5 Things an Executive Director Can Do To Build a Strong Leadership Team

by Joan Garry

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Let’s discuss the right way and the wrong way to build a Leadership Team.

A while back I coached a very smart and ambitious young woman who, for the sake of privacy, I’ll call Meg.

Meg had recently been promoted to run the communications department of a mid-sized nonprofit. She had never held a senior position like this before.

As a director, Meg was invited onto the Leadership Team. She was quickly confused and frustrated.

“What is the point of this Leadership Team?” Meg asked. “It seems like I go to more meetings and have less time to get MY work done.”

She told me the day before their weekly meetings, she’s asked if she has any agenda items. But nobody ever told her what the criteria is for a valuable agenda item.

Of the meetings themselves, Meg said, “I’ve started asking a lot of questions and the nonverbals of my ‘teammates’ seem to indicate that I am prolonging a meeting they don’t really want to be in. Sometimes the ED can’t even make the meeting. But we meet anyway and nobody knows why. Shouldn’t we be talking about something substantive and working on it together?”

To that last quote I say a big AMEN. And by the way, my young client Meg demonstrated more leadership with these questions than her clock-watching colleagues.

What Meg described to me was a group of direct reports to the Executive Director who met because that is what Executive Directors do. They have weekly meetings with their direct reports. ED’s are rushed, agendas are not thoughtfully prepared, and what you wind up with is that “OK, let’s go around the room – what’s going on with each of you?”


This happens really frequently. It’s why one of the most common services my firm provides is leadership team facilitation. In fact, we get asked some variation of the following question all the time:

My senior team does not seem to be on the same page – can you work with us?

What might this tell you? Let me not hold you in suspense.

They may not in fact be a team at all.

You earn the word team. It cannot just be bestowed unto you. My philosophy is simple: you don’t get to call yourself a team until you earn it.

So how do you earn it? And what are some practical ways an Executive Director can build an actual Leadership TEAM?


I’ll get to the advice in a moment, but first… a true story.

A foundation convenes the leaders of the major organizations in a specific sector to talk about strategy. Prior to the meeting, the foundation asks each organization to share a 10-15 slide presentation with key elements of their organization’s strategy going forward.

I believe the idea was to create one big PowerPoint, synthesizing the strategies so the group could talk about gaps and overlaps.

Only one problem. Most of the organizations, when submitting their slides, made it clear that their strategy was proprietary, confidential, and was not to be shared with the larger group.

The foundation respected the wishes of these organizations and talked around strategy for ½ a day.

I’m told the food was good.


OK, so let’s get to it. First, let’s make sure everyone understands exactly what a strong Leadership Team looks like…

  • You all wear the same hat. I’m not talking fedora here. What I mean is that if I’m in charge of development or if I am the CFO, I leave my Development hat or my CFO hat at my desk. When I come to the Leadership Team meeting, the hat I am wearing is the one with my organization’s logo on it. A leadership team has discussions and makes decisions that are in the best interest of the wholeOf course you bring the perspective of your area of responsibility but you are not a congressional representative to the leadership team from the “great state of I.T.”
  • You ask how you can help your colleagues. Did I just hear you laugh? You are so busy you feel like you can’t breathe. But look across the table. Your colleague appears to be flat lining. A good teammate offers to help. Be creative.
  • You mentor, support, celebrate and shore each other up. I love Derek Jeter. Can you imagine him chastising the second baseman for missing the relay throw to complete a double play? I can’t. I can imagine him saying, “Don’t worry – we’ll get ‘em next time” or “Why don’t we come a few minutes early to practice and get ourselves into a good rhythm for tomorrow?

That’s what we are going for here. Support. That’s how teams work. If the department head of one area drops the ball, it might screw up the allocation of resources and power to another area.


Here are the “five things” as promised:

1) Define the Charge

Why is this group necessary? What value does the gathering of these people bring to you, to the organization, and to each member? What is the organization missing if you don’t create a real leadership team? Again, make sure you focus on the word “team.”

2) Define Roles and Responsibilities

Remember Meg from the beginning of this post? Other than “going to more meetings,” she didn’t quite understand her new responsibilities as a member of the Leadership Team.

Use real life examples with your folks. A great one to use is the development of a budget that is in the best interest of the entire organization. Have the entire team engaged in making the tough decisions.

3) Define Your Expectations of Leadership

Do not assume that people know your expectations. And please, I beg of you, include behaviors and not just achievements.

4) Create Meetings and Agendas that Reinforce the Prior Items

You gotta walk the walk. If you want a real team, then the leader of that team has to invest in managing it. If you are all about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, then by golly, you better talk about things at these meetings that enable everyone to add value to a conversation. And you must make it clear that as leaders, each member has a valuable and valued point of view. (There can be no “you don’t know development – how can you have a point of view on this?”) Remember, your development colleague is wearing an organizational hat in this meeting. And as the Executive Director, you must call people out if you see their departmental hat sneaking out.

5) Get Everyone A Hat

Not kidding. Visuals are remarkably important. Nothing tells me more clearly that I am on the same team than team hats.


Just to give you an idea of what I am going for when I talk about “defining the charge”…

The Leadership Team of XYZ.org exists to lead the organization with the Executive Director. As the E.D., I am looking for this team to serve as a strategic thought partner with me on substantive issues that are relevant to the pursuit of our mission. These include staff support and management, budget, strategy, crisis, and new opportunities.

I expect team members to initiate ideas, take risks, be honest, challenge me, and I expect our decisions to be richer for the participation of all members of the team.

Lastly, I expect this group to model leadership for the rest of our staff – both with tactical goals and leadership behavior.


Building this takes time. Get offsite and spend even 3 hours making these things clear. Decide together if you can live with the charge, develop some basic team norms, and then talk about what will make an effective weekly meeting. Not just “how” the meeting should work but “what” makes a great agenda item.

You are busy and you will naturally drive to the weeds. Fly your remarkable plane off the tarmac and make sure your conversations are at the right altitude.

Your turn. Do you have a leadership team? What gets in the way? Perhaps your comments will lead to a follow up post.

5 thoughts on “5 Things an Executive Director Can Do To Build a Strong Leadership Team”

  1. I love this, particularly about everyone wearing the same hat to a leadership team meeting. very helpful metaphor. thanks!

  2. I am working on having better staff team meetings and doing more than just going around the room. Though a small caveat: at our org there is some value in the “going around the room” b/c the silos are brought down a bit and we get to learn about each other’s work and then naturally we usually get to a place of how we help each other. Or if there’s a deadline we talk about what we need from others to bring it home. What I’m really struggling with is infusing our strategic plan into each meeting — e.g., trying to take the document our board worked on and make it into a dynamic, organic document that we reference and use and build upon. The first step I took was to create individual work plans based upon the goals in the SP, but now I’m struggling with how to stop the regular tenor of the staff/leadership meetings from devolving into “going around the room” (which again, does have some value for our “to-do’s” for the week and making sure all bases are covered) and shifting into something more meaningful. Is it ok to do both in the meeting? how do you pull workplans/SP into the meeting? when do you the status updates if not in those meetings? Should there be 2 meetings: strategic planning/leadership and weekly staff — not that i want to add more meetings…. what is the right balance and form?

  3. I agree. At our organization, too, if we do not go around the room at some point, then staff will not know what is going on in other departments to the detriment of the association, and it gives the opportunity to know how others will be involved or can help. I have the same questions as Jennifer regarding doing both, having two meetings, and/or when is the best time to do those general status updates if not during the weekly meeting.

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