No Small Staff Is an Island

By: Samantha Whitehorne

How the American Choral Directors Association has created a collaborative environment that benefits both its staff and members.

Silo busting is something most associations have to deal with at one time or another, and it often becomes a more pressing issue as staff size increases. But that doesn't mean small staffs aren't prone to silos; they just may have an easier time getting rid of them. At the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Oklahoma City, the staff of 11 found a way to create a collaborative environment while also fulfilling its mission to promote excellence in choral performance and choir publications.

"Because we're a small staff, everyone has very specific tasks and areas, but everything overlaps," says ACDA Executive Director Tim Sharp. Staff members "can't work in a vacuum, even though their tasks are very specific to their job titles, making the collaboration part among them huge. They don't answer to someone else, but they have to work with someone else, so we need a collaborative spirit and awareness to always be present in the office."

A conference is an example of a project requiring collaboration. "The membership person has to know who's registered, and our accounting people have to work it all out in terms of payment, which also involves our tech staff," Sharp says. "People that answer the phones have to be in sync, as well as the webmaster. With a small staff, everyone runs that conference in some way."

What makes ACDA's collaboration run smoothly is the camaraderie among staff. "Staff are visibly happy, and in annual performance reports, we are able to gauge a happiness factor," Sharp says. "They don't feel threatened, and they feel very autonomous in their skill areas." While a happy staff willing to collaborate goes far, Sharp credits other factors with creating a more collaborative environment.

Open office space. When ACDA moved into a new building in 2003, the office space was designed to be open and not partitioned by walls. "We are able to walk among each other without making appointments," Sharp says. "It allows us to pull people in as we need them without having to set anything up formally. Even better is that I think it gives us some more freedom to be creative and spontaneous." When ACDA remodeled its kitchen, Sharp asked for input from everyone on how they use it. "That part of the collaboration is a concrete visual for how this is working," he says.

Regular bonding time. Previously, ACDA's staff would hold a monthly lunch at a local restaurant. "We discovered we were talking to the person next to us, but not to everyone else," Sharp says. "We didn't really engage with one another." So when a staffer suggested holding the lunch in ACDA's office, they gave it a try. "They loved it so much that it's the only way we do it now," he says. "And we reinvent it every month, whether it's cooking outside or bringing in one of our vendors to be a part of it." To give it more of a family vibe, staff sit at a round table and everyone is encouraged to dress casually.

Collaborative hiring. "I do take a potential new hire to meet with the entire staff to make sure I'm representing the team right," Sharp says. "And I get feedback from the staff on whether the person will fit in." In addition, ACDA makes sure candidates know they will be collaborating with others from the beginning. "No one is an island," he says. "And it's in the job description that you're very much dealing with public space and need an outgoing personality."

If you're looking to create a more collaborative environment at your organization, Sharp has this advice: Be alert to what's happening in between staff outings and meetings, and be attentive to what your staff likes. "Intentionally try things, and know that you often won't end up where you originally thought, but you'll likely be in a place where staff are happy, and that's OK—in fact, that's great."

Tim Sharp will be presenting on this topic at the 2012 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas. His session, "Creative Collaboration: Working and Playing Well With Others," is on Tuesday, August 14, at 9 a.m.

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Small-Staff Stats

Name: American Choral Directors Association
Location: Oklahoma City
Staff size: 11
Members: 20,000