vision, and values with their team. The values statement and the mission of the office reflect the language of the larger institution, both being informed by and in support of the institution's mission. The statements represent the coalescing of ideas that the advancement team has chosen, meaning everyone is likelier to work by them and to hold one another accountable to them.

At the University of Washington, Connie Kravas, senior vice president for university advancement, and her executive team give a lot of thought to creating a place where staff members are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work. "As leaders of a large shop," she says, "we certainly cannot drive innovation or achieve our ambitious goals alone. Co-ownership of the ideas we craft together drives our performance."

Once we know why we do something, we can figure out what we must do to live up to that purpose and then design how we do it. The "how" is not just tactical: the operation of a phonathon, the segmentation choices in annual giving solicitations, or the criteria we use to select event venues. The experience that informs those choices is valuable, but more significant are the values by which we conduct the work.

Strategy is guided from the top but implemented and pushed throughout the organization by our teams. When our teams—not just the leaders of those teams—design staff engagement strategies (task forces, discussion groups, coffee hours, celebrations) and tools for allowing input (360 reviews, idea boards, feedback structures, program evaluations), we are intentionally including stalwart champions and skeptics, reluctant participants and the group's historians, and long-tenured staff members and their newly hired colleagues.

"There's no shortcut to the hearts and minds of a team," says Peter Hayashida, vice chancellor of university advancement at the University of California, Riverside. "If a leader isn't willing to persist until the change has taken hold, the organizational antibodies will remove any trace of intended change before the successor walks through the door."

Clear Communication

Engaging staff in developing culture centers on the three C's: clarity (of purpose, roles, and goals); candor (around metrics, success, and feedback); and consistency (in messaging, expectations, and behavior).

Clarity sets the stage and allows staff members freedom to experiment and achieve. They need to have clear expectations, practical but challenging goals, and an understanding of the boundaries and intersections of their work. For example, in the middle of a campaign, I wanted our major gifts team to move from a focus on outright gifts to more blended gift conversations and to develop momentum around planned giving. That required meetings about reporting, goal setting, portfolio management, recognition, and metrics. I couldn't just announce that we were changing focus; rather, I needed the team to consider the ramifications of the move, understand why and why now, and think through with me how to execute it.

Candor sets the expectation of two-way feedback, eliminating mystery and obfuscation, which serve no purpose. As leaders, we must assume good intentions and ask questions with curiosity and openness. The goal is improvement and truth in the service of improvement. By making the discussion about mistakes, opportunities, or challenges, we can say what we think and encourage others to do the same.

Candor is personal: We need to tell our teams how we work, what annoys us, what matters to us. It is also outward facing: Every time we see a staff member exhibit our values and pursue our mission (not just accomplish a specific task or goal), we should offer public praise; when we see the opposite, we should have a private discussion. Our ultimate success in creating buy-in relies on everyone understanding the behaviors that align with our values. If we see a junior staff member driving a creative project forward when we have agreed that entrepreneurial thinking is valued, we should draw attention to her initiative. Conversely, if a manager wears earbuds when walking the halls and the team has agreed on an open-door policy, we would want to mention, privately, that earbuds are the same as a closed door.

Consistency promotes long-term thinking. It develops routines and builds momentum, forming habits that make our work more fluid and productive. If a VP expects communication in a certain form—paper files over email or email over phone calls—she should stick with the pattern. On a grander scale, if a VP declares a "year of qualification" and the team creates reports, metrics, and partnerships to that end, he should be hesitant to suddenly change course. Consistency leads to trust. Our teams will notice if our words match our deeds. We must ensure that our own behaviors and attitudes reflect what we espouse.

Ultimately, clarity, candor, and consistency are avenues for effective communication. At Davidson College in North Carolina, Eileen Keeley, vice president for college relations, translates this as "access and transparency." After a recent reorganization, she and her senior team started "coffee talks" to bridge departments and experience levels. Typically, a senior college relations team member guides a conversation with three other staffers around topics such as building a positive work culture or creating opportunities for innovation.They then share the ideas with the whole staff.

Keeley also holds monthly office hours, and staff members have used the time for a variety of conversations on everything from giving project updates and offering suggestions for improvements to discussing professional development and seeking Keeley's advice as a working mom. "I originally conceived of this as a service to my group," she says. "But it has become much more valuable to me. Our conversations provide insights into the talents, ambitions, and motivations of my staff. We have also uncovered some excellent ideas and [made]much-needed changes."

One lesson: Several staff members indicated that they probably wouldn't have attended the office hours if Keeley hadn't explicitly invited them.

Freedom to Fail and Succeed

All of this comes back to the fact that an engaged staff is a requirement for a healthy culture, and a healthy culture is a requirement for a high-performing team. "You're only as good as your staff," says Eloise Dunn Brice, vice chancellor/vice president for university advancement at the University of Houston.

Early in her career, Colleen Garland, now vice president for advancement at Kenyon College in Ohio, reports that her former vice president at Ohio's Denison University, Mary Jane McDonald, asked staff members to think about what they could do around the issue of generational wealth transfer. Garland had only a few years of fundraising experience, but she was so interested in the question that she did some research and submitted a paper with suggestions. "It was a powerful example of a culture that led me to believe I had something to offer, regardless of my title or seniority," she says.

Years later, McDonald let her run with one of her ideas about engaging more women donors. "Again, she trusted me," Garland says. "We launched the first ‘Women for Denison Weekend' that successfully involved prominent alumnae who had not previously been engaged with their alma mater."

Opportunities for input can be deeply thoughtful, like Garland's example, or small and tactical. Vice presidents can invent formal structures like search committee work (a good vehicle for revisiting values, expectations, and roles); task forces (an avenue for promoting broader thinking and collaboration); and stand-up meetings (quick briefings that create opportunities for emerging ideas or challenges). Informal structures are also important, more so when others devise them: ground rules for meetings, job-shadowing opportunities, or walking meetings among colleagues. No vice president should be entirely responsible for all the answers or, in this case, all the communication strategies.

There are many universities and colleges; there are equally as many advancement shops. What attracts our staff is a clear sense of purpose; what retains them is engaging in the development and promotion of our vision and values; and what makes us successful is their adoption and ownership of the institution's mission and culture. People can move for higher salaries and loftier titles, but they often move for less tangible and more meaningful reasons. If we, as leaders, want to produce amazing results, we must give our colleagues the room to produce them with us.

About the Author

Laurie K. Houck is the vice president for institutional advancement at Rollins College in Florida. She has 30 years of experience in educational fundraising.

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