Challenging and Supporting Leaders

Many boards admit they need to do more about successor leadership. The boards are unsure who should be the next chair. Their personnel committees are unsure who should be the successor to any of the key staff positions. There is a lack of bench strength even though everyone knows that leaders are important to continued success, mission relevance, and sustainability. The unintended message to donors, the staff, and other stakeholders is that continued success is being left to chance. Hardly the way to increase or sustain donor generosity or stakeholder loyalty.

Someone should be testing the members of the team to see who has the potential to be a successor. There should be two or three candidates for every key position. If the opening comes in a time of growth, there must be someone who has the skill and will to manage growth. If the opening comes during a time of challenges, a great problem solver is the right person for the job. No one is right for every situation so limiting the field to just one candidate limits your potential to have the right candidate.

Seniority is never a qualification for leadership. The longer someone has been an individual contributor the more entrenched their habits are. Individual contributors are tempted to micromanage rather than lead. However, anyone who is willing can learn to be a great leader.

Every candidate, and especially the dark horse, deserves investment. Without an investment in their training and frequent testing of their leadership skills, they will always be stuck in the past and unprepared for the future when the opportunity arises. It is very difficult to retain the top understudies. They are prime prospects for other nonprofits and for-profits. In addition, stars are hard to keep because if they enjoy leadership and have the skills, they will want to use their skills. However, you can retain them if you continue to challenge them. The dark horse can become a prime candidate when an unexpected opening occurs shortly after the prime candidate leaves and the second choice is a poor fit because of the needs of the nonprofit at that moment.

Failure to invest in your potential candidates sends an unintended message. When a candidate is promoted without having been prepared for the step up, it is reasonable for the candidate to ask themselves if they can truly expect support from the organization.

Nonprofit executives have short tenures on average. Lack of support is one of the reasons they choose to leave their post. Lack of support can also be a reason for them being asked to leave. If they were promoted because of their potential but the potential was never developed, they are often seen as underperforming their potential and dismissed. None of the stakeholders will be pleased if you have to install a new leader in less than three years. It says that the board is unsure of what it wants in a leader or is unable to properly screen for the right leader. A symptom of a struggling nonprofit is to have more than two executives in any five-year period.

Board chairs with short tenures can be just as disruptive as executives with short tenures. Plans depend on the continuity of leadership. Trust and confidence depends on the continuity of leadership. Having a good working relationship between the staff and the board depends on a continuity of leadership on both sides. Donor and other stakeholder retention depends on a continuity of leadership. In short, it is as important to invest in your board chair and retain your board chair as it is to invest in and retain any other leader.

Next Step:

Know who your understudies are for every key position

Invest in the development of every understudy

Know the strengths and weaknesses of every understudy so you can promote the right person at the right time

Hold your board development committee accountable for training each board member and developing several candidates for the role of chair

Nonprofits who are willing to invest in their potential leaders at all levels find it easier to grow. They have the depth of leadership necessary to take on the next big challenge. Their depth of leadership also gives their stakeholders confidence that the next big step forward will be successful. Growth increases mission relevance and your nonprofit’s sustainability.

Take It Further:

Recruit board members who are overqualified so that your board has the capacity to lead as your nonprofit grows

Recruit board members who have a history of creating leaders within the ranks of their followers

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