Prep work

When Judy Vrendenburgh took over as president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America 10 years ago, she knew the organization needed a strategic overhaul to continue to grow.

She wanted to keep the sense of ownership and responsiveness that the nonprofit’s 394 affiliated agencies felt toward their local communities, while also creating a stronger umbrella network for direction and support.

The process worked, as the organization has grown from serving 100,000 children nationwide per year to serving 250,000 each year through its agencies, which collectively posted 2008 revenue of $290 million.

To design an effective strategic plan, you need buy-in from all areas of your organization, which starts with strong representation from every division, says Vrendenburgh. The group developing the plan needs to unite under one vision, which comes from strong communication and a leader who sets the example while developing and executing the plan.

Smart Business spoke with Vrendenburgh about how to put the people and communication in place to form and execute a strategic plan.

Involve employees from a broad spectrum of the organization to solicit advice and get buy-in. What’s really important is that some representative from across the different sub-units of the organization be involved right from the beginning, a cross section of leaders that can look like all of the leaders.

If they created the plan or their surrogates helped create the plan — people that look like them or are in similar roles to the roles that they play — then it becomes their plan. It can’t be Philadelphia’s plan; it has to be the plan of the agency and on behalf of the agencies.

I don’t believe that in our kind of organization a top-down plan could ever work because it has to be executed at the local level. It’s a truism of management that if you really want good execution, you have to own the strategy and participate in it or have somebody in a similar role to you who you really respect participating in creating that plan so, therefore, it’s your plan.

So even if you weren’t particularly involved, you’d say, ‘Oh, that person is representing my interest, and they’ve been engaged with a facilitative process that combines those internal leaders from decentralized units with some outside fresh perspective.’

Then (knit) that all together in a task team with leadership from the top, as well.

Good leaders are good followers, and good followers are good leaders. You integrate that together in a facilitative way so the process becomes very, very important to get the folks and all of us to discover the right strategy and to really own that strategy so that you have really good execution.

Have a good facilitator who can make sure that everybody has a chance to contribute and listen at the same time. Then draw the themes together and get everybody to say, not, ‘Oh yes, that’s right,’ and then you move to the next step.