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.
Unite the group to create a common vision. The most important thing is to tap into the motivation around the mission. We change children’s lives forever, we make a lasting positive difference for children, and so that mission is really deep for those who are committing themselves full time to leadership roles within our system.
Tapping into that mission and the motivation and hope of our leaders is really easy to do. It’s the role of a leader to tap into that motivation and inspire others and engage others, and that’s really done through strong communication. [You need to have] two-way communication — listening and integrating that and inspiring folks for the future and believing in them and in themselves what’s possible and really garnering the will to achieve.
Key leaders tap into their essential motivation, and besides the mission motivation, we select leaders who have strong achievement orientation. They thrive on results and achieving results, and so the combination of the purpose of our work and the drive to achieve results for the children, it really motivates our team.
Use effective communication. We’ve grown through a common strategic direction that everybody has bought in to. It’s not each agency having their own direction — everybody has the same strategic direction — but the execution is very decentralized. So we’ve had to lead through influence and bringing real value to our affiliates with substances and ideas that worked and that came from a team of them that helped us create them.
In a network like ours, the communication links become extremely important.
One thing is to model what you expect others to do. For example, the way we run our Philadelphia organization needs to be transparent and an example of how we expect our local agencies to run their organization. So if we think good fiscal and financial management is really important — which it is for a nonprofit or any organization — then if we don’t do a good job of planning and managing our cash flow and building our balance sheet and having reserves, then how can we expect our local agencies to do that?
One of the key principles is to walk the talk. Lead by example; it’s very, very important.
Another key principle is to have everything that we do come from the purposes of the organization, so you have to make sure that you’re not distorting through unintentional consequences of why you exist.
Mission fidelity is extraordinarily important. One of the key principles we have is, we will not take money if it’s not in support of our strategy or our plan or our direction.
It’s critical, again, that you walk the talk.
How to reach: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, (215) 567-7000 or www.bbbs.org