Cecilia Reyes, the planning and operations manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, joined us to chat about the importance of strategic planning in the non-profit sector. The David Suzuki Foundation is a Canadian non-profit organization with a head office in Vancouver, and satellite offices in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Understanding the importance of a well executed strategy for non-profit organizations, especially fairly large ones like the David Suzuki Foundation, Cecilia recently led a strategic planning process to help guide the team and the organization over the next two years.
We asked Cecilia to speak to some of her best practices for leading strategy and teams. She shared valuable insights around:
- Team engagement (including employees, leadership, and stakeholders)
- Understanding the importance of the process as well as the end product
- How more frequent strategic planning is a good idea (a two year plan versus a four year plan)
- Sharing your strategy through story telling
- The importance of everyone being on the same page "on-board" in order to successfully execute the plan
Listen to our full interview below:
Anthony Taylor (AT): I’m joined by Cecilia Reyes, who is the planning and operations manager at the David Suzuki Foundation. Tell us a bit about you, your role, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
Cecilia Reyes (CR): I work for an environmental non-profit organization. We’re a Canadian organization with head offices in Vancouver, but also with offices in Toronto, Montreal, and in Ottawa. We work on environmental challenges for Canada. Our work focuses on finding climate solutions, establishing environmental rights for Canadians, and on biodiversity challenges for Canada.
My work is on the planning and the reporting side of things. I put together annual plans for the organization, and then most recently, I’ve led us through a strategic planning process that will guide our work from 2017 through to 2019.
AT: How many people are in the organization?
CR: About 80 across Canada.
AT: I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of stakeholders that you have to engage with.
CR: Lots of stakeholders, lots of external stakeholders. Some of those relationships are pretty unique, depending on what region you’re functioning in. One of the things I find with our organization is our internal stakeholders are so key. We have a bit of a family culture in a sense. Everybody kind of wants to have a say in everything that you do, in all the decisions that you make, especially the strategic decisions.
People here are so invested in the mission and the mandate of the organization. All of our staff are super passionate about what we do. They want to have a say. They want to feel super excited to wake up, and go to work, and contribute to finding solutions to all of our environmental challenges. Trying to keep people excited, but not let the process explode to unwieldiness, can be a little bit tough.
AT: Can you tell us a bit about what it looks like? Can you speak about a snapshot of what you had to do to put together this strategic plan?
CR: I can talk a little bit about the process and I can talk a little bit about the finished product. Process wise, I had to get our leadership team, so our senior management team together, and our board of directors together, and have everybody agree on what were we trying to accomplish. What’s the scope of this plan, and then based on the scope, had to design a process that would get us to the finish line. I had to design a lot of staff consultations, staff and board level consultations into this. This is the basics of stakeholder consultations for us. That was a big part of the process.
Then after we did a lot of consultation with staff, then we actually had to develop the guts of the plan. That meant figuring out what are our goals for the organization? What are the specific objectives that we wanted to achieve? Putting all that stuff together, vetting it as a team, and then putting it down on paper; editing it so that it was clear and concise, and told a tight story, but also an inspiring story about the work that we’re going to be doing over the course of the next two years.
AT: To develop this next scope of it, how long would you say this process took?
CR: We started in August of last year, and we had the plan approved at the end of February, so that took about six months to put it all together. About five or six months. I would have liked to have a little bit more time, so I would say seven or eight months would have been really ideal for us. There were definitely some pieces that were a bit rushed, but it took between six and seven months.
AT: How long was the scope of the plan?
CR: It’s a two year plan. This is our second strategic plan for our organization. Our first one was five years. Then our board asked us to do a two year plan.
AT: As things change quickly, especially in tumultuous times, I don’t blame them for wanting a shorter scope because there’s only so much you can control.
CR: Exactly. We also had some pretty significant internal factors that led to the board wanting us to do a two year plan. We were having some change happening at the leadership level. Our board chair, who had been with us as the chair for almost 10 years, was stepping aside. We knew that we’d have new board leadership.
Our CEO, who has been with the organization for about eight years, had also made the decision to finish up his work with us, so we knew that we’d be recruiting a new CEO. We knew that we’d have new board leadership. We knew that there would be a lot of change happening, so we wanted to have a two year plan that would give us some stability during those leadership changes, but that would also leave some time and some flexibility for the new leaders to put their stamp on the organization, but also have some time to ramp up into their knowledge about the organization and how we work.
AT: What would you say, as you move forward into this implementation process, what are some of the things you would recommend to develop and execute on strategy?
CR: I would say, for executing on strategy, part of it is linked to how you develop your plan. If you want to execute well on strategy, you need to have a plan that enables that, a plan that has clear goals, that has clear objectives, that starts to lay out some of the accountabilities. Those are a foundation of being able to execute well on strategy over the course of two years, five years, that type of thing. If you don’t know what you’re working towards, how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing it? That would be one piece.
For actually executing well on strategy, it’s really important to create and maintain a coalition of people who are going to support the strategy, and who will front it to their team. You need to have visible, powerful cheerleaders. That’s not necessarily just the CEO or managers. Those are really important people to have online with your strategy, and to be clear that this is the strategy for your organization, and this has the full support of the leadership team, but it’s also important to find some influencers on your staff.
People who have influence with individuals in general, people who have influence with teams, get those people online. Get them on board with you. Make an effort to involve them in the process, to make sure that they know what the strategy is all about and why it’s important for the organization. Make them allies in the strategy.
AT: Do you find that when you’re getting those influencers, the people you get are different depending on what stage of the plan you’re on, or what strategic priorities you might have?
CR: Yeah they are. The people that you’d have online during the planning stage, sometimes it’s more around process, so who would want to be involved making sure that you’ve got all those people at the table. Then during implementation, it’s more along the lines of the people who are looking to the long term, who are looking to the future, and who feel like they really have a stake in the organization, and who can talk to other people in the organization about the value of the strategy that you’re implementing, and how that builds value for the whole organization.
AT: Can you speak to the importance of story telling in regards to the getting buy-in?
CR: Yeah. With story telling you need your staff, you need your board, you need your donors to really, clearly understand what is the work that we’re doing. When we sometimes think about having an elevator pitch to describe our organization or our business, I think of it in the same way for a strategic plan. You need to have an elevator pitch for your strategic plan. You need to be able to talk about your plan and what you’re going to be accomplishing within two minutes. It needs to be quick. It needs to be kind of punchy, and it needs to resonate with people.
When you’re planning out your work and thinking about what are the different categories that you might be using to describe your work … We grouped it in threes. We have three high level goals around climate solutions, around environmental rights, around biodiversity and within each of those we had some categories, a maximum of five categories for each of them that helped to illuminate what those goals actually were. We made a lot of efforts to make the outline and the structure as clear as possible, so that we could tell that interesting story to staff, so that they would get it immediately; to our board of directors, so that they could pass that same story along to their contacts and to their networks.
Then it just becomes a self perpetuating thing where everybody truly does understand the purpose of the work and where are we going with it.
AT: When it comes to aligning the strategy with performance, what are some of the practices that you’ve seen that really tie into success and getting things done?
CR: I think of it from a nesting dolls approach. At the outside there’s this high level strategic plan. Then after your strategic plan, there needs to be linkages between your strategic plan and an annual operating plan. Then there needs to be linkages between your annual operating plan and your project plan and individual work plans. Ultimately, your staff should be able to draw a connection between something that’s on an individual work plan and the strategic plan. There should be a clear line of sight, a clear understanding between what somebody is doing on the ground in their day-to-day, and how that is going to be helping to accomplish a strategic objective.
If you don’t have those clear lines, then everything gets really fuzzy and nobody’s really going to know if what they’re doing is actually going to help you get to your strategic goals.
AT: How do you go about disseminating that information?
CR: It’s really all about representing your plan. If you don’t have a chief strategy officer, if you don’t have a planning manager, somebody who can stand up in front of everybody and kind of in a sense hit you over the head with a strategic plan, then that’s something that the leadership team and that frontline managers need to take responsibility for, is really telling the story of the plan and making it really clear to their staff how they connect into it.
If that’s done in team meetings, if that’s done in performance planning and one-on-one sessions, it’s a step that’s totally vital. If your staff don’t understand the plan and if they don’t understand how they feed into it, nothing’s going to happen. Your directors, or sorry your managers, your team leaders, your project leads, everybody there, they need to understand how the plan works and where they feed into it, and hence how their teams can feed into it.
We’ve worked with a plan in the past that we didn’t really have implementation in mind when we put it together. It was really, really hard to push elements of that plan forward and to have staff understand that we even had a plan and why did we have this document if nobody understood.
AT: I hear communication being a core tenet of that. Can you speak to that?
CR: I think about planning as it’s all about internal communications. There’s the whole idea that planners … The last thing you want to do as a planner is sit in a room by yourself and plan everything, and then say, “Here. The plan is done. Now everybody else just has to go off and do it.” It’s all about communication. It’s all about how you put the plan together. It’s all about who you talk to, what ideas do other people generate, how involved do other people feel in the development of the plan itself. It’s all about internal communication: internal communication in the development of the plan, internal communication to launch the plan, internal communication when you’re reporting against the plan and figuring out if the plan it actually working. It’s all just a continuous feedback process.
One of the things that I’ve really thought a lot about as a planner is what’s my role. My role is to be the hub, the hub in the middle of a whole bunch of people who are all thinking, doing and acting. They’re bringing me input, and my job is to make sure that everybody understands what their role is within the planning context to communicate to each other, to help them communicate, to help them understand. I can’t really emphasize enough the importance of communicating, making sure that people understand what their role is, what we’re all working towards together.
AT: Are there some other risks to avoid as they move through this process that would hold back the success of the plan?
CR: It’s kind of related to one that we’ve talked about which is just about having stakeholder involvement in the development of the plan. I talked a lot about having staff involved. If you get frontline staff involved in the development of the plan, it helps to ensure buy-in. They can be confident in the plan. It’s also important, particularly in a non-profit context when we’re working …
When we’re working with a board of directors it’s important to keep your board of director stakeholders involved in the plan all along, all through the whole process. There’s a risk of course, that is that important stakeholders aren’t going to like the plan when you present it to them, that they’re not going to approve it when you give it to them. To avoid that risk, keep them involved. Keep them informed along the entire process. That means repeating your intention for the plan.
What are your base assumptions for the plan? What’s your process? Where are the opportunities for them to feed into the plan? Every time that you do that, every time you repeat those things … It can start to feel repetitive to you, as the planner, but every time that you repeat those things, it’s a chance for major stakeholders to raise questions, or to raise an objection. That’s a chance for you to address a question or to diffuse an objection before you reach a critical delivery point.
You almost want to know that the board is completely on board and they get it totally; it’s good. All elements of the plan, even down to some of the goals and the objectives, if you can have a discussion with them before the final board approval about some of those elements and start to hear some of their questions, some of their concerns around those really important elements of the plan before it goes to full board approval, you’re practically guaranteed a board approval at the end.
If people have had a chance to interact with the plan, ask questions, and dive deep into it before that final board meeting to approve it, then you’re gold.
AT: What are some of the things that would round out that plan to get it approved?
CR: If you’re an executive director and you know that you need to have a strategic plan approved by a board, within a given amount of time, I’d say first off, make sure that your board chair is totally on board, and totally understands the need for a strategic plan, and is totally behind the strategic plan. Again, it goes back to having a coalition of people who are willing to front the plan.
You as the executive director, you’re going to be fronting the plan, and you’re going to be demonstrating your support to the plan to your organization, but the board chair needs to be demonstrating his or her support for that plan, and for the planning process, to the board of directors. Your whole board needs to know why are you planning, to what end, and that this is a directive from the chair, that this comes from the top so that there’s value in doing the planning process
That seems like a little bit of a given, that people would think that there is value in a planning process, but not everybody does really feel that there could be value in a strategic planning process. Once you have the buy in of your board chair, and you have the buy in of your board, then I think the next step would be figuring out who on the board wants to have a little bit more involvement. Who wants to maybe set up a sub-committee or something, a strategic planning sub-committee that would be kept in the loop along the way.
These are people who want to know what are the updates. Are there any challenges that are happening, or how can we help with this, or where can we input into the more strategic questions around overarching goals and strategies? Making the assumption that your entire board wants to be involved at that level, that might not be the right thing. There might be two or three people, or maybe four or five people who really want to be involved, more involved at that deeper level, and then checking in with them on a regular basis.
Whether that’s every couple of months, or every month if you’re running a shorter process, and just creating the opportunity for those people to feed into the process to ask questions, to be involved. Then I’d say, with that group of people, doing a check in with them before your final document goes to the entire board, making sure you’ve addressed all of their questions, if they have any concerns, that all of those things have been raised.
Then making sure that that group of people is ready to demonstrate their support for your plan, with the actual board, at the final board meeting, when your plan’s going to be approved.
AT: Do you have any tips to get buy in from volunteers or part time staff?
CR: I’d say it’s about how you launch the plan with people, and also how you bring volunteers and part time staff, and full time staff for that matter, into the organization. I would say it’s about doing an orientation to the strategic plan to your new staff, or your part time staff, or your volunteer staff, doing an orientation to the plan so that they know what are the main elements of the plan. You go through it. What’s the story that this plan tells? Where does their work intersect with the plan? How are they helping to move certain elements of this plan forward?
Just taking a little bit of time – It can take us almost half an hour to just sit down and go through, or 15 minutes, to go through the plan and talk about those elements with them. It’s giving them an introduction to the plan. Then, this applies to staff in general, but it’s important to keep the plan alive over the course of the lifetime of the plan. It’s not enough to just launch the plan and say, “Hoorah. We have a new strategic plan. It’s super exciting,” and then you don’t talk about it for two years.
You launch the plan, you make sure that everybody knows how their work is going to be contributing to it, and then you revisit it. Part of that is your reporting structures. How are we doing in achieving our goals? How are doing in working towards these objectives, and talking about that with your staff. Whether that’s every quarter, you do a quarterly update, and you talk about what are some of the wins that we’ve had, or what are some of the challenges that we’re experiencing, but always it goes back to internal communication.
Making sure that people know, where are you in the plan, how are they helping to contribute to the plan, and just keeping it alive, the whole organization.
AT: How can people get a hold of you or learn more about the David Suzuki Foundation?
CR: We’re at davidsuzuki.org, or you can send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org