Between the mini and the mega

The mid-sized team can be like Goldilocks: not too big, not too small. But there are risks as well, says Craig T. Kocher.

Only a few Christian institutions are truly mega, with a senior executive hovering over multiple divisions led by vice presidents and program staff, and a battalion of support personnel. The majority of Christian institutions are akin to the majority of churches. They are mini, led by a full- or part-time pastor, perhaps a part-time administrator and -- if they’re lucky -- a jack-of-all-trades custodian who does everything from shovel snow to turn on the sound system to change the light bulbs. Between the mega and the mini is the medium-sized organization.

About a year ago, I moved from a mega organization to a medium-sized one. After serving as a lead associate for eight years on two large staffs with more than 20 full-time employees, I became university chaplain at the University of Richmond and found myself responsible for leading a mid-sized staff of five full-time employees, a couple of part-time employees and 17 volunteer campus ministers who function a bit like the chairs of local church committees.

I’ve discovered that the mid-sized staff team can be like Goldilocks: not too big, not too small, but just right. At its best, the team has the intimacy of a small organization with the energy and resources of a larger one. Galvanized by a common mission and relatively little bureaucracy, the team has to work together closely, developing relationships along the way. A mid-sized team is too small for any one member to outrun the others, yet large enough that one person does not have to carry the entire burden.

The organization tends to be flatter and potentially more egalitarian. The lone rangers cannot hide, and the bow-to-the-flowchart authoritarians have no one to push around. The mid-sized staff at its best is like a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry -- flexible, accommodating and resourceful.

However, for all the gifts offered by a mid-sized staff team, there are risks. Two in particular are worth addressing.

The first risk is clumping. Imagine an excited youth soccer team in which the players all clump around the ball, 20 of them moving en masse up and down the field. There’s no space for individuality, no room for one player to pass to another, no possibility to build toward a goal through strategic spacing and a creative display of teamwork.

Because a medium-sized staff isn’t big enough to have clearly defined divisions or departments, team members are at risk of clumping around particular programs that are central to the mission of the organization, leaving tangential yet necessary responsibilities undone. Sometimes this happens out of a sense of personal devotion. Team members may genuinely enjoy one another -- a good thing on any staff -- but the desire to personally support a teammate in his or her work may cause people to ignore equally important work. Sometimes, though, the clumping comes out of a subtle and usually unstated mistrust: “I know that’s my teammate’s ball to play, but if I don’t run to his aid, we won’t score a goal.”

The second risk is the infield fly. When a pop fly goes up on the infield during a baseball or softball game, one of the six players has to take control, firmly call off other teammates and make the catch. Every now and then, even with the most experienced teams, an infield fly will drop because the infielders, all within a few strides of each other, assume someone else is going to make the play.

Medium-sized staff teams work together like the players on an infield. Only a handful are present, and they are often in close proximity, which can lead to a false sense of security when it comes to the authority to act. “I don’t know whose ball it is,” one might think, or “My teammate next to me will make the play; I don’t have to.” In this scenario, the unstated danger centers on a lack of self-confidence: “Better to let someone else make the play than for me to drop the ball.”

The leader of a mid-sized staff can help a team avoid these pitfalls. The leader needs to capitalize on the organizational intimacy while directing the energy outward. He or she needs to give clear directions while instilling trust, authority and confidence.

To avoid clumping, out of either overdone loyalty or subtle mistrust, the leader needs to clarify individual roles and convey trust. Clarity is critical because mid-sized staff members tend to work closely with each other. Each staff person is generally managing several projects, so it’s easy for one team member to get distracted by another person’s work. That may be because his or her own work has grown a little stale or because he or she would rather be in another role. Conveying trust is important because members of a healthy team have to be able to count on one another. The leader’s job is to remind the team that everyone has important work to do, and only by spreading out, trusting one another and strategically passing the ball back and forth can the team accomplish its goal.

To ensure that every infield fly is caught, the team leader has to empower each player with authority and confidence. A leader giving a staff member authority over a particular task or project is saying, “I believe in you. You are responsible. You are the person who can do this job better than anyone else.” Clear authority empowers individual staff members to act boldly in making the catch, clarifies work boundaries between staff, and strengthens self-confidence in their abilities.

The leader of a mid-sized staff team is responsible for spreading the field, clarifying roles and empowering his or her staff with trust, authority and confidence to fulfill the organizational mission. Such a team will discover what Goldilocks discovered: between the mega and mini is the just right.