CEOs Speak: “How We Build Our Team”

When Tere Pettitt moved from chief operating officer (COO) to chief executive officer (CEO) at Volunteers of America Greater New York, she still worked with same group of about a dozen people on the senior team. It wasn’t until she had a view from the CEO’s desk that she realized they were somewhat dysfunctional and worked in silos.

So, Pettitt embarked on some major building exercises. “We don’t socialize together. If the CEO doesn’t foster it, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “I didn’t put a lot of stock in this type of thing before but it’s getting better. We’re seeing people more as human beings.”

George Forbes described a similar problem at the Lucille Lortel Foundation and Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan, where he is executive director. Some employees have families while others live in the suburbs so it can be difficult to find time to bond. Forbes said they make a point to celebrate not just individual birthdays but even things like Groundhog Day.

Pettitt and Forbes were part of a panel discussion titled “The CEOs Speak: How We Build Our Team,” during Fundraising Day New York, sponsored by the New York City chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, held annually at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

The Lortel Foundation is very small – only four full-time staff – and it’s very familial since they’ve been working together so long, Forbes said. The challenge working with clients is how to strengthen those bonds, he said. It can take six to 12 months to build a bond with outside groups and it takes regular communication.

After becoming CEO, Pettitt moved forward with a plan to consolidate six offices into one, bringing 120 people together under one roof. She was excited about the changes but the senior staff of 13 was unhappy and actually obstructive to the move. After having her team take a Myers-Briggs test, Pettitt discovered that most were introverts and the only ones supporting the changes were the few extroverts. “If you’re a member of a team, you better find out these nuances,” she said.

At a nonprofit, it can be difficult to come up with the money to offer raises each year so Pettitt often tries to offer employees other benefits. Everyone gets their birthday off and employees can take another day off if they show they’ve had their annual medical checkup. Pettitt also offers another day off to staff who want to volunteer. If they choose to do their volunteer work at VoA, they get an additional four hours on top of that day off. It’s not a matter of only trying to inspire the staff, she said, but trying to address her workforce’s wellness.

Pettitt also has a “hot potato” rule at VoA when it comes to bad news. “You can’t be the only one to hold it if there’s one in the organization,” she said.

Forbes believes that he needs to encourage and sooth their clients more than inspire them. “As I aged, it became clear to me, 20 years ago I would be frustrated by the slow speed of things. I’m slightly frustrated now but appreciate it more and see the value of it,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need to inspire our clients or the people we’re funding. I feel like I need to encourage them. We’re an endowed foundation that gives away money. We have to remember that always. We’re the people you come to when you need help and comfort,” Forbes said.

At VoA Greater New York, each employee has a Personal Performance Plan: 80 percent is the job description and the other 20 percent is related to an individual’s personal and professional growth. For the latter, Pettitt has suggested a director get certified in CPR while another time, an employee was going to get certified in tax credits in anticipation of something on the horizon for both the individual and the organization.