Effective Managers Focus on Individuals not Functions

Can great fundraisers become outstanding managers of people? I used to think it was rare. After all, a salesman and a manager are two different species, right?

An article published by the Harvard Business Review gave me reason to believe that great fundraisers and excellent managers of people share one quality that is essential for success in both areas: they actively discover what is unique about each person.

Marcus Buckingham writes: “Great managers are fascinated with individuality for its own sake. Figuring out what makes people tick is simply in their nature.”

Doesn’t this sound like the same approach we use to raise major and principal gifts from individuals? We conduct research and do our homework to figure out what makes a prospect tick. We ask questions to determine their passions and understand the choices they’ve made. But how many of us take the time to ask those same questions about our staff? More importantly, how many of us act on this knowledge to bring added and unforeseen value to our fundraising? 

Can managing to individuality and capitalizing on unique talents be used to meet business goals? If we agree with Marcus Buckingham’s observations, the answer is yes.

Here are some examples of what can happen when staff are encouraged to engage their individuality beyond their prescribed roles:

  • A database manager, responsible for data integrity, who is a botanist by training, notices patterns in the data he’s inputting and suggests a new market for your next direct mail appeal.
  • A foundation relations manager, responsible for stewardship reports, who began her career as a laboratory researcher, discovers connections between a foundation’s board members and yours and gets a meeting between leaders.
  • An executive assistant, responsible for taking minutes at your gala meeting, who used to work at a media company, hears about your need for an auctioneer and recruits the marquee talent for the event.
  • A major gifts officer, who cultivates and solicits prospects, is also a leader in her sorority and takes over the hiring and mentoring of interns for your department.

These actual events produced tangible results and spurred the professional development of staff.

People’s talents do not stop at the perimeters of their job descriptions. This is not to say that organizational principles should be thrown to the wind. They should not. But fundraising is a relationship-based business, and responsive fundraising must be fluid. Building relationships–the heart and soul of our business—must take precedence over hierarchical layers and fear of turf invasion.

Consider the alternatives, gleaned from the streets of New York:

  • A development associate who helps trustees host events in their homes is told by a new manager that he is no longer allowed to speak to the trustees, despite long-standing relationships that have yielded close organizational ties. Trustees will now be handled by the new manager.
  • An annual gift officer cultivates a donor to make a major gift. The donor is moved to the portfolio of a major gift officer she may or may not know. The annual gift officer is no longer a point of contact, ending the organic arc of the relationship.
  • A prospect research director is asked to provide a list of the top 15 billionaires who graduated from the college, without comment or insight, despite her many years of institutional knowledge that could unlock the key to their passions and new gifts.
  • A campaign manager, who is building a prospect pipeline, is told there is no need for him to attend the meetings about annual giving, despite data showing that all principal gift donors began by making a modest first gift. His portfolio of leads dwindles to the usual suspects.

How much knowledge, opportunity, and money is left on the table when a rigid management style dictates how relationships should be cultivated? 

For those of us who just can’t help getting to know our staff and what makes them tick, managing to their unique talents and personalities is as natural as getting to know a prospective donor and asking for her support. The bonus of this approach: turnover is much less. At one of my organizations, the tenure of staff was an atypical 12 years. At my new organization, staff frequently think outside the box, take action beyond their assigned roles, and surprise me with their entrepreneurial ideas.

This isn’t about “wearing many hats,” nor is it about instilling kumbaya in your team. It’s about establishing an open, creative environment that values individuality. It’s about allowing individuals to contribute in ways that make them feel successful, appreciated, and responsible.  When staff stretch their talents beyond the fences of their roles, it’s time to celebrate them, not rein them in.

A Few Tips for Managing to Individuality

  • Hire supervisors who are good communicators, confident, flexible, and have a healthy respect for creativity and risk-taking.
  • Create cross-functional teams that provide different and new perspectives to consider. You’ll discover a lot about the individuals around the table and about yourself.
  • Invite staff who may not normally attend a meeting to sit in, particularly if you know they have institutional knowledge or just joined your organization and have no preconceptions.
  • Listen to staff without interruption or answering emails.  Ask a follow-up question (or two) before passing judgment.
  • Begin a sentence by asking “What do you think?” (You’d be amazed at how often this is not asked at meetings where managers are trying to solve problems.)
  • “Run in” to staff in the hallways or in a common area where they’re more likely to talk about themselves.
  • Re-read the resumes of your staff that are filed away. Take special note of the bottom section which usually contains interests, education, travel. Ask them if their outside interests are helping them in their roles.

Reference: Buckingham, M. (2005, March). What Great Managers Do. HBR’s 10 Must-Reads on Managing People.

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