Groupthink Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Stephen H. Hoffman would go broke without consensus.

As president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Hoffman is constantly working to ensure that donors are heard because each has three unique votes in every decision the organization makes.

Donors who are members of the board first vote for or against a decision, and then they vote with their wallets, deciding whether to financially support a decision. Last, they can vote with their feet, deciding to walk out if their opinions aren’t heard.

Throughout the years, Hoffman has become an expert in building a consensus to capitalize on the $90 million grant budget at the nonprofit organization that supports the Jewish and general communities of Cleveland. Learning to hear every point of view and find common ground among people who think they are on different planets, Hoffman pushes the organization forward by getting both volunteers and his 130-person staff behind the bigger vision.

Smart Business spoke with Hoffman about understanding the team dynamic and how to learn to delegate before your hair gets too gray.

Guide the team dynamic to build consensus. In group work, there are two parallel dynamics operating at the same time. One is the actual work, the topics that are being discussed and the decisions that you have to make.

The other side is the process that’s being followed to make decisions and achieve consensus. There you focus on trying to include all members of the group in the discussion, trying to listen to what different people are saying, trying to see if there’s common ground in the different views expressed and trying to understand where different people are coming from to move toward a consensus.

And you want to do so not by a 5-4 vote, but where everybody says, ‘OK, I think that’s where I could go and support.’

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to get everybody to agree, but you have to make everybody feel they had a chance to participate and a chance to be heard and respected. It’s very important that it be an authentic process and that people perceive it that way so their participation matters. And they may not prevail because the majority of the group is in a different place, but if we find that the decision is split too narrowly, we generally won’t move forward; we wait until we are able to muster a much larger consensus.

Help employees own their work.

People have to own their work and their decisions and make things happen. So you introduce them to what your standards are, and you enculturate them to your expectations.

You expose them to what your values are, you expose them to your processes, and then, as one of my mentors is fond of telling me, you delegate authority, but you don’t abdicate responsibility. In other words, you can’t say, ‘Well, I delegated that to Sara, and I checked out.’ That’s not acceptable.

I go through a monthly meeting with each of our department heads where we discuss the issues on the table. I keep a list of things I want to talk about, but the more important list are the issues that they bring in.

The obvious thing is not to solve people’s problems but to ask them to propose solutions. The more that they have to propose, the more thought they’re going to give and the more they’re going to own it.

Then, through the conversation back and forth, you engage in the measurement of the issue versus the culture of the organization and the vision.

Keep your staff members interested by changing their roles. After people have mastered a particular job, we might move them to a situation where they are not necessarily logically prepared but where we think they can make a difference and let them get new skills. What we’re learning with the younger generation is that the money and benefits are kind of taken for granted. What they’re really looking for is an organization that is going to help them grow personally, and we’ve been giving a lot more attention to that aspect. We look to see first if they have an interest. Then we look to see if they have some fundamental skills, so when we add in knowledge, they can make the leap.

Our confederation has a history that goes back 60 years to changing people’s assignments and helping them grow and gain better breadth, and that helps individuals both for their growth and for motivation within the organization. It’s a two-way street.

Do the things only you can do.

When I was younger, I did it all. As my hair turns gray, I’ve begun to focus much more intensely on downloading responsibilities and decisions to my team, and I’ve become much more conscious of working through others.

I had to learn to put my focus on things that, in theory, only I can do at the moment, and where others can step up and do something to give it to them. To delegate and to trust and follow up, that’s become a huge thing.

It was a huge struggle — it’s always tempting to do it yourself, think about it yourself and write the report. Of course, what you find is you do a great job, you just don’t do enough. As your staff grows, you have to develop different lines of supervision and delegation, and you are ultimately faced with choices because your time is not infinite.

HOW TO REACH: Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, (888) 467-1125 or