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A Tale of Two Teams

A Tale of Two Teams

July 13, 2023
Howard Cohen

When it comes to team management, one size does not fit all. Not all teams are alike, and we should not expect that all team management will require the same approach.

Let’s consider two quite different types of teams to understand how they lead us to very different management approaches. 

Team 1 is a leadership team of the type found in a for-profit company or a not-for-profit college or university. It is generally headed by a CEO whose team consists of her or his direct reports. They have the responsibility to lead and manage their assigned divisions. However, they also have an organizational responsibility to support the CEO in his or her responsibilities, which include assuring that the organization’s resources and personnel are working effectively and are aligned to fulfill the organization’s mission and vision. 

In the corporate world think finance, administration, marketing, product development, sales, manufacturing and so on. In higher education think academic affairs, student affairs, administration and finance, enrollment management, advancement, university relations or some similar division of responsibilities. 

The CEO is responsible for the entire organization, and his or her team therefore has responsibilities that transcend divisional interests and may, at times, be in tension with them. The CEO is challenged to manage a team of members that will give priority to their broader organizational responsibilities when there are tensions or conflicts between those responsibilities and the member’s divisional responsibilities. 

For example, a divisional leader may need additional staff or funding for a special project although the organization may have greater needs in another area. In some cases that team member may be called upon to support the CEO’s priority at the expense of his or her divisional needs.

To illustrate more concretely: In budgeting for the next fiscal year, a university president consults with her team about how to allocate a modest expected surplus of funds. The president places the distribution of the expected new funds on the management team’s agenda. The vice president for administrative services must decide whether to argue for funds for a new software package in purchasing, to improve the efficiency of ordering supplies and equipment. The software will improve administrative services performance and benefit both the division and the university.  

Also under consideration for the surplus funds is an additional position in the vice president for enrollment’s division for another recruiter. The recruiter will help the university meet its enrollment (and, therefore, revenue) goals.

Assuming there will not be sufficient surplus funds to both purchase the new software and hire the new recruiter, the president needs both VPs to make the case for allocating these funds to the most pressing need from the university’s perspective rather than the administrative services or enrollment perspective. Which allocation will contribute most to the future success of the university in fulfilling its mission? 

On a highly developed team, the president will be able to expect that both VPs will see the surplus allocation from the university’s perspective and advocate accordingly (rather than “fighting” for the funds for their own divisional needs}.

Team management from the CEO’s perspective means welding a group of divisional leaders, each with their divisional interests, into a team of organizational leaders who give priority to the broader perspective of the organization’s needs.

The CEO has some tools to accomplish this:

  • Financial rewards such as merit raises or bonuses
  • Evaluation such as quarterly or annual reviews
  • Leadership team retreats
  • Coaching
  • Travel to conferences

A wise CEO will use these tools to help team members learn to align their divisional responsibilities with broader organizational needs and advise the CEO accordingly.

Team 2 is the board of directors of a nonprofit organization that operates a food pantry for low-income people in need. The board consists of volunteers committed to supporting the work of the pantry. 

Members of the board include executives from local grocery chains, restauranteurs, social service workers, religious leaders, foundations and engaged citizens. The board’s responsibilities include raising funds, forging connections with food providers and assuring that the organization operates honestly, effectively and efficiently. The board chair is selected from among the board members.

The leadership challenge for the board chair of Team 2 is quite different from the leadership challenge of the CEO of Team 1. None of the board members “report” to the board chair. All of them have work and life responsibilities outside their roles as board members of the pantry. They give their time and effort without compensation. 

Nevertheless, the board chair needs to forge these members into a team if the pantry is to thrive as an organization. The pantry’s director and employees rely on the board’s support to enable them to do their work.

What tools does the board chair have to manage and engage a board of unpaid volunteers to become an effective team?

First, the tools the board chair does not have: 

Given the voluntary status of the board, there is no remuneration for board work. No salaries, no bonuses, no financial rewards for good work, no sabbatical leave. Board members are not in it for the money.

Moreover, board members are, typically, not evaluated by the board chair. The boards of some nonprofits do have a process by which they evaluate member participation, but that is rare. If a major donor to the pantry is represented by an ineffective individual, the board chair might prefer that to not having the donor represented at all but is likely to tolerate that person’s presence in order to continue receiving the financial assistance. Also, a rigorous board member evaluation process may discourage individuals from wanting to serve.

Coaching also is unlikely to be a tool that the chair could use for board development. Voluntary board members are more likely to think of themselves as members of a team of equals. Often, they are accomplished in their own spheres and may not see themselves as needing to learn how to be a board member from one of their peers. An extraordinary board chair might be able to pull this off, but the attempt is fraught with peril.

Still, there are tools. Board retreats are opportunities for board development. These can be especially effective if facilitated by experts in board process. It helps if board members see these opportunities as learning experiences rather than training experiences.

Travel to conferences is a potential board management tool in some cases for boards or board members who can afford this opportunity. Attendance at these gatherings tends to build commitment and enthusiasm for the work of the organization. Being in the company of like-minded volunteers underscores the value of the service. 

If, for example, there were a national or regional organization of food pantries that offered conferences and if this food pantry was a part of that organization, and if the food pantry had a budget line to send board members to that organization’s conference, or board members were willing to self-fund their participation, this opportunity would be useful to a board chair as a way to encourage more committed and therefore more “manageable” board participation. 

In general, however, the tools appropriate for managing Team 1 kinds of teams are not the best tools for managing Team 2 kinds of teams. The best tools for that challenge are grounded in understanding what motivates board members to volunteer in the first place. Exploring those tools will be the topic of future blog posts.

This is the first in a series of blog posts by Dr. Howard Cohen on managing volunteers.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.