The Nonprofit Leader Trap

Different people have different skills and abilities. You and I know that, but don’t stop reading. During the past year, as part of my executive coaching sabbatical, I’ve had a great opportunity to work with and observe two dozen nonprofit organizations and their leaders. More than observe, when your coaching training comes mainly from John C. Maxwell, you tend to notice the leadership elements of the organization — he’s kind of big on that. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

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Founder-entrepreneurs are unique. There are precious few leaders who are uniquely designed (or accidentally evolved – we’ll have that debate somewhere else, at another time) to serve as founders and entrepreneurs. Three traits are required: see a problem that is currently going unmet; create an intervention that will address the problem; and convince others to join in bringing the idea to reality. Hold that thought.

The US has more than one million nonprofit organizations. They are schools and churches and hospitals and homeless shelters. They are youth programs and advocacy groups and international orphan feeding programs. Every one of these organizations had a beginning and most can point to an individual that saw the need, envisioned the solution, and rallied a team to make a difference. These leaders are founder-entrepreneurs.

Different people have different skills and abilities. Founder-entrepreneurs are extremely gifted in seeing and creating and inspiring. They are not necessarily gifted in the skills that are most relevant to running a maturing organization, things like organizing, controlling, monitoring, hiring and un-hiring (and yes, my compulsion to use that particular euphemism is largely because I fall personally more on the entrepreneurial side of the spectrum). Now, these skills are not so crucial in the first few years of an organization’s life-cycle. However, as the organization succeeds and grows and matures, these are the skills that increasingly determine sustainability. The all-too-common result is that year-by-year the founding leader becomes less well matched to the important leadership needs of the organization.

This happens in for-profit organizations too. Thus far, we haven’t said anything that isn’t just as true for founder-entrepreneurs who create new businesses and sell lots of products or services. They are also likely to see their successful enterprise out grow their particular leadership gifts and abilities. Here’s the difference: in businesses, the founders have a capital ownership stake in the business and so do other owners. At some point, it becomes clear that the organization would be better served with a different leader and the successful organization buys the founder out and replaces him or her with a leader skilled in the areas relevant to a maturing organization. The founder leaves with enough return on their efforts to go off and solve the next problem that they alone can see. The organization has the leadership it needs to continue to grow.

Short of replacing the leader, for-profit organizations are also likely to add a second senior executive to partner with the founder and fill-out the leadership skills available to the company. Much has been written on leadership teams, because when it works, it can be the best solution.

Back to the nonprofit organization and the leader trap. Neither of the for-profit solutions to the founder problem are readily accessible to the nonprofit agency. Replacing the leader with a seasoned executive more gifted in leading a mature organization happens, but only at the retirement or termination of the founder. There’s nothing to “buy out.” There’s no liquid capital with which the founder can head off to solve the world’s next problem. There’s not even much in the way of lovely parting gifts. For this reason, boards and their organizations rightly avoid dismissing founding leaders until there is no other option. It’s ugly, it’s failure, it invariably does damage to the organization, sometimes irreparably so.

Hiring a second executive, while more possible, is not much more common. This is largely because nonprofits run on a shoestring and any additional income is more likely to go into programs as opposed to overhead in the form of a chief operating officer. The board and its organization starve themselves of leadership for the sake of the program beneficiaries, often until it’s too late.

This all leaves us with a class of founding leaders who are trapped in roles that don’t best serve the organizations that they love. Toiling at the top of an organization that is more and more facing problems that are outside the leader’s sweet spot wears the leader out. Five or ten years of this struggle is sometimes enough to sap the best energies of the visionary founders we met at the top of this essay. That is a tragedy.

What should a leader and board do? It is true that admitting that you have a problem is the first step. Boards and founders should consider the implications of this trap early. They should take initiative to understand the unique and growing leadership gaps that are likely in their organizations as success and growth of mission transform the demands of the top job. Knowing this, they must put in place the necessary plans to supplement and support the leadership and management supplied by the founder, up to and including hiring supporting executives with complementary strengths. Different people have different skills and abilities. We must lead and govern our organizations accordingly.

I’m rooting for you.

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There Your Mission Will Be Also

What is it that determines the real mission of an organization? I don’t mean the mission statement that a group of well meaning committee members hashed out over the course of six weeks and laminated into wall posters and web banners. I mean the mission that drives the behavior of the organization day in and day out. What determines that?

Over the course of my one-year sabbatical as an executive coach to nonprofit leaders, I’ve developed a hypothesis regarding the answer to this question: Where your measures are, there your mission will be also.

Measures drive Mission. We know this is true in our work lives. As one of my favorite thinkers, the late Eli Goldratt said often, “Tell me how you will measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.” What I’ve discovered is that this is true for whole organizations as well. The measures that are made, tracked and talked about will determine what is done and what gets done. What gets done determines what “mission” is accomplished by the organization, at least to a much greater extent than what gets laminated does. So what?

Well, so nothing. At least if the measures of an organization are in line with the stated mission and desired outcomes of the organization. Every nonprofit has a mission, a reason that the organization exists, a purpose that everything aims to serve. The ideal sequence in the life of a nonprofit is this: First, a need is identified and an effort to reduce or eliminate this need is initiated; Second, measures of the impact of these efforts are put in place and tracked; and Third, the review of those measures directs the continuing efforts and the accomplishment of more and more of the organization’s mission. The first and third steps always happen. Let’s look at the second.

Where measures originate matters. In the ideal case above, the measures are created by the leaders to serve as a direct gauge of the progress toward meeting the organizational mission. More often, measures are created and kept to respond to the outside requests for measures. Boards expect measures, donors expect measures, granting agencies not only expect measures, but tell the organizations specifically what to measure and report as a condition of receiving the funds. This demand for more and more measures has an interesting effect on many nonprofit organizations: huge scorecards. It is not uncommon to find scorecards with fifty or one hundred or more items being measured.

With this many measures, the coaching questions, “Did your organization have a good year last year?,” and, “How do you know?” shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for executive directors. However, these turn out to be hard questions. Invariably, the response to the first question is, “yes, we had a great year last year.” This is probably less because nonprofit organizations found 2011 to be a wonderful year, and more because nonprofit executives are conditioned to be positive and optimistic about the work of the organization. The second question, and I do feel a little guilty every time I drop this one on those I’m talking with, lands like a right hook. Their answers include anecdotes and stories of those that have been helped, but rarely do we head toward the scorecard or examine the measures that the director dutifully tracks month by month. This is a primary disconnect in too many organizations.

(I want to let my nonprofit colleagues off the hook here. While the CEOs of for profit companies would never struggle to answer the questions in the paragraph above, their use of measures to effectively accomplish the purposes of their organizations has just as much opportunity for improvement. In fact, they may face a greater challenge, because while almost no organization exists simply to increase earnings per share or drive up the stock price, those measures easily become an ever-present distraction, keeping leaders from the true missions of their companies.)

Change the measures: change the conversation. The good news is that understanding the direct link between measures and mission gives the leaders of nonprofit organizations a powerful lever to move their teams in a desired direction. Driving the mission by choosing, tracking and communicating the specific measures that are most directly related to the mission will be a key element of great leadership. It won’t be easy, but it will be powerful.

I’m rooting for you.

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You’ve Got One

You’ve got one, I’m almost sure of it.

In the past year, I’ve been blessed to take a sabbatical from the corporate world and work, instead, as an executive coach for twelve Executive Directors of nonprofit organizations. These coaching engagements have fueled and fanned my passion for leadership, organizations and improvement. They have also given me a full year of experience in the world of nonprofit leadership, seeing the unique challenges that this cohort of CEOs face as they strive to grow their organizations and make the world a better place.

The first challenge (I’ll take up some of the others in subsequent blog posts), is the conversation. Not just any conversation, mind you, but a conversation that has needed to happen for a long time and that the leader is avoiding. A Crucial Conversation, as Joseph Grenny and his co-authors call it in their book of nearly the same name. A crucial conversation is any conversation where the stakes are high, the opinions differ and emotions are involved. Over the course of my sabbatical, the most significant common denominator among the organizations that I worked with was a crucial conversation that needed to take place, but that was being avoided.

You’ve got one too. My prediction is that you can think of an important, high-stakes conversation that needs to occur, but that you’ve been avoiding. The reasons for avoiding your needed conversation might be similar to the reasons at work in the organizations I’ve coached. Here are three:

“I really want to help the other person, and having that conversation would hurt their feelings.” Each of the organizations that I coached are led by extremely compassionate people. As a rule, they got into nonprofit leadership out of a deep desire to help those in need. They are trained as counselors or educators or pastors. They live their lives in service to communities and individuals who are struggling with huge challenges. This desire to help others who are in need can result in a tendency to avoid conversations that might create pain for others.

“They’ve already sacrificed so much to volunteer, serve on the board, or work at a nonprofit, that I can’t hold them accountable for their behavior or performance,” or, on the other side, “I’ve already sacrificed so much, how dare you hold me accountable for my behavior or performance!” There are huge sacrifices that any staff member or volunteer of a nonprofit makes. The salaries are lower, the benefits are fewer, and the work is often much more emotionally taxing. When the needed crucial conversation is between a nonprofit leader and someone who has sacrificed for the organization, it can be tempting to avoid having it, for fear of offending the other person and seeming ungrateful. For their part, nonprofit employees are sometimes susceptible to the trap of an entitlement mindset, setting some of them up to over-react to any attempt by the leader to address crucial performance issues.

To summarize the first two reasons that crucial conversations are avoided: nonprofit leaders often have a temperament that wants to encourage and support those in need, not challenge them; and those who work at nonprofits may feel that they’ve already paid their dues and that it is unreasonable to hold them accountable to high standards of performance or behavior.

The third that Patrick Lencioni calls Artificial Harmony. This is an element of organizational culture that behaves as if any conflict is a sign that something is seriously wrong. In fact, conflict is an essential part of any successful team effort. Avoiding conflict comes at a cost to the people and the organization. That costs include poorer decisions, growing bitterness, and ineffective programs.

So you’ve got one, what do you do about it?

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The book I’ve recommended most over the past ten years, and certainly in the past months as a coach to nonprofit leaders, is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. This book is a veritable gold mine of techniques and approaches for initiating and surviving that conversation that you’ve been avoiding. My encouragement to dozens of leaders in the past few years: use the book to prepare for that conversation, and then go have it. A summary of their approach can be found here.

Done well, crucial conversations can be the necessary stepping-stones to progress in the nonprofit organization. Nonprofit leaders will dramatically increase the impact they have in their organizations as they improve their skills in holding crucial conversations and their courage to tackle them.

I’m rooting for you.

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Three dimensions to stretch your thinking

I drove to Nashville this morning for some coaching appointments this week. The long, rainy drive gave me a chance to think about thinking. Specifically, I was thinking about ways to stretch how I think about issues, problems, and other interesting things. I came up with three ways to stretch my thinking:

1) Stretch the length of my thinking. Everything we think about has a timeframe associated with it. We may be good at explicitly stating the time frame — I’m considering buying this new car for the impact on my transportation over then next five years. More often, the timeframe goes unstated. I find that if I mull decisions in the context of different timeframes, it invariably stretches my thinking. Consider the car purchase against the value of the money invested and grown over the next twenty years, now I see the question differently. For me, longer timeframes drive better thinking. However, sometimes shorter timeframes can force action on all of those issues that fall in the “someday” category. What do I need to do in the next twenty-four hours toward my goal of writing the great American novel? Have you ever intentionally changed the timeframe of your thinking? I’d love to hear about it.

2) Widen the circle of those involved. I confess, my tendency is to approach every issue first with a how-does-it-affect-me mindset. By intentionally adding other perspectives to the mix, I find that my thinking on most subjects will change. How does this challenge affect my family? My coworkers? The shareholders? How do each of the options affect the community? The nation? The world? The universe? Okay, I can get carried away. The point is: every decision that you or I make will impact others. By intentionally including the impact on a larger group, my thinking and yours will become fuller. Frankly, I’m thinking about you as I write this article. Who do you need to think about as you wrestle with your most challenging issues?

3) Deepen the category of my thinking. There are three broad categories that I find myself using when I think about important things. The first, and by far most shallow, is the product category. What is the product of my decision? Which car to buy. Where to go to college. What to eat for dinner. Who to marry. That’s the product level, and it is where most people spend most of their thinking energy. The second, deeper level is the process level. What steps can I take to come to a decision? What process will help facilitate a good conclusion to this thinking work? The world is full of processes for problem solving. You’ve probably made lists of pros and cons — that’s the kind of process I’m thinking about. If you and others involved can’t agree on the product, move the conversation to process and open up the possibilities. The deepest category is principle. Namely, what principles are most important to serve in this decision? Thinking about principles will provide greater clarity (when you’re thinking alone) and more foundational agreement (when you’re thinking in groups). If you find yourself unclear or conflicted regarding the principles that are most important to serve, no process will lead to a good product. How deep is your thinking? For me, I know that I only go deeper when I intentionally make an effort to consider process and principle.

I hope you’ll try stretching your thinking on important issues along these three dimensions: length, width and depth. If you do, I’m wildly interested in how it works for you. Please share.

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Self-funded Sabbatical

The question, “what do you do?” has become a bit of a challenge to answer, at least in the short-sentence form that is expected in most social settings. This is because I made a decision in August to resign from a nearly 19-year career with a great Fortune 1000 company and take a sabbatical year to work as an executive coach for nonprofit organizations. Perhaps a bit more explaining is in order.

In 1993, I started with Sigma-Aldrich, answering phones in the Technical Services department. I still can hear the phone ring and my conditioned answer, “Hello, this is Kevin Krosley with Sigma Technical Service, how may I help you?” Fifty calls a day, five days a week, for nearly two years. I’m sure I spoke to about 10,000 customers.

Sigma was great for giving opportunities and I was eager for the next challenge. The result was a series of two-year assignments including: Director of Quality Control, VP or R&D, Corporate Director of M&A, VP of Operations (Packaging and QC), Team Member or Leader on five corporate strategic plans, head of global process improvement efforts, and creator and head of the company’s New Ventures Group. What a wonderful experience it was.

In every role, the most enjoyable aspect for me was partnering with colleagues for the purpose of their personal and professional growth–what is now referred to as “executive coaching.”

Now, let’s mix in three major influences that contributed to the decision to take a break from corporate life. The first is Charles Colson and the Centurion Program. In the one year program, Colson led me through the four questions that every worldview must answer — Where did we come from? What went wrong? What can be done about it? and How now shall we live? That last question brought into focus my desire to live a life of purpose and meaning.

The second influence is John Maxwell and his writing and teaching on leadership. Maxwell says that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I began believing this eighteen years ago when I read my first Maxwell book – Developing the Leader Within You. I believe it more now with the benefit of having experienced some great leaders, some not so great leaders and the impact that each had on their organizations. Maxwell’s influence in my life expanded last year when I completed certification as a coach, trainer and speaker with the John Maxwell company.

The third major influence in recent years has come in the form of work with a number of nonprofit agencies. I have been inspired by the selfless leadership of a number of executive directors and their teams — out to change the world, often at great personal expense.

What do I do? Well, for this year, I am an executive coach serving nonprofit leaders with the sole purpose of helping them change the world. I am so grateful for the experiences and opportunities of my past. I’m even more thankful for this chance to serve in the present.

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Foundational Resolutions

At the start of the new year and at the start of my adventures into blogging, it seems fitting to share the four central resolutions that I’m carrying into 2012. These are life resolutions, not just a positive intention for the first few days or weeks of a new calendar, but anchors that can sustain me, and you, in any situation. Here are my four resolutions:

1. I am resolved to appreciate creation in all of its majesty, as a gift to be enjoyed. It is all too easy to walk through life without being properly awed by the awesomeness of the world and nature and life. I want to marvel at the complexity and elegance of creation. I want to wonder at ¬†life’s mysteries. I want to be ever moved by the gifts of breath and birds and planets and galaxies.

2. I am resolved to see everything through the clarifying lens of sin and the fall. This world and all of its parts are broken and defective. Like that new remote controlled helicopter, a week after Christmas, amazing in its design and performance, but not quite right after countless crashes and tangles with tinsel. It still works, sort of, but it is not as it should be. Neither are we. It is all too easy to forget that all of us, and everything around us is broken. I never want to find myself blaming the manufacturer for the tinsel in the rotors. I never want to see only the brokenness and miss the beauty — see resolution 1.

3. I am resolved to pursue only wise solutions to the problems we face. In the midst of pain and problems, struggles and challenges, it is far too easy to grasp at straws and turn to fads. There are so many foolish “solutions” offered to the problems of life. I want to go beyond the foolish and faddish and pursue wisdom. Easy answers don’t address the deep questions. Scripture and tradition and wise counsel are much better sources for my pursuit.

4. I am resolved to spend my life making a difference. In a world that has lost its luster and fallen into disrepair, there are solutions born of wisdom. I want to be an agent for the application of that wisdom. A servant of those solutions. It is all too easy to waste the hours and days and months – soon years and decades – with trivia.

I hope these four resolutions serve you as well as they serve me. May you be grateful and gracious, humble and impactful in the new year.

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