Morale Boosters on a Budget

Regularly recognizing small wins can have a significant impact on staff wellbeing and retention.

Feb 6, 2024  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

It’s awards season, and it seems every week we see celebrities going all out with their outfits, performances, parties. But those of us getting through our day-to-day have plenty to celebrate as well, and we don’t necessarily have a big stage or big budget to recognize those wins. In fact, in a tight labor market, it’s critical we celebrate small wins on a regular basis so our colleagues feel motivated and connected to our work.

If you’re considering how to do that, a recent Fast Company article may inspire you, like it did me: “ Why Celebrating Small Wins Is Key When the Big Picture Isn’t Clear.” I could immediately see how the pointers apply to what we do at NBOA, as a staff, and I think they apply to independent schools as well. For context, NBOA has been intentionally building staff development processes for several years. Staff members reside in 13 states, and we meet in-person as a full staff only three times a year — twice for internal planning and development, and once to staff the NBOA Annual Meeting (the 2024 edition coming soon!). The rest is accomplished virtually, so building culture is important; it will be created by design or by default, and the former is far more preferable.

Here are the article tips and how I see them apply to our work.

Define “Small”

Recognizing colleagues for both minor and major contributions to our annual goals and objectives, or for instances of exemplary customer service to our members, has become an important aspect of our staff culture. Our quirky staff mascot – Freddy, a frog stuffed animal – joins our live gatherings and is passed to a colleague who makes a particularly compelling comment or contribution, or who makes themselves vulnerable when advancing team dynamics. “Virtual Freddys” are offered around the Zoom screen at the end of every all-staff meeting. This may be for helping a teammate in a crunch, solving a member’s problem or working through a new process. We also celebrate larger accomplishments, such as completing five, 10 and 15 years of service and beyond, and for “going the extra mile,” our GEM award recognized every six months at in-person gatherings. GEM award recipients are nominated by their peers and the recognition serves as a unique “badge of honor” on the NBOA staff.

Celebrating on a Tight Budget

While we fund individual professional development for our staff and pay speakers and consultants occasionally for full-staff development, we also facilitate our own learning that brings the group together. One memorable discussion was of the book “A Minute to Think,” by Juliet Funt, who advocates for making unscheduled time in the workday. This unstructured time actually boosts productivity, Funt says. The staff development committee drew on the author’s two-minute videos to jump start an all-staff reflection session that resulted in sharing and connecting, without a dollar spent. Further, as a result we now have 25-minute and 50-minute meetings and have suspended formal meetings on Friday afternoons to identify the “open space” most crave but have difficulty finding to support their best work.

Individual Wins Versus Team Wins

Maybe there should be an I in TEAM after all, because individuals are important to team success! Celebrating small wins often means lifting up one or two individuals, which raises the question of fair treatment. “Deep down, everyone wants to be seen and acknowledged, and how they prefer to receive that recognition can vary dramatically,” says author Ashley Cooksley. NBOA’s commitment to DEI helps us keep an eye on this point. Our DEI efforts are all encompassing, with a commitment from the NBOA Board of Directors as well as professional staff, members, business partners and volunteers. We are in the process of developing a DEI strategic plan, which will help us further cultivate internal culture as well as assess programming, products and other offerings for the NBOA membership.

Don’t Forget Seniority

Those growing in their careers may also be seeking title changes or professional credentials. At NBOA, we support professional certification and regularly work through leadership assessments, which are building blocks for continuous learning and improvement. A growing number of staff have earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential from the American Society of Association Executives, for example. We have also used tools such as the DiSC® Profile (a personality test on work style) and Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Assessment (a talent identifier) to build team dynamics and develop empathy for other’s work habits. It’s worth noting, DiSC has become a popular session offered annually at the NBOA Business Officer Institute.

Sincerity and Scope Matter

At the end of the day, no effort will matter if the sentiment behind it is not sincere. The two standing internal staff committees at NBOA are devoted to staff development and DEI, which underscores the organization is committed to supporting every staff member becoming the best association professional they can be, within an inclusive and supportive environment.

Someone That Oversees Culture and People

Without someone overseeing the small wins as part of their job, efforts may get lost. Both the staff development and DEI committees have a senior leader as a standing member who reports back to the leadership team, while other staff cycle on and off the committees on a regular basis.

It is so easy for us to speed pass an accomplishment because the next initiative is waiting just around the corner, but it’s so important as leaders to take a pause and celebrate for yourself and for your team. I hope the hiring season is going well and that you are building teams motivated by your school’s mission and the valuable work you do every day!

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO



Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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