Nonprofits urged to do better at growing leaders

By Todd Cohen

The nonprofit sector faces a crisis in leadership, and needs to be more systematic in developing a pipeline of new leaders, a new survey says.

Studies in recent years have forecast a mass exodus of executive directors as a result of retirement, burnout and lack of support from boards.

And The Bridgespan Group estimates nonprofits will need to hire an additional 640,000 senior executives by 2016.

A new Bridgespan survey says nonprofits recognize they face leadership gaps but are not sure how to address them.

Nonprofits should pay more attention to leadership development and succession planning, Bridgespan says.

The biggest obstacle to better leadership development “may be the behavior of leaders,” it says.

“Many nonprofit leaders (including nonprofit boards) confront the question of leadership development only when faced with a succession crisis,” it says. “And by then it may be too late.”

Among over 225 leaders responding to the new Bridgespan survey, nearly two-thirds disagreed with the statement that their organization is “highly effective in developing a strong internal and external pipeline of future leaders.”

Bridgespan also has produced a guide, known as “Plan A: How Successful Nonprofits Develop Their Future Leaders,” that is designed to treat leadership development as a “proactive and systematic investment in building a pipeline of leaders within an organization, so that when transitions are necessary, leaders at all levels are ready to answer the call.”

The guide offers a three-year “road map” that spells out an organization’s leadership needs, identifies future leaders, and suggests five interconnected strategies to build leadership.

Engaging senior leaders is a key strategy, with most respondents to the survey, for example, saying their organization’s CEO is “actively engaged in building a strong pipeline of leadership candidates,” but a majority also saying senior leaders “aren’t held accountable for their development efforts.”

To build leaders for the long-term, Bridgespan says, the CEO “must serve as the de-facto chief talent officer,” signalling the importance of leadership development, setting expectations for the team, and putting “the process in motion by first developing the people who report directly to her and then asking them to do the same for their teams.”

By holding herself and others accountable for results, Bridgespan says, “she communicates her commitment to the rest of the organization.”

A systematic development effort, it says, starts with “an understanding of the future leadership capabilities required to achieve the organization’s strategy.”

Yet only 39 percent of survey respondents say they understand the leadership capacity their organization will need to three to five years to achieve its strategic goals.

Leaders grow mainly through “well-designed on-the-job experiences,” Bridgespan says.

Yet while many nonprofits offer their staff members “stretch” opportunities, it says, the most successful groups are “systematic” about leadership development, “consciously building the right skills in the right people over time.”

While doing that effectively requires a “clear understanding of the development needs of each individual,” Bridgespan says, only 29 percent of leaders surveyed say potential leaders have development plans in place.

Internal promotions are not always enough develop future leaders, even at the best-prepared organizations, Bridgespan says.

And while its data show that organizations are relatively strong in external hiring, hiring new leaders represents just the first step.

And while it is critical to make sure the first few months on the job are planned carefully so new leaders can succeed, Bridgespan says, 40 percent of leaders surveyed disagreed that they bring “on-board and successfully integrate external leadership hires.”

Finally, it says, it is critical to monitor and improve the process of developing leaders.

Successful nonprofits gather data to ensure they are doing what they set out to do, making progress toward their leadership-development goals, and are continuously adjusting their process based on what they learn.

Yet the survey underscores a great need to improve that tracking and learning, Bridgespan says, with only 29 percent of leaders surveyed saying they regularly collect data to evaluate their progress and understand which leadership-development practices and supports are most  effective.

To be effective in developing leaders,  Bridgespan says, nonprofits should start “with the basics” and improve over time.

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One response

  1. I am convinced that many in leadership were never supposed to be there. Perhaps some well-meaning person persuaded them to enter a place of leadership where they do not fit. Not only are they frustrated, but the ones who they are “leading” are confused and discouraged at best.This situtation exists in all areas of life in our current society. I do believe that leaders are developed. However, there are certain traits of leadership that are born in those individuals, it seems to me.

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