Nonprofit Leadership Deficit: Protecting Sacred Cows

Posted by Joan Ulmer on January 29th, 2016 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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In 2006, Bridgespan produced a report whose predictions shocked many people.

Prediction one:  between then and 2016, the nonprofit sector was going to need to find 640,000 new executives to fill vacated positions.

Prediction two:  by 2016, we would need to find almost 80,000 such individuals per year.   The bursting of that bubble was delayed by the Great Recession.  But it would appear now that a slow burst has begun.  Executive transitions are upon us.

There is no question that a nonprofit is at is most vulnerable during an executive transition.  That is, in part, why there is so much urging of nonprofits (any organization, in fact) to engage in succession planning.  It allows an organization to take the time ,when not facing the angst of a transition, to carefully and intentionally plan out how things will go down from the instant the executive director says those dreaded words—“I am leaving”—or the board tells the executive—“You are leaving.”  You take a deep breath, calm your nerve endings and go to the plan.

Much is written about succession planning—what it is, how to do it well, what goes into it, etc.—so no need to repeat that here.  But I will provide a criticism of so much of what has been written:  there is way too little attention to the staff.  Far too often, staff below the senior management team is never involved, or involvement is so cursory that staff know it is simple lip service.  Either approach is, quite simply, absolutely wrong.  Why, you ask, should those voices be heard and listened to seriously, with as much weight as board voices?

Those below the “senior management team” are the people who deliver your mission at the ground level.  They interact with your clients, partners, the general public, etc., on a daily basis.   They are your front line, generally the first voicing of who you are, what you are, what you represent, etc.; and you cannot ask them, nor even expect them, to lie.  Thus, it is important that they continue to believe in the organization, what it does and what it represents, regardless of who the leader might be.  To disregard their voice means taking on the risk that where the next leader goes may not be where they want to go.  And I’m not talking about structural and directional change; every new leader better bring change—new ways of doing and thinking.   I’m talking about change to the essence of an organization’s being.

There are two questions that every board should ask—and then listen carefully to the answers:

  1. What are the most important characteristics you believe our next leader must have?
  2. What are this organization’s sacred cows?

In response to the first question, staff generally have a very different take on things from board members.  There is zero judgment in that statement; after all, this isn’t a competition where one is better than the other.  Rather, it is about recognizing that each is valid and important for what it is:  a perspective.  And all must be heard, assessed, weighed and then woven into that set of expectations that will garner the respect of all parties.

But truthfully, it is the second question that is the more important:  what do staff see as the sacred cows of the organization?  What is it that absolutely cannot be destroyed, trampled on, violated to any degree or the organization will no longer be the one that they so appreciated, and of which they have wanted to be a part.

I’m not talking mission, although I may be talking about a particular program that delivers on that mission.  But it is much more likely that the sacred cows are about the organizational culture, such as doughnut Friday (a throwback to my graduate days) or being family friendly or paying health insurance for dependents, or the list could go on and on, as sacred cows are truly organizationally dependent.  These things may seem inconsequential to those who don’t benefit from them—such as board members—but are what make working for a mission-driven business more enjoyable.  Sacred cows should never be taken lightly.

Staff members are not just those people who make sure the mission continues regardless of whether an organization is at the beginning, middle or end of an executive transition.   They are the ones who make sure that mission happens every day of the year.  Don’t trample on them.



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