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Executive Directors Need a Team With Passion
As readers of my articles already know, I believe the nonprofit sector has tremendous growth potential for the future. My standard pitch hasn’t changed: the issues facing our communities today are more complex—and neither the government sector nor the private sector is in a position to make a difference. Accordingly, there are huge opportunities for non-profit organizations (NPOs).
However, executive directors should understand some of the emerging issues in the NPO sector and take them forward. The purpose of this article is to outline many of these issues and start a dialogue between executive directors who actually get it and want to play a leadership/advisory role now and in the future. I’m not interested in executive directors who are stuck in their ways – and don’t get it – I want executive directors who are on fire and ready to make a difference when really tough times hit the industry. Passionate about the role their organization can play, these executive directors are keen to surround themselves with a team of talented people who will position their NPO to excel among its peer group.
By the way, when I refer to “peer group,” I don’t just mean executive directors thinking about their “competition”—though we’re fooling ourselves to pretend that funding for NPOs is anything but competitive, especially in this economy. However, I urge executive directors to rise to the next level – beyond funding concerns – and realize the need to excel and benchmark against whatever norms apply within the NPO group that you belong to (social services, museums, schools, health services, etc.). . If your NPO’s performance is consistently at the top of your peer group, trust me, others will want to know how it’s done and you’ll establish yourself (and your team) as a performer worthy of replication. There can be no greater honor than this. As the demand on NPOs increases, we are in dire need of leaders and mentors.
Let me provide some background/context on how the theme of “Executive Director” and “Teams” came about and inspired me to write this article. I was attending a “family picnic” that we jokingly call “an experiment in humanity” because while there are many extended family members in attendance, it’s primarily an event with dozens of friends of friends. The location is a beautiful, rural creek bank. No one really knows each other, the varied walks of life (and beliefs and behaviors) are fascinating to observe, and everyone gets along really well, which many of us less-experienced “party types” find really interesting. All joking aside, it’s a beautiful thing to experience and I’m sure we can all work together for the betterment of our community. So, that was the setting for the conversation that inspired this article.
One of my wife’s cousins (we call ourselves “relatives”) was chatting with me about her work in social services. Let me tell you, she is one sharp cookie and her dedication to her work is exemplary. She works primarily with single mothers, often disadvantaged in every way imaginable, and victims of circumstances initially beyond their control (and beyond the understanding of most people in our society). Success rates aren’t high, job satisfaction is hard to come by, and the current state of the economy (and the growing mindset of the American public against social service programs of all kinds) is going to work 25 years from now. More rewarding than when he first started.
I was disappointed to hear him tell me that he was thinking of leaving the nonprofit sector for something (anything) else. I told her that I hope she will reconsider, that I believe NPOs are the solution to our current and future challenges, but I can certainly understand her frustration. I believe something is very wrong when career employees – good people – start thinking about leaving the profession. Why can’t it be reversed? Why can’t NPOs remove non-performers and team up with performers? A 25-year time investment in one field is extraordinary these days. The question I was left wondering was how we could realistically address her level of frustration.
I have written extensively on the importance of performance (ethics, governance, and accountability) and measurable results within the NPO sector. While gathering my thoughts for this article, I ran across a piece (one of many) that shows philanthropies needing ongoing business education – and proof of it – among executive directors of NPOs before making any contributions. Given our very challenging economic times, we should expect no less from those who rely on nonprofits to fund our community. Especially when times are tough, even the most philanthropic individuals and foundations want to make sure their donations are providing maximum benefit. And, I believe that the best executive directors (and staff teams) should be equal to the task.
Be the first to admit that the term “team” is over-used — or, perhaps, misunderstood and misapplied. I believe so strongly in the concept of “team” that I will never stop using the term, nor stop trying to explain what it really means (or should mean). This is the purpose of the rest of this article. Here are five issues that I believe can improve the health and performance of any nonprofit organization:
We need to create organizational systems that support safe communication.
A clear warning sign for an organization is that employees are afraid to share ideas – especially negative or corrective – with the executive director and/or the wider leadership team. Positive change cannot happen without open dialogue. Without positive change, the organization will absolutely die (it’s just a matter of when). Employees always tell me that “complaining doesn’t do any good because no one listens,” – to which I reply, if you don’t complain, nothing can change. Complain is clearly the wrong word. Through the executive director’s leadership, employees should feel safe putting any and all ideas — the best they’ve got — on the table (so to speak). Once a climate of safety is established, it must be nurtured by the executive director. We’re not talking about a short-term fad; We are talking about permanent system change. Such change can be initiated as simply as a request from the executive director to the staff. Depending on the depth of fear established over the years, the executive director must truly commit to a new open dialogue and extend the invitation long enough to make employees feel safe.
We need a very high level of camaraderie among the leadership staff.
Once safe communication is established and trust is earned, the executive director and staff are responsible for improving rapport. What does it mean? It means establishing a real working and functional team with real joy of work and organization. Interestingly, the team approach doesn’t work if the group has to work too hard to make it happen. You’ll know it’s been achieved when the team is comfortable “sharing their stories”—frustrations, ideas, and suggestions. I am not suggesting that the lines between professional and personal relationships be erased; Instead, I suggest that professional relationships become more relaxed and more productive (recognizing that everyone is part of a team with an important role to play).
Working relationships between partner organizations should be strong.
All NPOs have relationships with other NPOs (friends) that really need to go from competitive to compassionate. The idea that “we’re all in this together” applies here. We have reached a so-called ‘tipping point’ where intense competition between service providers is no longer healthy or sustainable. Just within the last year, I’ve seen some very good progress on this front and it’s through the leadership of executive directors (and board members) beginning to demonstrate unwavering support of their fellow NPOs. True success cannot be achieved unless employees of both organizations feel compelled to lead change externally, which should be a positive result of safe dialogue and deep harmony internally. I do not expect ‘working relationships’ to improve smoothly or simultaneously; But, instead, that one organization must intentionally (lead, again) reach out to another. I have seen this done successfully through a breakfast meeting of the Executive Directors and top staff of both organizations, in which the Executive Directors have expressed their desire to improve working relationships; There is something powerful when employees are present and part of such an experience.
Everyone in the organization should be encouraged to take bold steps.
Now is the time to make bold moves in policy change, employee empowerment, and customer expectations (for social service organizations). With safe communication, staff camaraderie, and strong relationships with partners, there are no system barriers left that can prevent bold changes (commonly known as long-term issues) that improve successful service delivery in the community. This is the responsibility of every NPO. I have seen examples where two longtime rival organizations started working together and the alliance quickly grew to twelve organizations and more. How do you define ‘bold’? I suggest that boldness means going after the hardest problems—the ones everyone knows about but is afraid to act on—and looking for big wins from the start. For example, I asked an experienced social service worker what percentage of the time she could identify clients who wouldn’t make it before she started. His answer was a very high percentage, so why are we spending so much time with clients who don’t want to participate and have no chance of success? Bold changes are required if we are to significantly increase the efficiency and performance outcomes of our NPOs.
The “team” (board members, executive director, staff) must put pen to paper.
Some might call it ‘strategic planning’ – if so, that’s fine. But, after all the dialogue and team building, nothing is going to happen until ‘pen is put to paper’ and specific, measurable tasks (forget the terms ‘goals and objectives’ – think ‘action’) are defined along with assignments. Implementation responsibility that also comes with authority and accountability. It is not an event but a process. This should become a standard operating procedure and not a document. Actions of the bold magnitude we’re talking about require constant tweaking – mainly because big issues require consensus from multiple partner NPOs.
With these five changes fully implemented, I suggest that any NPO is poised for greatness. However, I am concerned that these changes can be made without personnel baggage. ie with new executive directors, board members, employees, partners, etc. The biggest challenge is making internal changes with current employees. However, we don’t have the luxury of changing staff members until the chemistry between them is right. One thing I know for sure is that each of the five tips above requires the personal commitment of each person on the team – and no one needs permission from anyone but you. The nonprofit sector must work hard to retain its most knowledgeable and talented staff members.
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