Reimagining Team Leadership and Individual Growth: Thriving in Our New-ish Normal

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A Q&A by Jeffrey Walker, PhD

Shelly Baker, JD, is the director of advancement services in the Office of Advancement and External Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University. Amy Bagley Begg was most recently the managing director of prospect management at Harvard University. Shoshana Carter is the director of development research at Stanford University. Jeffrey Walker, PhD, is the director of research in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Development and Alumni Relations Office.

The four are longtime members of the Apra community and seasoned managers, with a diverse range of perspectives. Their conversation took place via email and touched on how to lead in our new-ish normal, lessons learned, moments they’re proud of, creative ways they’re staying connected with their teams and more.

Jeff Walker (JW): How did your prior experience and educational background prepare you for leading during the pandemic?

Shelly Baker (SB): The most useful was leading during significant transitions: a new vice president of advancement, a new CRM or a new prospect management system. Undergraduate, law school and continuing education courses also helped: on large-scale project management, change management and communicating through change; mediation and consultation; and wellness. Still, this was uniquely challenging. It affected everything, professionally and personally, not unlike the stress of a close relative’s death or divorce. I tried to be very transparent with my team, so they saw that I didn’t expect them to be superhuman, and that it was okay if they, like me, needed help.

Amy Begg (AB): At Harvard, during the 2009 recession, many of our major gift donors in finance were hit hard; we lost a significant portion of our endowment and there were layoffs. About five or six years after that, we lost a young team member to pneumonia. These unexpected events taught me to listen, to be compassionate while getting the work done and to find opportunities within crises.

JW: When you reflect on the many new challenges we’ve been facing, what themes or keywords come to mind?

AB: The acceleration of technology. McKinsey estimates that the pandemic escalated technology for remote work by four to seven years. They also report that people are interested in a work-life blend, not work-life balance. This is particularly true for younger generations entering the work force.

SB: Digital transformation. Relationship-building. Empathetic leadership. Embracing change. Flexible work. Mental health.

JW: How have day-to-day operations changed?

Shoshana Carter (SC): Pre-COVID, with the exception of maybe two or three individuals, most team members were working from home one to two days a week, and we had two who were fully remote. Now we have five who are fully remote, and two of these were hired during the pandemic. Everyone, whether in-office or remote, is on an equal playing field. Any perception of a disparity in face-to-face time and professional growth opportunities has vanished. We’re more connected and more inclusive. We’ve created good Zoom etiquette rules. Even more than before, we are considerate of each other’s time, insights and needs.

AB: Other than working remotely, our daily routines didn’t change much.

SB: By a fortunate coincidence, we finished migrating to SharePoint and Teams in February 2020. Those who had resisted such tools suddenly became reliant on them. Teams has actually become our default if in-person isn’t possible or if we’re answering a quick question. When we began returning to the office in October 2021, the university established a temporary flexible work option. If your position allowed it, you could ask for up to three remote days per week. The vast majority of advancement and external relations staff were approved for three days. We’re a happier, less stressed team and, when we are together in the office, we’re more social in really good ways. This option is probably here to stay.

JW: What are the bigger challenges you and your team have been grappling with? What adjustments and achievements are you particularly proud of? Where are you continuing to adapt?

AB: I think our biggest challenge this past year was the freeze on filling non-frontline positions. It became increasingly difficult to do the work with the vacancies we had, especially when we were still hiring fundraisers. Nonetheless, the situation forced us to rethink portfolios and geographic coverage, and that has been productive — even fun.

SC: Early in the pandemic, we faced very difficult layoffs. My team was already lean, and I worried about our even larger workloads. I also worried about the team’s morale. This was around the time of George Floyd’s murder, when social injustice became the raging storm within the COVID storm. We were all being consumed by the weight of the world. It was challenging to keep the team motivated and to encourage self-care and personal time off.

Today, I’m extremely proud of how far we’ve come. New weekly huddle sessions — in addition to our monthly team meetings — have been a hit, and they provide an opportunity to see how everyone is doing. We also have had several special Zoom social hours: virtual team lunches, holiday gatherings and even a retirement party.

SB: Things that had been simple pre-pandemic required a pivot. For signing gift agreements, we turned to ConsignO. With gift processing, we had a team member who received an essential staff exception, to come in once weekly, and we implemented PayPal. We started to count virtual donor meetings as face-to-face. We’re fortunate to have a very supportive staff culture, and HR has been excellent in letting everyone know about resources that are available when we’re struggling.

JW: What have you learned about yourself as a leader?

SB: I usually love my work, and I’ve rarely felt a real need for vacations. It was challenging to realize I do have limits that, when strained, make it tough to be the leader I always strive to be: empathetic, challenging, confident and collaborative. I try to be as honest and transparent as possible, so I let the team know when I was feeling run down or having a tough time. Sharing my own vulnerability sparked important conversations about workloads and external stressors. I became a better leader, and we became better colleagues.

JW: How are you seeing your team’s strengths differently?

SB: They have such a genuine commitment to our university. I’ve been surprised by the volume and quality of what we’ve accomplished with fewer meetings and more downtime, despite ongoing uncertainty.

JW: What creative approaches have you tried to keep your team feeling connected?

AB: Trivia, Teams chats, and — every Tuesday — stand-up meetings for 15 minutes.

SC: The weekly team huddles I mentioned seemed so small at first, but they’ve grown into that special 30 minutes we really look forward to. We rotate the role of huddle facilitator so everyone has a chance to lead. The day before the huddle, the facilitator sends out a reminder to ask the same three standard questions, plus one added fun question that they choose:

  • What are you working on this week?
  • Do you have a win to share from last week?
  • Is there anything you need assistance with?
  • (For example) What is your favorite spectator activity: movie, concert, ball game or something else?

We knew each other before the pandemic, but these questions have truly held us together during the most challenging months. Often, people say how much they’ve enjoyed learning about colleagues, from childhood memories to current guilty pleasures. That fourth surprise question has been pure magic.

SB: More of my one-on-ones touch on personal matters. I want to hear how team members are doing versus just how their work is. I also strongly encourage the team to do non-work catch-up calls across our department, to keep connections warm in the absence of water cooler chats. Interpersonal work relationships need to be nurtured as carefully as our relationships with donors.

JW: Is there anything you wish you could go back and handle differently?

SB: Planning for the length of the lockdown. While I hope we never have to do that again, we need to be more prepared for the possibility. Toward that end, I’m writing a debrief document, highlighting what we learned and what we should remember for the future.

JW: How are you helping your team members meet their ongoing professional development goals? And how are you stretching to meet your own learning objectives?

SB: Online learning and virtual conferences have been wonderful. Team members can participate more easily than before, and without travel expenses. I have encouraged volunteering even more with professional organizations and informal peer groups, to maintain and grow connections. With so many novel issues emerging, my own network of advancement services leaders has been incredibly valuable.

JW: Has pandemic life altered your view of philanthropy or of your organization's mission?

SB: The biggest change is seeing how many donors are perfectly happy with online engagement and no in-person events. Our new normal demands that we are absolutely donor-centered: both in the projects and programs we discuss, as well as in how we have those discussions.

JW: This has been a fascinating and inspiring conversation. Thank you, all.

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