Balancing Team Authority and Personal Accountability

By Emily Hendershot • August 30, 2020

Association leadership is not for the faint of heart. Many enjoy this line of work because of the positive impact it has on communities, professions and causes. You help make the world a better place.

But what happens when we are too overwhelmed by all that needs to be accomplished?

When I began my nonprofit career, my Dad sent me a quote from The Bowden Way: 50 Years of Leadership Wisdom that continues to stick with me.

“Everything that occurs within an organization reflects back upon its leader.

If something bad happens on your watch, outsiders will wonder why you weren’t watching. If an employee performs poorly, they will ask why you hired that person in the first place. If poor decisions are made that damage your organization’s reputation, people will cast a wary glance toward the ultimate decision-maker. Whether or not you should be blamed, you will be. So you’d better take charge, lest the actions of others get you fired.

The leader is ultimately responsible for all that occurs within the organization.”

 – Bobby Bowden, American College Football Coach

As a leader in the association world, you’ve committed to reaching certain goals for the organization you serve and, in most cases, you are accountable to your board of directors to ensure those goals are achieved.

With so much to do, how can you give authority to your team while remaining personally accountable for all outcomes?

Share the Focus and Define the Team’s Purpose

The number of priorities within an association can be daunting. From board meetings to membership renewals and annual meetings to sponsorships, each member on your team is responsible for managing different aspects of your organization’s portfolio.

Many teams are set up with either a siloed approach or matrix approach. We want to believe all team members understand the importance of the organization’s mission, strategic plan or annual goals, but when there isn’t an explicit tie to an individual role’s performance objectives, how do we create buy-in to encourage collaboration?

Sharing the focus and defining the team’s purpose helps leaders set the tone for the entire staff. The management of the organization is your responsibility, so work with your team to determine the key drivers for successful performance as a team. What do you want the team to be known for? Each person needs to first understand the team’s focus, if and how their role directly contributes to it, and how that priority fits into the overall success of the team.

When you set this team-defined focus first, you’ve let them know the operating principles and what takes priority. This is the first step in giving your team authority.

Delegate Outcomes, Not Tasks

There is a major difference between assigning tasks and delegating outcomes. Assigning a task means the authority to make decisions around it are still owned by you, the leader. Free yourself from micromanaging by also delegating the outcome. Empowering your team with the authority to own the outcome will increase their buy-in and lead to successful delivery.

This can’t happen all at once, and it doesn’t work if you don’t trust your team to make the right decisions. To accomplish this, you’ll want to teach them in phases. In the book Clockwork, author Mike Michalowicz defines it as a three stage process: IPO or Information – Permission – Outcome.

After you share the information and assign the task, you’ll then give your team member the responsibility, or permission, to make the decisions regarding the task. You won’t stop making the most critical decisions – only the minor ones to start. This process allows you to educate and guide as they learn. Finally, you’ll empower the team member to own the outcome and hold them accountable for how it impacts the organization’s goals and success.

Using this approach to delegate provides a greater amount of authority and frees up your time to focus on your other areas of ownership.

Streamline Team Communication

Have you taken the time to review how your team communicates internally? Think about all the methods your team uses, whether it is email, instant messaging, phone calls or meetings. What type of culture has been created? Is there an expected response timeframe? Is it customary to provided clear deadlines?

Acknowledging that everyone is operating on the same team and sharing the same goals is the lens through which all communication is filtered. A quick audit of your methods of communication and assigning a key purpose to each will streamline how your team functions. Leading by example with communication is crucial, so set the tone by defining each method of communication and how it is and isn’t to be used.

Everyone is looking to you for direction and establishing the focus, delegating outcomes and streamlining communication will move you, and the team, forward.

When we acknowledge everything that happens within an organization reflects back on its leader, it is easy to want to take on all the work ourselves. But by making small changes to how your team operates, you empower them with the authority to actively contribute and own the team’s success – and you avoid burnout.

About The Author

Emily Hendershot is a results-driven community strategist and operations consultant who enjoys equipping and empowering organizations to achieve their missions and thrive in ever-evolving industries. She’s a seasoned team leader with Nova Strategies with 10+ years of progressive association and nonprofit leadership experience. She loves building strong collaborative relationships and partnerships to help organizations strategize efforts, streamline processes, train volunteers, and grow their membership base.