Creation in Common Founder and Managing Partner, Carlo Cuesta, discusses how organizations experiencing rapid or unexpected growth can benefit from the work of a cross-functional leadership team. 

Why is cross-functional leadership such a focus for Creation in Common right now? 

Over the past five years we’ve seen a surprising amount of rapid growth among nonprofits, particularly in the human services area, even during the pandemic. Midsize organizations are becoming large organizations. And as they grow, operations are becoming much more complex. 

Many are somewhat unprepared because they’ve never really thought about building a cross-departmental team that’s able to nimbly step outside of the day-to-day work and address growth-related topics, like organizationwide structures, processes, systems, and culture.

A cross-functional leadership team can help an organization address growth holistically, as opposed to within specific silos. 

You mention silos. Why is siloing a bad thing? 

It’s not always a bad thing. Healthy departments enable the development of expertise and the targeted use of resources. Yet, isolating departments, systems, or processes to the extent that employees resist collaboration and information sharing can reduce efficiency and productivity and affect morale. But the negative effect of siloing is just a symptom of a bigger issue, especially for larger organizations. It’s a sign that what you were doing in the past is no longer working.

What are some other indications that an organization is struggling? 

The biggest symptom we see is a breakdown in communication across teams. When an organization is going through a growth spurt, everyone tends to focus just on what they can handle instead of thinking about what other people and departments are doing. 

We also find departments and individuals each thinking they’re not getting enough attention. It’s a perception issue. Another sort of breakdown we see is accountability — too many people saying “Well, that’s not my job.” They lose a sense of shared responsibility. 

“When a talented team of leaders pools the full power of their diverse experiences and expertise, they can solve just about anything.

What are cross-functional leadership teams and how do they work?

A cross-functional leadership team is a group of employees from different departments that provides strategic and administrative guidance for the entire organization. The team functions much like a board of directors. Whereas a board oversees the overall well-being of the organization and its ability to create positive outcomes and impact, a cross-functional staff leadership team oversees the day-to-day operational well-being of the organization, thus making the advancement of mission impact possible.  

What does a cross-functional leadership team do? 

First, they develop and articulate the organization’s theory of change, and determine how different departments play a role in advancing that theory of change. Then they ensure that the values of the organization are clearly communicated among the staff, because from values come expectations, which are the foundation of culture. So essentially, they guide the culture of the organization as it plans for growth. They also make sure that the systems, workflows, and organizational resources are in place so employees can be successful. 

Finally — and this is the challenging part — they help distribute decision-making and accountability across the organization. By doing so, they promote cross-functionality at different levels and with and across different teams. Essentially, they function in a way that models the work they hope to instill throughout the organization.

Can most organizations build a team on their own or should they hire someone outside the organization? 

It depends. Some organizations have seasoned leaders who understand these concepts and can build their own cross-functional teams. But other leadership teams may have a lot of expertise and strengths, but they aren’t fully aligned. In that case outside consultants can help them identify and align strengths and assets on the leadership team.

Other organizations may have knowledge or skills gaps in their leadership teams. A consultant can help fill those gaps and provide a structure in which to work. Objectivity is definitely an asset. Consultants can take a clear-eyed look at how the organization is performing and identify what’s needed in terms of development. 

How does an organization get started?

First, the organization’s leader or leaders need to assess what they are doing well, what are the gaps, and what is happening in a changing environment that may be perpetuating these gaps. Depending on if a leadership team exists or not, based on this assessment they should identify which leaders need to be at the table on a regular basis. Once these leaders convene they should sit down and identify what symptoms and challenges the organization is facing. Is it communications? Culture? Accountability?

Then they can try to identify some of the holistic root causes. They should be careful not to mistake the performance of individual employees for root causes. Every organization is a system. There are some cases when an employee is so toxic they can influence the whole system, but it’s more likely that the root causes have to do with culture, workflow, structure — even mission statement or values. 

Once they identify symptoms and examine the root causes, what’s next?

The cross-functional leadership team should begin by working on one discrete thing at a time that they have the capability to handle within a specific timeframe. One example might be “In the next 90 days we’ll improve our accountability and tracking of government contracts.” Within a 90-day period, there shouldn’t be more than two discrete projects at a time for larger organizations, or one for smaller nonprofits. I also suggest they pick something doable; don’t start with the biggest challenge. Early wins build momentum.

How often should a cross-functional leadership team meet?

At a minimum, they should meet every two weeks. During those meetings they should examine and prioritize the organizational issues that require focus, and delegate effectively within the team to address those issues.

Teams should also have a planning meeting every quarter. At that quarterly meeting they should review the 90-day objectives that they’ve accomplished and set and prioritize new 90-day objectives.

In addition, they should meet annually to make sure that their work is aligning with the larger strategic goals and vision of the organization.

When does an organization usually bring you in to help establish a cross-functional leadership team?

It depends on the organization and where they are in their development. We always try to integrate it as part of an organization’s strategic planning process. That way we can make sure that the leadership team is prepared to deal with the kind of growth they’re about to experience. Also, by nature, strategic planning already requires some kind of cross-functional work. 

Also, we’re often brought in when the leadership senses that the work is getting harder. Many times the organization is growing and bringing more resources in the door. They want to celebrate that new million-dollar gift, but there’s a lot of work tied to those dollars. And that makes a lot of sense — the work is getting more complicated. So they ask us to help them determine what to do. 

How can a cross-functional leadership team set itself up for success? 

As a team, don’t get too caught up in the day-to-day operations. In order to be effective, organizations must have time to think strategically. If a cross-functional leadership team tries to solve every single problem in front of them, they’re going to fail.

You also have to build a lot of trust within the team so people feel they can address what’s going on in real time, but also take a step back and prioritize what’s most important for the organization as a whole without being attacked or knocked.

Finally, the team must know how and when to delegate. In my many years of working in nonprofits, that’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen. People aren’t sure how to delegate so their plates are overflowing all the time. They get burnt out, and they leave, and we lose a lot of really seasoned, talented nonprofit people, because they have never learned to delegate. 

The beauty of a cross-functional leadership team is that you’re sharing the weight and responsibilities. No one person is tasked with managing growth and addressing the organization’s biggest challenges. When a talented team of leaders pools the full power of their diverse experiences and expertise, they can solve just about anything.