Goals, Growth and Games: Managing a Large Shop in Difficult Times

By Natalie Spring, Director of Prospect Research, Management and Analytics, Duke University, and Sarah Mine, Associate Director of Research, Duke University

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Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2020. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year. 


Leading a large team during good times is quite honestly a lot of fun. The work is varied; everyone is working on something slightly different that rolls up into meaningful strategic work. Leading a large team during difficult times — well, that can feel a little overwhelming. Work rarely slows down, but you may be facing reduced resources, staff cuts or be forced to take on more reactive work. This article will walk through some of the tactics that the team at Duke University has used to keep a large shop humming during tough times.

The term “large shop” is relative. The Duke University Prospect Research, Management and Analytics (PRMA) team is comprised of 14 staff members who are responsible for building the prospect pool, creating tools that fuel fundraiser efficiency and activating coordination across a decentralized fundraising environment. We’re lucky to partner with a team of seven prospect development professionals in Duke Health too!  As an organization, we strive to raise half a billion dollars a year in philanthropic support to fuel research and the Duke experience.

The Gift of Goal Setting: During Difficult Times, Stay Focused on the Future

Goal setting and accountability are important parts of the team culture at Duke. Each year, every staff member actively constructs their goals and identifies some aspect of available work that is most engaging for them personally. After they identify the project or learning goal, we make sure the team has the bandwidth to execute. As a team, we built time studies to understand how long each task takes and base metrics and goals on those studies. We assume all team members are using their paid time-off and have time for professional development and engagement in office activities and task forces. The entire team decides what is reasonable and how to use this information to set goals. We maintain a backlog of projects and set monthly, quarterly and yearly targets, and always have simultaneous overarching team objectives. This focus on the big picture keeps us motivated.

We share accountability in goal setting. Once personal and team goals are set, we focus on allocating the work in a way that plays to our strengths and provides meaningful opportunities for growth. To hold our team accountable, we don’t ask, “Where are we on this project?” Instead we ask, “How are you learning, applying, failing and trying again?” Sometimes a team member may start a project with enthusiasm but learn through the process they do not like the type of work required. Other times the team finds projects that result in building new skills and confidence in new areas of work. Both these experiences are valuable if you learn something from them.

As managers, we provide an accountability framework that leads to growth for our team. Some questions we ask to maintain accountability with a focus on growth are:

  • Are you moving through all aspects of the work?
  • Where is your interest/energy lagging or surging?
  • Has your level of interest/energy changed?
  • What motivates you to do this work?

Helping people answer these questions can lead to more satisfaction in their role, preparation for the next role and new insight into their career goals. For some people, the engaging part of the work is stability and familiarity. Some people are motivated by constant progress and change. Our team members trust us to respect their candid feedback. When a staff member says, “I want to do my current job well and that’s it. I don’t want to grow a career or change roles,” it’s important for us to honor that.  

Even in good times, we must remind ourselves that we cannot fix everything with a single project. We have 400+ users of our database — sometimes there are errors and sometimes information doesn’t make it in within a reasonable timeframe. Difficult times can exacerbate these known issues.

Right now, we have three vacancies on the research team and two vacancies in analytics that we cannot fill. That means our reactive backlog for both domains will simply have to grow. That can feel frustrating. It may be tempting to check off reactive research requests to draw down that backlog, but if we spend our time only on those types of issues, we lose the ability to focus the team’s effort on strategic outcomes for our organization. Maintaining a focus on the future and recognizing that these challenges will pass will help you wrangle the expansive work of a large shop.

Shared Accountability and Leadership Roles Help Spread Out the Work Load

We leverage a few tools to manage our short-term and longer, ongoing projects. We use project-tracking software, convene in weekly scrum meetings and hold weekly one-on-one meetings between staff and managers to keep everyone up to speed. When we determine there is a special project rather than a routine work task, we are careful to define the scope with stakeholders and empower team members to lead.

For each subdomain of work (proactive screening, reactive research, projects, briefings) we create co-leader teams responsible for shepherding the work from ideation to final deliverable. This allows us to decentralize responsibility and achieve scale.

There are professional development benefits to this as well. Assigning project leads allows team members to develop different skills sets and work with a partner who is equally responsible (and ideally complements their skill set). This provides an opportunity for team members to practice accountability with someone other than their boss

At first this can be a struggle and leave teammates asking, “Are you my boss or my peer?” At Duke, it’s both. We want to break down the reliance on hierarchical methods and empower our curious teams to explore, make decisions and create new ways of doing the work. For this to be effective, leaders must provide support to both ends — usually around communication. Ask critical questions like:

  • How do you want to share that feedback?
  • What are you hearing from others?
  • What’s our goal here? Is this work in alignment with that goal?
  • What did we do really well here? How did we get to that awesome outcome?

Even before the pandemic, hiring freeze, spending freeze and five vacancies we were adept at creating a lot of value out of a little. We organize our work in projects and teams — there are always multiple on-going projects and distinct work teams. We expect all team members be able to swing in for any type of work in their domain (r) while also maintaining their stable of interesting work in which they are expert. We trust team members to do quality work, and in return hope that can they trust us to praise often, critique thoughtfully and always have their back — whether that means giving easy fluid praise or working with them to better develop a skill.

Keep the Work Engaging and Fun

Our team model enabled us to more easily transition to working from home once the pandemic made that necessary. This smooth transition to remote work was made possible by trust, communication and shared responsibility for outcomes. We cannot just look at productivity to gauge our success as managers — especially now. Teams must feel a sense of inclusion, belonging and psychological safety to truly thrive and do their best work.

In the “before times” we had monthly celebrations for birthdays where we’d eat delicious food and play a game in the break room in our office. We would print memes for people’s desks to surprise them on a Tuesday. When one staff member returned from maternity leave we spent our weekly team meeting making paper flowers that still adorn her cubicle. We also made a physical bulletin board (which was admittedly a little cheesy) that read something like, “Hey! I think you’re awesome and ought to know it!”

Now, our entire team is working remotely and we’re developing new norms around togetherness, apart. We created an off-topic team chat to post memes, share pictures of things we’re baking and chat about silly things through the day. We have a biweekly game break, organized by a team member, where we play silly online video games for half an hour. We’ve also used the things we still have at home to write and mail cards and notes to our team members. 

It’s important to remember that no one asked for this experience and everyone is coping and adapting differently. While we all want to build morale among our teams, right now it’s also really important to let people candidly share their contradictory feelings of gratitude and anger. We appreciate that our team trusts each other and we make space for a range of emotions in our video meetings each week. Our teams are scared. It’s ok to be scared right now. 

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