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from team to dream team with Ashlee Livingstone

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The pandemic has changed the way that many teams work. More people are working from home, or in a hybrid arrangement. And as we rethink our culture, many of us wonder how we can cultivate a sense of connection and create a unique and meaningful team culture in this ever-changing world?

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to build team culture with Ashlee Livingstone, CEO of Our Forté. She has built her career creating curated and memorable experiences for people, and works collaboratively with leaders in building stronger cultures to help teams thrive.

Myths that Ashlee wants us to walk away from:

  • Building team culture costs a lot of money. Applying humans first approach in teams does not have to cost you money. It just has to cost you time to focus on engaging with your team and making them feel that they matter.

  • Team culture is all about company events. You need to do the foundational work ahead of time to build that team and show ongoing connection with them so that when it's time to have a year end celebration or a halfway point celebration, people are actually excited to go.

Ashlee’s tips on developing teams with EDGE

  • Engagement: Engagement is about connecting with your team and how are they connecting with each other? It is important for leaders to keep their current team members engaged and feeling connected to their colleagues.

  • Development: Development looks like mentorship. It looks like understanding what your team member's goals and future is and what they want, not just what you see in them.

  • Gratitude: To show gratitude you have to really know your team and you can ask them questions such as how do you like to be appreciated? What motivates you?

  • Experience: Experience is about making your team feel empowered and heard. Helping them to enhance their experience at work.

Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode

Post your favorite quote on social media to share with us!

“We can easily replace that person, people are replaceable, that mentality, even if you say it a couple of times, or you try and say it jokingly, that seeps into people. And so we guess the work that they're doing matters, but if they think they're replaceable or you can easily replace them, that's where they're not gonna feel connected to what they're doing.”

“At the end of the day, people want to be seen and they want to be heard and they want to know that they matter.”

Resources from this Episode

Teams with Edge Podcast

Ashlee Livingstone’s LinkedIn

Ashlee Livingstone Instagram

The Good Partnership


Cindy W.: So as we go back to the office, so to speak or figure out what our teams look like in the ever changing, I don't even wanna say post COVID, I just want to say ever changing environment of how we work and what that looks like in person remotely, et cetera. You know, one of the things that's on people's minds these days is how do I really create a unique and meaningful team culture on a budget?

Because in small organizations, it's not enough to just be in person, but it's also not enough to just take people for granted. And we have to be intentional and deliberate around the experience we're creating for our teams. And I speak from experience knowing that it not enough to know that the work is meaningful because I feel like as a sector we've leaned on that, we're doing important good work, and that should be enough, but it's not enough. And that's what we're gonna be talking about on today's podcast.

I'm your host, Cindy Wagman, and you are listening to the small nonprofit podcast where we bring you practical down to earth advice on how to get more done for your small nonprofit because you are going to change the world and we're here to help.

So today's guest is Ashlee Livingstone from Our Forte, and Ashlee has built her career creating curated and memorable experiences for people. And today she's going to join us, talking about how you can do that for your teams, whether you are in person remote or hybrid. So Ashlee, welcome to the podcast.

Ashlee L. : Thank you so much, Cindy. I'm so excited to be here today.

Cindy W.: I'm delighted to have you and I have experienced some of your experience creation myself. And I really, this has been on my mind a lot working with a team remotely and building teams remotely during the pandemic and, figuring out how we keep people connected and motivated. So let's dive in, you tell us a little bit about your work and what you do with our forte specifically around teams with edge. And we can dive in. I know you have some pillars that we are gonna uncover. So look, let's get started.

Ashlee L. : Yeah, thank you. I think, it's interesting time for these conversations and I feel like more and more folks are having these conversations, which is pointing into a really good direction. So the work that I typically am doing right now with teams with edge is helping leaders connect back with their teams and their clients.

We often get into what I call like busy, that hustle culture that , we're all like no big X through it. We just get into that hamster wheel and just going, and we forget about the human connection and really what I'm trying to do with teams with edge is have a human first approach. And the nice thing about that is it doesn't actually have to cost you money. It just has to cost you a little bit of time, which you do have

I always say to people you have time.

Cindy W.: Yeah. This is the most important thing you can invest your time in, right?

Ashlee L. : Absolutely.

Cindy W.: When it comes to where you can have an impact, it's empowering your team, that should be your number one time priority.

Ashlee L. : It's your highest, like when you think about highest leveraged actions that you can be taking, it doesn't mean all the things that you have to do yourself. It's how you can empower your team and connect with them so that they can do amazing work and feel proud about the work that they're doing. And all of this seems simple, right?

It seems like obvious but so many folks are not doing it. And I think there's a variety of reasons why they're not. So I, don't necessarily wanna go down that rabbit hole. But the fact is that people are leaving their jobs. We've all heard about the great resignation and leaders are struggling and when one person leaves or second person leaves, maybe a third that workload in the meantime gets put on the other team members or you as a leader. And if you thought you didn't have time before. And you thought your team was getting burnt out and overwhelmed before lose a couple of people and see what happens.

Cindy W.: Yeah. No, thank you. Before we dive into what this should look like, I would like to spend a minute or two just talking about what it shouldn't look like or what people, do that they think is gonna move the needle, but actually doesn't because I do feel like sometimes we get caught up in trying to be super creative or, we think that, again, as I mentioned in the introduction, like we think that sometimes the work, is rewarding enough or I don't know. I think there's lots of ways that people take misguided action. So has there been anything that you've seen that doesn't have a great, return or success.

Ashlee L. : Yeah. So I've seen lots, but I think I'll go back a little bit. When I first started Our Forte, it was primarily an event based business. I was creating experiences for fundraising organizations to help them connect with donors and raise money and the evolution just like everything keeps, I keep evolving and, folks were coming to me to throw a party. They wanted a team building. They would come to me and say, do you do team building?

I wanna have a party for my team and we'd start the planning process. And the more I talked to them, the more I realized they were actually just checking a box.

They were having a party, to say they had a party to say, look, I see I did the appreciation. And then they are faced with people who aren't engaged and don't actually wanna come to your party.

And then they think my team doesn't need it, seeing nobody was interested. So I don't need to do these things for my team, but really the party should be the celebration of connection and you need to do, it's like having the wedding, but not dating

Cindy W.: yeah, no one wants to be there. Yeah.

Ashlee L. : No, that's so awkward. You need to do the foundational work ahead of time to build that team show ongoing connection with them so that when it's time to have a year end celebration or a halfway point celebration, whatever it is, people are actually excited to go.

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Ashlee L. : They see value. For them to attend. So those sorts of things, and also just like gift cards with no meaning like a lot of Tim Horton's gift cards. I get it, we're Canadian, we like our Tim's

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Ashlee L. : I think people like Tim's just giving your team members a $5 Tim Horton's gift card is not, it doesn't feel meaningful, especially when it's, just everyone gets it seemingly for no reason. That tends to miss the mark as well. And then just like blanket, generic emails that get sent out, let's say, good job team.

Cindy W.: Go us.

Ashlee L. : Yeah. So I think those things, at the end of the day, people want to be seen and they want to be heard and they want to know that they matter. They know, especially in this industry, they know the work they do matters, but I don't know about you, Cindy, but I've definitely worked for people and organizations before I went out on my own where I was actually told how replaceable I was.

So that whole notion of everybody's replaceable, like you are holding this position, but you're replaceable. Or when somebody leaves a leader saying, that's okay, no problem. We can easily replace that person, people are replaceable. That mentality, even if you say it a couple of times, or you try and say it jokingly, that seeps into people. So we guess the work that they're doing matters, but if they think they're replaceable or you can easily replace them, that's where they're not gonna feel connected to what they're doing.

Cindy W.: Yes. Oh my goodness, that, let's just, let's keep going. You have four pillars, of areas that people are let's call them points of leverage, right where we need, we can focus our time and energy to actually make people feel like they matter. I love that. I think that is so true. So let's dive into how we can do this? What are some of the mechanics?

Ashlee L. : Yeah. So I created the EDGE pillars mostly because I personally need things to be broken down into buckets. When you say something like let's create a team appreciation program or a team engagement program, it can seem super overwhelming. Yeah. And a little bit like you don't know where to start. That's all often, what is that paralyzing barrier for people that, you don't know where to start, so you don't start. The Edge pillars, stand for engagement, development, gratitude, and experiences.

And when you can start to brainstorm ideas for each of those pillars of what you can do to, connect with your team or give back to your team and for your team to give back to you as well. And each other, it's not just a top down. I wanna be clear on that. It's not just up to the leader it makes it a little bit more bite size and seemingly actionable that you can implement.

So when I talk about engagement, I really think about how are you connecting with your team? If not daily, weekly, what is that? And how are they connecting with each other? So I always wanna look at it in two ways that the leader sets the tone the parent and the family. You set the tone for how things are going to go, but then you encourage your team members to do that with each other as well.

So some engagement ideas is just waste time strategically. I always say that strategically cuz people like that word. Strategically waste time at the start of a meeting, say hello.

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Ashlee L. : Especially if you're working remotely. But this carries over into office or hybrid work and this costs .You. No money.

Cindy W.: Yeah. Yeah. How are you, how was your weekend? And remember what people say? I always feel like if someone on Friday is oh, I'm gonna do this weekend. Monday, how was that? Yeah, like just even if you need to make notes for yourself, for sure. Just seeing that person and like remembering what's important to them, I think is so huge.

Ashlee L. : Yeah. And giving them space to talk about it.

Cindy W.: Yes.

Ashlee L. : When you encourage people to share about things that aren't work related, you're connecting on a personal level, right? There's definitely roles and things that need to get done in an office, but it all gets done so much smoother. And with more enthusiasm, when people feel connected to the people they're working with.

Cindy W.: Yeah. And this would've happened, around the water cooler, so to speak when things are in person, but even as we go back to the office, schedules will be different. I imagine things will be very different. So we have to be intentional with this. So building it into our meetings, as you said strategically waste time or I would say open time for people to connect. Do you have any examples or ideas of, other than what we've already talked about, like, how was your weekend or how are you doing ways to open people up, because very often in our sector, there's this feeling of, okay, let's just get to the point, have so much to do da, how do, and we're our on zoom. How can we create that feeling of connection with some strategic questions or even just holding space? What does that look like?

Ashlee L. : Yeah. And I think that's, you mentioned something about, we're also busy, so let's just get into it, that type of leadership of, okay, I know you're all so busy, so let's just cut to the chase and get you all off zoom faster, that actually creates disconnection, yeah. That really feels robotic. And every engagement you have is transactional. Again, for all of us working in nonprofit, you think about how you engage with your donors and treat your employees and your team members the same way. Yeah. I tell my corporate clients a, the same way, treat your team members as if they're your clients.

Because then you almost put a different lens on it. And all of a sudden you're like, oh, that if you have a really shy team or a team of introverts, sometimes the worst thing you can do is say okay, Cindy, it's your turn to share that's mortifying and it actually probably makes the connection worse.

Yeah, so you do have to get to know who on your team wants to share and how, but encourage it. So you can do I know leaders who have pulled those like family cards or conversation starters, do it as a bit of a round robin get people's feedback. Oh, put it in the chat. If you don't wanna share, whatever, just make it something where everyone can contribute. I also know groups that have actually partnered people up.

So you are meant to, if you're, especially, if you're new, you would have 15 half hour meetings as part of your onboarding with each team member. Regardless if you're gonna work with them or not.

Some of my best relationships actually are from people I don't have to work with, intimately on a project, they're the people who are doing the graphic design or the, IT they're people who I end up having so much more in common with.

Cindy W.: Yeah. I love that, and I, one of the things when I used to work in house one of the things I would always start with is, and this to your point before, I would always start with getting to know the donors, cause I'm a fundraiser, but equally as important was getting to know all the staff right. And connecting and having lunch with them and all of that. And so I think that point of even if they're not, and I just give this advice to one of our students who was working with an organization and she's like, how do I get out of my silo? I said just bust it, can have one on one conversations with people and just over coffee or whatever, and just chat, get to know each other.

Ashlee L. : It's and I think that a lot of people will say, yeah, but on zoom, it's hard I get it. It's a challenge that we're facing right now but we can overcome that. And I think for so many leaders who are hiring we're seeing a lot of new hires coming in.

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Ashlee L. : Start fresh. If you haven't implemented some of these things in the beginning, like before it's not too late.

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Ashlee L. : I know one organization who in the interview process asks people either a, how what's your favorite way to spend $10? Or B how do you take your coffee? And then when they start on that first day, either a Starbucks gift card shows up at their house or they, we can Uber eats pretty much anything to anybody. So you send that coffee for their first day. Or you give them, something that $10, if it's, I would buy, 30 giant chocolate bars send 30 giant chocolate bars for $10. It means you listened, yeah.

Cindy W.: I love, love, love that.

Ashlee L. : And $10 we have $10.

Cindy W.: Yeah, we really do. And I don't know if I should say this on air, but like my, my, my husband works for the Ontario government. They're actually, they don't have $10. They're really not allowed to spend that, but he pulls it out of his pocket and still does it because it's important. And that's also our role as leaders some times.

Ashlee L. : It actually probably seems even more meaningful then because people know it came out of his own pocket and not just a, an expense

Cindy W.: Yes.

Ashlee L. : Go back to the business. Yeah, I think the engagement piece is one of those things that as a leader, you need to look at and create a bit of a plan, especially if you, if it doesn't come naturally to you. That's why I always say, take that engagement, think of a bunch of different things you can do and pick one or two to start implementing we don't have to do them all pick one or two, start implementing them and also pick one that your team can start doing with one another, these like coffee lunches, or, go for a walk and talk to somebody on the phone while you walk,

Cindy W.: Love that

Ashlee L. : If you're working remotely, it's okay, accountability hours, Cindy, we're gonna go for a walk and I'm gonna talk to you the whole time.

Cindy W.: I love it. I love that. All right. Let's move on to development. Switching gears a little bit, cause I think this is a pretty different topic, but what does, for you, what does this pillar mean? And what does it look like in practice?

Ashlee L. : Yeah, so for me, development looks like mentorship. It looks like understanding what your team member's goals and future is and what they want, not just what in them asking them so I love to encourage leaders to have one on ones. Again, we do have time. I do a whole thing on time management. , that's a different topic, but have those one to ones and don't make it about the work or the project, but about them and what growth opportunities.

Somebody may be really interested in marketing, but they're in, donor stewardship and you have no idea, but knowing that ahead of time, when an opportunity or a special project comes up, you can offer that to them because it's, you've had that conversation and, development also looks like investing in personal and professional development. And, hopefully we can set some money aside to have that professional development budget. When we don't, look at your donors or partners that you have oftentimes, so many of us are now doing free webinars, workshops, meetups, networking events that aren't, that don't cost anything, but you need to know about it and put yourself out there to attend and offer it to your team. Don't just take it all for yourself.

Cindy W.: Yeah. Yeah. I think that, those are some really great examples. But I wanna come back to the idea of learn by doing, because I don't think there's a lot of practice of that. And professional development budgets, yes, we know notoriously are minuscule for small nonprofits if they even exist.

But I agree I think there's a ton out there, but I also think we have this mentality of like staying your lane when you're working. So let's dive into that a little bit more because I do think that people want to develop their skills and it can serve the organization and serve the people. If you give them a little bit of work that they wanna be doing, that might not be in their job description. Do you have any examples of creative ways you've seen that done?

Ashlee L. : First of all, when you said stay in your lane, I was instantly, like my heart raced. I had a palpitation that is such a disappointing term that a leader can say.

Especially to someone who is, who has so much potential and let's be real. We all have so much potential. The chances are, we've just never been given opportunities. And we don't know how to advocate for ourselves. Again, that's like side conversation, but giving somebody some flexibility in their role and knowing, like just even join a social committee.

I know, again, this is coming from some of the corporate groups that I work with. They have, the fundraising committee, the social committee, they have the green committee, letting people explore things, even on committee. Encouraging them to join boards or volunteer other places right?

As fundraisers, we think they have to volunteer with our organization. No, they don't. Let them, like let them spread their wings. These are just some, interesting ways that people can get that experience. And when you are the one who's giving them the opportunity, they're loyal to you, you're helping develop their loyalty and gratitude back to you for encouraging that.

Cindy W.: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. And I think there's so many great examples there of how we can build this in, but it's, we definitely don't have time to talk about time, but maybe another time we, because again, I just wanna emphasize what we talked about right off the bat, which is. This, your team is your most valuable resource. And so if you don't make time for these things, it will come back and bite you hard and you'll have less time and they will have less time because there will be fewer people doing the same or more work, so.

Ashlee L. : The one thing I will say but of time, and I know it is like a whole other conversation, if you are a leader who is constantly out of time or your team is constantly out of time, I think you do need to do a bit of an internal time audit as to what are you spending your time on so that you can just readjust and I think a lot of burnout and overwhelm comes from just actually mismanaged time.

Cindy W.: Yeah. That's what I'll say on that. I love that. I'll say one more thing because I think your point is really important. Very often I think I, or I see teams spend a lot of time in meetings that don't have to be meetings and instead it's probably a better use of those meetings to do that more meaningful, check-in, I think like using that time to connect where like we used to do a morning, like quick check-in huddle. Yeah. On zoom. And we took that to slack and now each person reports on a couple things, but then when we do meet, we're having deeper conversations. And so really looking at how to use that time, what, what needs to be. What can you not replace, when you are meeting with people like you can't really do like a, my weekend plans on slack or messenger or anything like that. But you can do a lot of other things. So anyways, we will move on, but I just, I think that's so important.

So gratitude, as a fundraiser, this is one of my favorite ones. But you mentioned at the beginning, there's some ways that we express gratitude that are not necessarily impactful.

Ashlee L. : Yeah.

Cindy W.: So how can we, or what should we be thinking about for gratitude?

Ashlee L. : Yeah. So again, it's like your donors, right? You spend there's whole departments and some organizations dedicated to donor gratitude and none for team. So just ponder that a little bit. I always start with teams on sending out a bit of a, I wanna say a pulse check or a survey on getting to know how they respond to gratitude, because the way that I respond to gratitude is very different than maybe you. So for me, it's almost like knowing your team's love language a little bit. If you've read that book and I do not I do not respond to words of affirmation. So if somebody's like Ashlee, you did such a great job. I'm yep, yep. Move on. But if somebody. Shares my content or encourages other people to follow me or makes a referral for me, to me that is so much more meaningful than telling me I did a good job.