On Magical Teams: For Businesses and Nonprofit Boards


J. Richard Hackman says there is “no question that a team can generate magic.  But don’t count on it.”  He lays out a plan for leaders of companies and other organizations to build effective teams in his book Leading Teams, that is summarized in the May issue of Harvard Business Review.  As I read Hackman’s observations, I noted many parallels with the 400+ nonprofit boards I have worked with.  My recommendations are below.



Hackman: “Teams must be real.  People have to know who is on the team and who is not.  It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.” 


My take on nonprofit boards: Board composition is key to success.  Boards and their leaders who are rigorous in determining who they need in terms of qualifications, diversity, experience, and commitment build the most effective boards.


Hackman: “Teams need a compelling direction.  Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together.  Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.”



My take on nonprofit boards:  Boards need to set aside time at least once a year with the organization’s CEO to discuss the nonprofit’s origins, where it is now, and the organization’s greater vision….where the board and CEO are taking the organization.  And most importantly, what the role of the board is to help achieve success – financially and strategically.  The board needs to establish a clear role and agenda for its work for the coming year.


Hackman: “Teams need enabling structures.  Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members, or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.”


My take on nonprofit boards: Essential! Nonprofit boards are comprised of well-meaning volunteers who need very much to have a structured plan in order help the nonprofit to advance its important work.  Once the board has established a clear plan for itself for the year (the point directly above), the board can become clear about what it is expecting of its members in terms of attending meetings, serving on committees, making contributions, and fundraising…that is, working on the board’s agenda for the year. 



Hackman: “Teams need a supportive organization.  The organizational context – including the reward system, the human resource system, and the information system – must facilitate teamwork.”


My take on nonprofit boards:  Absolutely!  The nonprofit CEO and his or her team need to work in collaboration with the board to help ensure success – providing the right information, for example.  And the organization needs to recognize, thank and appreciate board members for their service.


Hackman: “Teams need expert coaching.  Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes – especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project.”



My take on nonprofit boards:  This is vital.


Nonprofit organizations will only achieve their potential in elevating our communities – regionally and globally – when their boards of directors are encouraged and supported in reaching their greatest heights of success.


About the author

Korngold provides strategy consulting to global corporations on sustainability, facilitating corporate-nonprofit partnerships, and training and placing hundreds of business executives on NGO/nonprofit boards for 20+ years. She provides strategy and board governance consulting to NGO/nonprofit boards, foundations, and educational and healthcare institutions.