Culture Building: Standards of Collaboration

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By Lindsey Nadeau

Matthew Rechs’ Twitter thread 11 Promises from a Manager recently went viral. The fervid response reminded me how grateful I am to my former managers for having knowingly or unknowingly upheld many of Rechs’ promises. And most importantly, it underscored the gratitude I feel when reflecting on the mentors who shaped my management career.

Early on, they helped me understand that leadership is much more than managing people; that while everyone builds culture, leaders are ultimately accountable for culture — good and bad. And if there is anything I have learned as we emerge from the first two years of remote pandemic work, it’s that a team’s culture will make or break our success.

A New Beginning

When I arrived at UNICEF USA, my team was tiny, under-resourced and burnt out. Morale was low. The team’s three workstreams interacted minimally and they had been in leadership limbo for a year. We were also on the cusp of several executive transitions. I sensed now more than ever, my team needed clear expectations and to better understand each other’s work.

I turned to a resource in my management toolkit: Jon Thorsen’s Management Rules. My former George Washington University (GW) boss Anne Dean, and her boss, former Apra president Jon Thorsen, were the top reasons I was eager to work at GW. They built one of the most engaged and collaborative advancement services operations in Washington, D.C.  

Early in my onboarding at GW, Anne had me review the Management Rules. The list was simple, perhaps even overly intuitive. I remember thinking, “Why do some of these have to be written down? Aren’t they a given?” But I found they had been written down for a reason.

I quickly observed a baseline understanding throughout Jon’s advancement services division and immediately saw how the rules enabled many to know what to expect. I quickly came to depend on the list of tried-and-true guidelines and pinned them in my cube, committing several of the pithier phrases to memory. “No one goes out of their way to make our lives miserable” and “When we kill ourselves to deliver the impossible, nobody gets a medal, and soon the impossible becomes the expectation,” are two concepts that still ring loudly in my mind.

Standards of Collaboration: A Social Contract

Fast forward to UNICEF USA: After assessing my team’s needs in my first month, I reflected on how Jon’s Management Rules had established the foundation at GW that my UNICEF USA team needed.

I began adapting the rules to address what my team sought, and expanded when there was more to cover than what Jon’s seven rules offered. My direct reports responded positively to the initial draft, offering edits and proposing additional new rules. We then shared our draft with the full team for input. One of the decisions we made together as a full team was to add the communication norms section — a protocol outlining the ideal communication mode for different types of messages.

The result was an initial draft of 11 rules for everyone, eight rules for supervisors and a full page of communication guidelines. We evolved the Management Rules to become a comprehensive social contract for our team. (Download a copy of the rules here.) 

Since my team’s list of rules went far beyond management, I wanted to give some thought to the name. Both Jon’s version and my team’s adaptation were about how we work as a team and what we can expect from any team member. When considering what to name this resource, we dubbed them the Standards of Collaboration. At its core, clear expectations for behavior and communication shape how we collaborate. And for me, collaboration is paramount in shaping my team.

The Value

A job applicant once called the Standards of Collaboration the most emotionally intelligent professional resource they’ve seen. I take no credit for that — my team made the Standards of Collaboration what it is today. We are all invested in it. It’s the answer to the Standard of Collaborations’ Supervisor Rule #1: Unexpressed expectations = premeditated frustrations. It reminds me of Brené Brown’s “clear is kind” adage — it’s our daily kindness to each other.

We keep finding new ways to integrate the Standards of Collaboration in our work. Outlined below are the ways my team and others at UNICEF USA have thought to use these standards:

  • Culture Building: Developing a resource like the Standards of Collaboration is an act of culture building. Inviting your team to shape the standards gives them equity in creating an environment they want to be part of, and is a great first step toward boosting morale. This exercise can expand beyond your own department, too. At UNICEF USA, three other teams have adopted their own versions of the standards.
  • Secure Vulnerability: This involves leading when it feels beyond the capacity of our role, trying something new and being reassured that if we fail, we are not a failure.
  • Feedback: I often point to specific rules from the Standards of Collaboration in real-time feedback throughout daily work, during weekly check-in feedback and annual reviews.
  • Team Meetings: At team meetings, we try to be mindful of when to reinforce specific rules, saving coaching moments for one-on-one discussions. We also carve out time during team meetings to review specific rules we feel we are struggling with and find ways to recommit to them.
  • Interview Process: We began sharing the standards with interview applicants, as it seemed to be a natural fit. As a job applicant, you want to get a pulse on a team’s culture — what better way to show our collaboration than through the thoughtfulness and intentionality of this approach.
  • Annual Updates: The Standards of Collaboration is a living document. We update them after missteps or successes, when our team grows and even when communication norms go out of date (for example, switching internal chat platforms). Keeping the document current is a continuous team effort.

We had clearly built a framework people are hungry for within UNICEF USA and it has become an influential tool throughout the organization.

Want more insight into Jon Thorsen’s OG Management Rules? Click here to read a conversation between Nadeau and Thorsen on how the influential rules came to be.

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