Are we developing or stifling leadership in our organizations?

The CEO shows the refrigerator just who is top dog.

The domain of leaders is the future. The leader’s unique legacy is the creation of valued institutions that survive over time. The most significant contribution leaders make is not simply to today’s bottom line; it is to the long-term development of people and institutions so they can adapt, change, prosper, and grow.”

Source: The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes & Posner (2007)

That’s easy enough to spout off about in a quote, but harder to make happen in life, because leadership can be such an amorphous thing. Also you don’t need to have the word ‘Manager,’ ‘Director,’ or ‘Coordinator,’ in your title to be leading people in a nonprofit organization in 2012.

Our organization, for one, is on a journey to a place where literally every employee – whether warehouse, programs, development etc – will be a leader of a team of dedicated community leaders (mega volunteers) who operate with many of the expectations and responsibilities of actual paid employees. This enables each staff member to multiply their impact in support of our mission and within the community. (More of this concept in a future post).

My concern today is the development of emerging leaders within our organizations. Have we forged pathways for their dedication and passion to take them right to the top?  Or are they going to reach a certain level and then become frustrated by a regime where the Glorious Supreme Leader is there for decades.

We have an excellent CEO succession plan, thank you. Don’t worry about the man with the colorful hat, he will be photoshopped out of the picture.

When I entered the food banking world 4 years ago (coming in as Executive Director, having been ED of a member organization for 6 years), I was surprised to discover how many of my peers had been in their positions for a Very Long Time. Some 2010 statistics from Feeding America show the average length of time an ED has been in place as being nearly 13 years. Between 3 and 5 years are the average for most other food bank jobs listed. Only one other job makes double digits in average tenure is for Associate Executive Director at 10 years. (Hang in there. The boss is bound to be caught freebasing mac and cheese sooner or later!)  A variety of surveys across the broader nonprofit spectrum suggest about 5-6 years is the norm for someone in the top.

The good old days, when the phrase ‘head hunter’ was somewhat more literal

Why this disparity with Foodbanks? Are we as EDs and CEO’s hooked into some secret Divine Right Of Kings/Queens? Or are there other factors at work? It has been said that the first job of the leader is not to put his/her feet on the desk and reflect on their meteoric rise, but to begin to assiduously develop the next generation of leaders.

This week’s post is really an investigation of how we can achieve this.

The CEO was beginning to get a tad grandiose at Monday Morning Staff Meetings.

All this may not have occurred to me if not for something that happened at the Network Executive Director Forum in Atlanta in early 2011. It was moderated (we’re all such sensitive souls we needed a moderator) by a lady called Jeannie Duck, a notable management consultant, previously with the Boston Consulting Group (and therefore a fully paid-up member of the ‘Non-Profit Industrial Complex’). Jeannie is also author of the excellent book ‘Change Monster,’ that looks at how organizations can successfully manage change.

The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change, Jeanie Daniel Duck, Crown 2001

At one point during the ED forum, Jeannie put out the idea that maybe some of the ED’s had been in their jobs too long, and that they could be hogging the leadership, and should consider whether it was time to pass on some of their power. The room went frosty faster than a wet lettuce leaf in a quick-chill freezer. She had obviously hit a nerve and there was quite a lot of muted grumbling afterward. As a relatively new ED, I was struck by the comment but also by the reaction, and it has sat with me until now.

Free, free, free at last!

Fellow Mad Men devotees will have seen Peggy Olsen realize recently that she was never going to reach the heights in her current job, and that the only way to move on up, would be to move on out from SCDP. Those who are in a hurry to make it to the top or who feel stifled in their current job will always have to make this decision.

I hope that within our organization, I can work to create a situation where the need to leave is mitigated as much as reasonably possible. Our vision (To End Hunger and transform the Health of Santa Barbara County through Good Nutrition) is probably large enough to stave off boredom. There is also a realization that we can never succeed locally without fighting for policy changes at the national level and finding a way to help people out of poverty at the local level. This means that that there is always going to be a lot of room for bright, talented leaders to take on these challenges.

Since I began work at our Foodbank four years ago, no manager has left of their own volition – which I would like to think speaks to more than a crappy job market. I hope that people feel there is room for them to grow. There have been rapid promotions too. When I arrived, our Development Director was at the front desk running volunteers and food drives, our Agency Director was saddled with invoicing, and our Program Director was still working in a cupcake store.

No one trades one night of regret for the chance to run a food bank, that’s for sure.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Joe Schoeningh who recently retired as ED with the Orange County Foodbank in California. He said: “I’ve been with the food bank since it was founded in 1983. I served originally on the board of directors from that time until about ’95 and then I transitioned in to becoming a part of the staff here working as a volunteer coordinator and then later as the assistant director until I became the director of probably 10 or 11 years ago.” Joe flouts the ageist assumptions that ‘emerging leaders’ have to be people with over-developed texting thumbs. Retirement is no barrier to his desire to support the work of the food bank, as he will be continuing with a responsibility for ‘Special Projects’ such as growing their purchased food program.

Joe Schoeningh shares one of The Ten Commandments of the Nonprofit ED: Thou shalt not be photographed without a presentation check. (Stack of cans behind, optional)

Joe believes that the emergence of new leaders starts with hiring process “and we have typically taken in young people who are energetic, enthusiastic and feel that the non-profit world is where they want to be. They get the concept of what we do and they jump on the opportunities for advancement every time we post a job internally. It has been our culture to try to promote from within whenever we can.”

They have also grown the organization – true of so many food banks – which has created more space for advancement.

Apocalypse Cumbaya: While the rest of us hit our 2.30pm slump, those emerging leaders are just starting to warm up.

At the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County we want to find and develop new leadership wherever we can find it. If it is of use, I reproduce a letter below that I have started to share with new hires. It is also offered to managers to inform their hiring considerations:

Advice for Emerging Leaders at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County

1. We’re not really interested in telling you what to do. We have more effective things to do with our time. We want you to be coming forward with your thought-through ideas about how to move the organization forward towards achieving our mission. How will your plan help us achieve the goals in our strategic plan? We want to say ‘Yes’ to your every suggestion, you just just have to help us make that possible.

2. You need to be able to communicate successfully in all media to be able to sell your ideas, both internally and externally. That means you might need to pitch the same idea differently in North County than in South, or differently to internal or external stakeholders. You need to be aware of their ‘listening’ more than your ‘speaking.’

3. The desire for continuous improvement has to be in your blood, because ‘good enough’ is never good enough. You have to be curious about what innovations and best practices are out there, locally and nationally both from those doing similar things to you, and others doing completely different things.

4. You have to be a coalition builder, able to step outside your day-to-day contacts to identify those stakeholders in the community who can invigorate what we are doing. We know it is hard work and easier to do everything yourself, but you can’t really solve things this way. Find out who out there has shared interests and objectives. Could we give up a little of our power or self-importance to partner in a meaningful way?

5. It doesn’t matter whether you are in the development department or not, a large part of your job is resource acquisition for our organization. Money, people, food, services – it is all out there, and you are coming into contact with it every day. Be mindful of tapping into it and directing it through the organization. You’re doing the person a favor by introducing them to our wonderful work.

6. You have to be able to inspire and lead all different kinds of people. Not just staff members, but community volunteers, interns, those who are much younger or older than you. This is a different kind of leadership from the old top down stuff.

7. Find your mentors wherever you can, inside the organization and without. There are people who will be inspired by your energy and ideas, and will want to advise you how best to make them work. Someone who is telling you all the time how things can’t be done is not a mentor. Someone prepared to take a stand for your excellence is a mentor

8. We believe our mission demands a certain urgency in its execution. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible for you to have an obscene amount of fun with large parts of your ‘job.’

So obviously I have reached the age where I feel it is my right to issue a pompous letter in the style of Polonius in Hamlet (and we all know what happened to him behind the curtain), but hopefully there is something of use in it. Maybe someone a new employee will be emboldened to take a chance and move the organization forward in an unexpected fashion.

Hamlet: If I’d wanted advice, old man, I’d hire a management consultant.
Polonius: …I didn’t even get an exit interview. So unprofessional….(gurgle, gurgle, slump)

Nervous now about my own tenuous grasp on leadership, I decided to talk to an expert. Daphne Logan is Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Feeding America, and if you have met her, you will know she gives the lie to the truism that good food banking and snappy dressing are antithetical.

Daphne Logan, SVP, Human Resources, Feeding America

Daphne made clear that this leadership development is not a luxury:

“In the nonprofit sector, we’re going to have a leader deficit. We’ve been talking about this in the sector for a long time, and in less than 10 years we’re going to see it. So we need to really examine the talent that we already have and try to retain that talent, or we’ll be in trouble.  Everybody is talking about that, not just Feeding America or food banks, but all your larger nonprofits.” (CEO Succession Plan Template)

How can you avoid a crisis in leadership succession. Here are some good practical steps:

1. Ensure that the sitting CEO understands the importance of this task and makes it a priority. At both G. E. and Procter & Gamble, managers of every rank are graded in performance reviews on whether they’ve retained and advanced their most talented employees.

2. Focus on an organization’s future needs, not its past accomplishments. In today’s changing business landscape, companies need leaders with strengths and talents that differ from those of the previous CEO— no matter how successful he or she was.

3. Encourage differences of opinion. Give rising stars room to disagree with management decisions. Squelching those who challenge the status quo will drive out promising leaders and leave behind a crop of “yes-men and women” who are unlikely to make good CEOs.

4. Provide broad exposure. Allow rising stars to rotate jobs, changing responsibilities every 3–5 years. Be sure these managers are around long enough to see the results of their work (good or bad), but not so long that they will get stale. Let them shadow more senior managers (e.g., for a week at a time) to see how decisions actually get made.

5. Provide access to the board. Let up-and-comers make presentations to the board of directors. Managers get a sense of what matters to directors, and directors get to see the talent in the pipeline.

Ivey Business Journal: Leadership Succession: How to Avoid a Crisis; Wayne F. Cascio; May/June 2011

Mumsy, if you don’t get off the throne, I shall bite the hand that feeds.

All of this brings me full circle back to the original question. Are we leadership hogs? Let’s face it, many of us think we’re as vital to our organizations as Steve Jobs was. We would not rank ourselves with this world-class ‘disrupter,’ but deep in the recesses of our egos, don’t we think the baby that we have nurtured and helped grow really needs us to continue its successful evolution?

Hey Steve, in our business we were into apples way before you.

Nonprofits don’t tend to let go of leaders when things are going well, unless the leader has done something really naughty. This could mean the current leader will be content to ride this success, without putting into place the new initiatives that will be needed to avoid stagnation and take this success to the next level. Maybe when things are going badly for a nonprofit or a business, this can be the equivalent of the ‘chaparral fire’ where the landscape needs to burn to regenerate itself. It is a chance for fresh ideas to come in, for a new direction.

Does Daphne Logan at Feeding America think it’s a problem that we’re all hanging around so long? “Not really. We do have a number of founders, but they’re moving.  They’re retiring. People in any leadership position have to self-aware and honest. End of story. You have to ask yourself whether you are still providing the leadership that your organization, your food bank, your community needs.  Have you found a way to keep invigorated?  It’s like you don’t want to go to a website and always see the old stuff on it. You need to keep it fresh. Stagnation is not an option.”

Questions were asked at the finance committee about the cost of the new donor wall.

I have to admit that I have learned most from some of the food bank ED’s who have served the longest. These people are still inspiring me in their search for new ways to achieve their mission and their ability to enlist willing support to make it happen.

I do think I have got a good few years of meaningful life left in my leadership, but I hope that I have the courage to step aside from my own organization when I have taken it to the limit of where it can go with my involvement.

Wash your hands first.

That would open the door to fresh opportunities for me and for the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. A consultant we worked with referred to parting ways with people who were not adding enough to the organization as “freeing up their future.” This is not just a positive spin to make us feel better about firing someone. I think it can apply to us as leaders too.

I think that the reality is that we cannot truly succeed at our jobs until we watch from the outside as our organization sails on to further greatness without us.

Wipe those tears away. You can always volunteer…

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