Often faced with more needs than resources, Executive Directors must do their work by navigating complex power, funding and organizational structures. Being the leader of a nonprofit organization requires a vast set of skills that include leadership, resource management, patience, a sense of urgency and decisiveness. Nonprofits are obviously dependent on staff, volunteers and funders to sustain their organization. At the core, a good ED balances the needs of all stakeholders and moves the organization towards greater accomplishments. Great EDs seem to obtain great results effortlessly, and yet the job is obviously difficult.
In the monograph by Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (HarperCollins, 2005), the attributes of Level 5 (great) Leadership issues are explored and applied to the nonprofit and public sector world. Collins believes that great leadership will move a good organization to greatness. To be this type of leader, the ED must embody seemingly contradictory attitudes of humbleness and willfulness and leadership and “followership,” as well as focused ambition to the mission, the organization’s cause or the work. A Level 5 leader motivates staff, inspires community members and excites donors. A Level 5 leader, especially when it is the ED of the organization, helps his or her nonprofit flourish. But do nonprofit organizations really support ED development and growth?
The board of directors’ role
Boards of directors have a clear role in developing their EDs. Most boards conduct annual performance evaluations. But beyond the evaluation, boards can help develop their EDs by letting them take risks and fail. Most EDs rely on input from their boards to make organizational decisions. While this is good board governance, encouraging the ED to implement a new program can build experience and skills. Once the new project is implemented, a small group of board members can serve as “consultants” to evaluate successes and challenges. If small failures occur (an event that doesn’t go as well as planned or a new hire that didn’t work out), ask the ED to perform a self-evaluation. Great organizations are those that view their best learnings as instructions for the future.
Another way for board members to help cultivate their EDs is to create very clear guidelines as to what is acceptable behavior. Boards that say they want productive, satisfied employees delivering services and then allow an ED to play games or yell at staff send a mixed message. Boards who pay attention to the actions of the ED and give immediate feedback, whether positive or negative, find that EDs grow to those expectations.
Boards can also cultivate leadership by making it a part of their work to challenge and grow the ED. Those that do find that they create a true strategic partnership; those that don’t end up frustrated because their ED isn’t achieving all that is possible. This means going beyond the annual performance evaluation and really setting strategic expectations. Finally, boards can be great resources for growth opportunities. Ask the human resources expert on the board if he or she can identify a coach who might provide “pro bono” services for the ED.
The role of peers
Peers can also be a great source of development. Formal and informal networks exist to help EDs cope with the magnitude of their job. According to a 2006 Compass Point study, 90 percent of all executives are accessing some kind of professional development, including improving fundraising capacity and financial management. Peers are often the source of information for where to go for these development options. Peers can also be advisors on how to manage the diffuse power web that is part of the ED’s job. The bottom line is that a successful ED is one who gets people to follow when they don’t have to. Peers can share success stories about leading constituents or managing a difficult board situation. Peer discussions also help pierce the sense of isolation that many EDs experience.
How foundations can help
Finally, some foundations are realizing the challenges of being an ED and are applying resources to help EDs flourish. A 2004 survey of Colorado nonprofit executives conducted by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation found that half of all EDs plan to leave their organization in the next five years. The reasons given were retirement, burnout and the difficultly of working with boards of directors. As grantors, foundations recognize the necessity of stable, strong EDs. As such, some foundations are designing and funding additional, as well as alternative, professional development opportunities. Some foundations and other funding sources give grants for organizational development purposes, including ED training and development.
When asked whether or not Level 5 leaders can be developed, Jim Collins says yes. He believes that the capacity to be the type of leader that leads an organization to greatness lies buried in most people. Collins suggests that if the right circumstances are present, such as conscious personal development, a mentor or a great teacher, leaders do emerge. Employing the techniques discussed in this article may create more superior leaders for nonprofits and achieve even greater things in those organizations.
by Deborah Dale Brackney, vice president of the Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC), Inc., a resource for employers in employment law, human resources consulting, training and surveys (http://www.msec.org/). Contact her at email@example.com.