Team Leadership Across the Staffing Chart: Why Three Heads Are Better Than One

September 7, 2016

The word leadership often invokes the image of a single individual: a visionary founder or director, the person who “sets the tone from the top”. At CRE, however, we take the view that leaders exist at all levels of an organization. The power of individual leadership can be magnified when these leaders reach across the staffing chart and join forces to tackle specific organizational challenges.

Keeping this in mind, we developed an opportunity to encourage this very type of collaborative leadership amongst CRE Leadership Academy participants. Titled “Trio of Leaders,” this real-time learning module brought together a participating senior manager, middle manager, and new manager from each of over a dozen organizations to work together on a project of their choosing. The only rule? Each of the trios had to select a project that they felt would positively impact their organization.

Why “Trios of Leaders”?
Three drivers for change
From where an individual manager sits, she may think that she is the only one who is feeling the ache of an organizational pain point; however, when she learns that other managers feel it too, and in various ways, everyone’s appetite for change (and administrative / programmatic relief!) increases.

Three influencers across the organization
Different levels of management have different types of access to various stakeholders that can propel a project along. Where a senior leader might be able to engage the support of the Board or executive team, a new manager can galvanize the line staff and, perhaps even the consumers of services. Being able to engage the right support at the right time creates critical project momentum and greater likelihood of successful implementation.

Three teachers and three students = better perspective and stronger solutions
Leadership development often occurs in the “trench” as much as – if not more than – it does in a classroom or supervisor’s office. Beyond the benefits created by the projects themselves, the Trio of Leaders work gave the managers insight into (or a reminder of) what it means to be a manager at a level other than her own. This round-robin in-the-moment mentorship, and the perspective-broadening that it encourages, can enhance creativity, motivation, and performance on a project. It can also continue beyond the length of that project.

At the end of six months, these trios, some of whom had never collaborated before, presented their project results. One trio created its organization’s first internal compliance manual, designed to promote organization-wide adherence to contract requirements while also encouraging program-based creativity in meeting those requirements. Another trio codified communication between their organization (which provides out-of-school-time programming) and a local public school, improving enrollment for the former and quality rapport between both. And a third created an internal mentorship initiative, enhancing communication between sites and among staff. While the projects ranged in scope and size, they all had one thing in common: wider organizational input, influence, and impact because of the “Trio of Leaders” approach.

Even if you haven’t participated in the CRE Leadership Academy, managers at every level in any organization can encourage collaboration across the staffing chart. Here are some ideas for getting started:

  1. Begin a conversation with colleagues outside of your “realm”: If you work in finance, tap a staff member on the program side and ask what organizational issues are keeping him up at night. You may find that he is grappling with the same problems you are for different reasons, and that your combined observations are the first step toward internal system improvement.
  2. Go beyond supervision with your staff and manager: Use supervision meeting times to discuss more than just projects and tasks. What are some trends that your supervisor is noticing in the sector overall that may affect your organization’s operations? What are some themes, if any, that your supervisees have noticed in your consumers’ complaints? Widen your view of the organization up and down.
  3. Be a convener of leaders: If you are middle manager or new manager, initiate a cross-departmental “teach-in” lunch with a department you work with peripherally. If you are a senior manager, encourage periodic “open sessions” of executive leadership meetings or Board meetings for attendance by interested new managers or middle managers. Overall, look for opportunities to bend the lines of the organizational chart into a path toward organizational change.

To find out more about the Leadership Caucus and the CRE Leadership Academy (CLA) you can head to our website or contact Jeff Ballow at

By Consultant, Arden Levine

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