Leadership under Milennials?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 6th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

Are we getting lazier?  Or, have we always been a lazy sector?  I’m really not sure of the answer, but I know we need to confront it.

This past week, I read 108 mission statements, the result of an assignment I’d given to two of my classes:  one in La Salle’s Masters program in Nonprofit Leadership and the other in our MBA program.  To be sure, two very different groups of students.

The assignment was to pick any three mission statements of the student’s choice and critique it using the guidelines provided by Michael Kaiser’s video on mission statements, a PowerPoint that I had put together on missions, including addressing its purpose, key questions a good mission should address, audiences, etc., and other materials.

Once each had done this step, they were to discern any common findings in their group members’ critiques.  What I thought were awful mission statements—more tag line than mission statements—the students thought were excellent.  Those I thought better (as none were truly good, with one possible exception), the students thought worse—verbose, TMI, etc.  Finally, it dawned on me—and then appalled me.  Was this a generational difference?  Was I seeing, in action, the demonstration of one of those characteristics that all the research tells us to expect in millenials? Was I having a window into the answer to the question that so many pundits are playing with now:  what will leadership under millennials be like?  Trust me, I wasn’t liking what I was seeing.

I wrestled with this thinking throughout last evening, resolving nothing.    And then, this morning, at the end of a conversation that had nothing to do with teaching, millennials, mission statements, etc., I mentioned my thinking of the evening before.  Immediately, this person, 10 years younger than I, dismissed my ideas and said, simply:  “It’s laziness.”  I admit, it took me by surprise and I wasn’t immediately drawn in by the explanation.  But we chatted and as we did so, and I thought more, I started to wonder whether laziness wasn’t the real culprit here and in many other areas of nonprofit operations.

It is true that I have been bothered over the last 10 years or so by more nonprofits having those mission statements that are more tagline than mission statement.  And, as my conversation partner pointed out, they didn’t get there on their own:  consultants took them there.

As a consultant who works with nonprofits to craft mission statements, I wasn’t offended; he was absolutely right! There are those who do consulting correctly and there are those who do it as the client wants.  But it was he who went on to lay it out:  too many nonprofits—board and staff—don’t want to invest a lot of “extra” time, say on a weekend or evening, to do the hard work.  They know they could use help, so they call the consultant; the consultant quickly assesses the landscape, understands the constraints of the client and, not wanting to lose the work, bends to the client even though s/he knows (I hope) that when it comes to missions, quick fixes are nowhere on the good-better-best continuum.

But “quick fix” can very easily be a euphemism for laziness, so I began thinking about other hard work nonprofits avoid.  The first that popped into mind was the willingness of boards to permit the non-performers and disruptive board members to remain on their boards.  It isn’t that they haven’t noticed; trust me, they have!

They love to come to The Nonprofit Center and ask for advice and “the game plan.”   I used to think that boards let members remain on the board who regularly sleep through meetings or disrupt discussions by pulling progress backwards or show up never having done the prep work and then insist on being personally walked through what should have been read, etc. because they were embodying the caring essence of our sector.  But a less gracious analysis—and perhaps the correct one—is that they are simply lazy!

In a less welcoming culture, any one of these types of conduct would not get a person on even the slow track up a company’s ladder; these folks would have hit Jack Welsh’s bottom 10% and been out on the first go-round.  And yet, they malinger on nonprofit boards, holding things back, frustrating everyone (except themselves and their friends, if they have any).  Caring or too lazy to do the hard work?

One of the most damaging places where this laziness rears its ugly head—and where I have always labeled it laziness—is at the point of an executive transition.  First, it is laziness that allows a board to keep an executive director in place long after s/he should have been removed.  Boards too often would rather keep an underperforming executive in place than expend the effort and energy to go through a removal process.   Second, it is laziness that has a board looking for the easiest solution to replace the executive director, regardless of whether s/he left by choice or force, rather than do the work to find the best.  Thus, we see board’s promoting an unqualified person from within, accepting a board member’s desire for the job or hiring an unemployed neighbor.  Easy.  Skip the hard work of discerning what is needed in the next executive director, going through a search process, balancing everyone’s views, make the tough decision to make an offer to candidate A or B.  Lazy!

Is it laziness that abounds in the world of fundraising?  Boards would rather have staff go after more grants than develop an individual giving program.  Staff are content relying on government contracts that come in without effort year after year than seeking new foundation grants to supplement  the government contract and give clients the a program a full strength.  Crowdsourcing campaigns rather than major donor cultivation.  Is it laziness or compassion in personnel management when underperforming staff members are allowed to keep their positions while others pick up their slack?

For decades I’ve looked at these major flaws in the sector and with the one exception noted above I never publically described them the result of laziness.  I excused it as caring, compassionate, nurturing, misplaced loyalties, misguided, and so on.   But maybe I’ve been wrong.  Maybe it is simple laziness.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.