Building high-performance volunteer teams

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In business, successful organizations run on high-performing teams. Whether it's an ongoing business departmental team or a special project team, it's been demonstrated that a team is stronger than the sum of the individuals that make up that team. Teamwork is more than dividing tasks, which is akin to group work. Teamwork is about equitable contribution and accountability leading to the best possible outcomes.

The same can and should be said for volunteer teams.

A high-performing team is balanced, diverse and complementary in its architecture. Each team member brings unique skillsets, experiences, and perspectives to help achieve team objectives. The result is more robust ideas, greater productivity, more efficient use of resources, higher morale, more effective problem solving, and overall higher performance. With higher performance, comes a better experience for the volunteers, which invariably will lead to better results for your organization.

How do you form high-performance teams to create a better volunteer experience? How do you ensure trust is built among team members and that team expectations are clearly communicated? How can the team perform at a high level during the project? The answers to these questions are explored below.

Forming high-performance volunteer teams

The first step in building a high-performing volunteer team is assessing the capabilities of individual volunteers. In a business environment, psychometric tools such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are used to measure thinking styles of individuals.

The concept of the HBDI is that people think and therefore perform in four key areas.

  • Analytical (e.g., financial, problem solving and quantitative skills)
  • Sequential (e.g., planning, organization and implementation skills)
  • Imaginative (e.g., creative, integrative and conceptualization skills)
  • Interpersonal (e.g., relationship, communication and teaching skills)

Most individuals tend to embody one or two areas. Some people have thinking styles that equally dominate in three or all four areas. Typically, HBDI testing costs hundreds of dollars per person. However, nonprofits can still take advantage of the underlying principles behind the HBDI to assess volunteers for free.

First, ask for a volunteer's resume. This should give you a good sense of whether the volunteer prefers analytical, sequential, imaginative, or interpersonal thinking. For example, a volunteer whose education and work experience is grounded mostly in finance will likely be more of an analytical type of person.

Supplement the collected resumes with a brief survey asking volunteers to do a self-assessment. The survey should ask volunteers to rank descriptive words (similar to the ones above that described the four thinking styles) relative to each other. For example, a sequential person will tend to rank a group of words such as "planning, organization, and implementation skills" the highest. The survey can be distributed on paper as part of the volunteer intake process or through free online tools such as Google Docs forms. An advantage of using Google Docs forms is that all the data is collected in an exportable spreadsheet which can be used for further analysis.

Once you have a list of volunteers and information about their thinking style profiles, you can begin assembling teams. Depending on the project, the ideal volunteer team size will be between five and seven members. In terms of composition, the team should have a balanced, diverse, and complementary mix of thinking styles, ages, gender-identities, and years of experience.

Instilling trust within the team

With new teams, especially those consisting of members who are meeting for the first time, there's probably some nervousness and a little anxiety. To facilitate intra-team communication and build trust from the first day, the team can use a process called bombardment. Bombardment consists of a series of questions such as "what accomplishment are you most proud of?" and "what do others say is your greatest strength?" Each team member, in turn, answers with others taking notes.

After all the questions have been asked, each team member gets a chance in the "hot seat" where the other team members communicate to that person all the positive things they heard. According to Dr. Shawna O'Grady from the Queen's School of Business, this process has a number of benefits including reinforcement of self-awareness (i.e., one's own capabilities and strengths), the need to live up to expectations since the team knows each other's strengths (i.e., know who to trust when it comes to a task that calls on a specific strength) and development of mutual respect. Bombardment is a quick, yet effective, way for team members to get to know each other and to instill trust amongst team members.

It's also important for team members to socialize outside the organizational environment. Suggest that teams grab a coffee where no one is allowed to talk about projects. This is a social only event and is a great way for team members to learn about one another and build on the bombardment process outside the context of work.

Developing team norms

Once trust has been established within the team, it's important to develop norms, says O'Grady. Norms are anything considered universally acceptable within the team. For example, norms can include only meeting on weeknights, being on time for meetings, and responding to emails within 48 hours. Usually, it's a good idea to use the nonprofit's organizational mission and values as a guiding point for norms. However, as long as project objectives are achieved, norms can be adjusted depending on the team's needs.

Performing as a team

Once a team's architecture has been optimized, trust has been built, and norms have been established, it's time for the team to perform. The organization must clearly communicate the objective for the team's project. An objective is specific, measureable, achievable, realistic (given the resources), and timed. For example, a team's objective can be to raise a total of $25,000 in nine months by creating and executing an event for 100 attendees using a budget of $7,500.

With the objective in mind, designate a project leader. More often than not, one person from the team will show particular interest because of past experience or a natural affinity for that type of project. If more than one person volunteers for the lead, let them discuss how best to proceed. Then ensure that the person who isn't lead for this project be given the chance to lead the next project.

To keep team morale high, the project lead should ensure "wins" big and small be regularly celebrated and communicated back to the organization and the team. Examples of wins include securing a sponsor, developing a logo for the event, finding a venue, or whatever the team deems important to achieving the objective.

In terms of accountability, any team member who recognizes that a fellow teammate isn't performing in an equitable manner should call it out at the next meeting. The person should be given an opportunity to explain. If more urgent, the project lead should be notified right away.

Another factor critical to high-performance is conflict management. Team members who are in disagreement should be encouraged to try to work things out amongst themselves. If the dispute isn't resolved, it should be brought up during the next team meeting. If that doesn't work, a staff member from the organization should be called upon to facilitate resolution. Only with transparency and openness can a team overcome such barriers to performance.

Lessons learned

After the project has been completed, a lessons learned debrief should be performed. All the team members as well as a staff member from your organization should be included in the discussion. Discuss what worked and what could have been done better. Was the project leader effective? Was a particular team member outstanding? How could a mistake have been avoided?

Discussing lessons learned is not only important for the professional development of the team members, but also important for the organization when it plans the next event or project.

Once a team becomes high performing, projects become easier to handle as trust has been built. Team members can count on each other to get the job done. As a result, the volunteer team and its individual members become more reliable and can be counted on to complete any project your organization assigns with excellence and efficiency.

John Paul de Silva holds an MBA from the Queen's School of Business. He is also Managing Director of Social Focus Consulting, which provides affordable services to Toronto-area nonprofits. He can be reached at JohnPaul@SocialFocusConsulting.ca.

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Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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