Thinking CLEARly

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 28th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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As many readers of this blog know, one of the programs we offer at The Nonprofit Center is what we call CLEAR (Cultivating Leadership Excellence and Responsibility) Circles. These are small groups (seven to eight people per group) of similarly situation individuals—either all executive directors, all new (less than three years in the position) executive directors or all emerging leaders (people who have direct reports and who report directly to the executive director of their organization)—who meet once a month over eight or nine months for two hours of peer-to-peer problem solving and support.
group discussion

We first started these groups just for executive directors over seven years ago.  Consistently, we hear from executive directors how important these groups are to them, giving them peers from whom they can learn and with whom they can share, learning that they aren’t alone in their struggles, gaining perspective, and so much more.  Invaluable, we are told; wish I’d known about this sooner, we hear.  And on and on.

Yet, people don’t flock to these Circles in droves.  Why not?  For some, the cost is a factor—though we think at under $300 for eight sessions, CLEAR Circles are a bargain.  But nonprofits do cry poor faster than they think things through and, as I wrote in last week’s blog, nonprofits do not understand return on investment. For if they did, folks would be knocking down our doors to get into a CLEAR Circle, as the return on this investment—to the individual leader and to the organization—is huge.  For far too many individuals, however, the cost is the lesser of issues.  The real issue is executive directors can’t see themselves making the time “to get away.”Just what is this about?  Really, now.  What is going to happen in the three hours (I’m allowing for travel time) that an executive director is away, investing in her/his own professional development and, therefore, the organization’s development?  For, development and learning by the executive director has to translate to better development for the organization.  And I hear all of the objections:  but if I go to a CLEAR Circle, then I can’t go to meeting X for my organization or that panel discussion or that event.  Of, if a crisis happens at the office, what will happen?  Unless the executive director is an office of one, is s/he really that crucial to the functioning and well-being of the organization?  I certainly hope not, because if so, the organization has a problem.

The American Management Association has released the results of its December 2010 survey looking at how well prepared companies are for a sudden loss of a key, senior leader.  Of the  1,098 senior managers polled, only 14% said they were very prepared, while more than one-and-and-a-half that (22%) said their company was not at all prepared.  When asked to describe the leadership pipeline in their companies, 47% described it as “adequate” and 39% called it “inadequate.”  Only 10% described that leadership pipeline as “robust”.

Maybe the descriptors refer to mere size and numbers, but numbers don’t make a pipeline adequate or not.  It is the quality of person/people in that pipeline that determine the shape an organization will be in should it face a sudden departure of key leadership.  And I’d argue that the nonprofit executive director who sees him/herself as so indispensable that s/he must attend every meeting, must represent the organization at every event, is the only who can address a crisis isn’t creating a pipeline of future leaders, let alone developing it.

By taking ourselves out of the mix from time to time—be it to attend a professional development opportunity for ourselves or to take a day off or an even longer vacation, executive directors are giving others in the organization the opportunity to test their leadership wings, to grow professionally, to share the face and responsibility of the organization.  It is not shirking responsibility or being a bad leader but is, in fact, the exact opposite.  It is providing the organization an opportunity to assess its pipeline and prepare.

So, executive directors:  the next time you have the chance to invest in yourself, to stop and smell the roses, to say “no” instead of always saying “of course,” do so.  After all, it isn’t always about you.   Sometimes we have to think about what is best for the future of the organization.

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.