Ownership is Important: Three Keys to Training Strong Support Staff

Today we have a guest blogger, Arminda Lathrop, sharing her great insights into one critical component of a successful team: support staff. Below is her post:

Support staff are the backbone of our advancement operation. Though they rarely get the glory of closing big gifts, great administrative personnel pull the strings behind the scenes that allow for frontline staff and leaders to succeed. Back office staff who can anticipate, adapt, and coordinate traffic in a fundraising shop can be a key driver toward hitting team goals.

If you’ve had an indispensable administrative assistant, you understand how seamless—or difficult—this key staff member can make your work. However, all too often, managers overlook their own role in setting support staff up for success; an underperforming administrative assistant is often discounted as being unmotivated or not up to the task. The strategy for onboarding and managing these staff falls by the wayside as managers focus their time and training on more specialized and, frankly, more expensive staff members.

So how can you set your new administrative staff up to be invaluable? By helping them to take ownership of your organization’s success. Establish a foundation of buy-in and responsibility by using these three important elements in onboarding: 1. Connect them to mission and strategy first; 2. Frame their role in systems, not tasks; and 3. Leverage their special skills and strengths.

These three strategies draw on timeless management philosophies of notable leadership legends Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Frederick Herzberg, and Marcus Buckingham. There’s a common thread running through each of them, which is that all staff, regardless of level or position, must connect to the organizational mission and feel responsible for contributing to team strategy and goals in order to perform their best. Though this training approach requires extra time investment on the part of managers and orientation staff initially, it will lead to more satisfied, robust support staff long-term.

  1. Mission and Strategy

Because support positions are more task-oriented than strategy-oriented, managers often begin onboarding with the “how to” rather than the “why” of the Advancement Office. Beginning training with a daily to-do list of expense reports and letter mergers does not inspire pride and purpose. As Jim Collins reminds us in his top-selling book, Good to Great, meaningful work leads to job and life satisfaction—and thus happier and more productive employees. Resist the urge to start administrative staff training in the weeds; begin with a 30,000-foot view so they can connect to the organizational mission and carve out their space in the larger strategy and team.

  1. Systems and Roles, not Tasks

Because of the myriad tasks for which administrative staff are usually responsible, it can be challenging to articulate performance criteria and evaluation. Managers are most likely to notice isolated incidents instead of system flaws: a scheduling blunder, a well-executed travel plan, or inaccuracy on an Excel report. However, it’s best to set up expectations and evaluation based on an entire system or concept, not isolated occurrences. As Frederick Herzberg wrote in his breakthrough essay for Harvard Business Review, staff are inclined to feel more ownership when they have responsibility for a complete process, not just a responsive task. As they manage complete systems, they also carve out a clear definition of their role in the organization’s success.

For instance, maybe your admin assistant is responsible for planning and preparing all meetings. During training, talk with him about what a perfect meeting looks like—from initial scheduling to follow-up with attendees. Together develop evaluation criteria for this part of his job, and if this system has been executed poorly in the past, encourage him to innovate and make it his own. “Create a clear, mutual understanding of what needs to be accomplished, focusing on what, not how; results, not methods,” says Stephen Covey. Staff should be able to envision what an effective system looks like and how it contributes to the broader success of the organization.

For an adaptive template you can use to establish and discuss a systems approach with your administrative staff, click here: Staff Eval Template.

  1. Leverage special skills and strengths.

In the same vein of taking pride in ownership, recognize your support staff’s special skills and encourage them to further adapt and use them. For instance, I had an administrative assistant who was a whiz at helping to break down large spreadsheets of donor data to make them digestible and ready for analysis. She was able to hone this skill and use it to help people throughout our department. Eventually, she outgrew her administrative position and joined the Data Services team to use her strengths officially. This kind of growth was a win for her and our organization.

Marcus Buckingham suggests that you can help your support staff identify their strengths by asking them, “What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months?” Help them to identify what they enjoy about their work. Of course, utilizing these special strengths shouldn’t interfere with your staff’s existing workload; it should be complementary and add value to your program. Discuss their strengths, special skills, and future ambitions from their first day on the job and encourage the ongoing development of these strengths.

Make sure the right pieces are in place: Your recruiting strategy and office culture play a big role in whether your support staff feel ownership of the mission and team’s success. The right staff must be in place in order for this onboarding and management approach to work. Hire people who express a desire to be strong contributors and who seek personal fulfillment in their jobs.

Finally, promote a culture wherein all individuals are valued and position hierarchy fall second to team achievement. All staff—from the CEO to the administrative assistants—should understand their meaningful contribution.

Jim Collins: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t (209).

Stephen R. Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (174).

Frederick Herzberg: “One More Time,” Harvard Business Review’s Ten Must Reads on Managing People (32).

Marcus Buckingham: “What Great Managers Do,” Harvard Business Review’s Ten Must Reads on Managing People (102).


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