Five Years

Why do many social sector Executive Directors feel less certain about their future after five years with an organization? Two themes arise.

First, the board members that hired the Executive Director gets diluted with new board members who create a different expectations.  The board members that hired the Chief Executive are motivation to see them succeed.  It was the board’s collective wisdom and faith that bestowed the position of Chief Executive on the individual in charge.  Incoming board members have a different relationship with the Executive Director and may alter the Board-CEO chemistry.  The evolution of the board and its expectations over five years is one of the silent contributors to Executive Director turnover.

Secondly, there is an underlying need to reinvent ours approach every five to seven years.  Educational institutions with a culture of inquiry encourage faculty members to engage in a significant self-audit and re-imagine their teaching approach.  This evolution is challenging in a classroom and a real hire wire act in the role of Chief Executive.  If an organization has established a circle of safety then their leader may feel safe refreshing their management philosophy.  However, if trust and empathy are absent it is easier to stick with the tried and true.  Sadly, the opportunity for innovation and a deeper human connection are lost and friction increases.  Withholding the scaffolding for executive renewal may ensure outward appearances are positive but the structural integrity of the organization often falters.

How do we keep the best leaders engaged?  With the most significant leadership turnover in the social sector is underway, what steps can we take to nurture those who a uniquely positioned to lead our enterprise?

The Virtual Leader

Giro d’Italia Malliot Rose

In a cycling stage race there often times when a group of breakaway riders gets far enough in front of the main peleton (pack) that one of the riders in the escape becomes the virtual leader of the race.  By calculating the time gaps it is easy to claim that one rider leads the race if the race were to stop at that moment.  The thing is that most times the gaps compress if not disappear all together as the race reaches the finish and the virtual lead is erased.  Since race organizers only award the race leadership jersey at the end of each stage based on the results, there is not a lot of power in being the virtual leader.  There is a high level of recognition for being the race leader, complete with a podium celebration, awarding of the jersey, interviews, special starting spot, and dedicated coverage from television and media at the professional level.

Concentrate on the destination.  Measuring yourself against others enroute is a bit irrelevant compared to where you stand at the destination.  



Membership is not a card you purchase.  It is not a discount you receive at a bookstore or gift shop.  Enrolling in a cause does not include filling out a form or getting early access to tickets.  Membership is not a priority line or badge. It is not about being listed in an annual report or having your name etched on a wall.  Membership is about what you can do to enhance a cause.  It is an action not a status.

Do not confuse frequent patronage with inclusion in a tribe.  If you joined because of features and benefits then the relationship is transactional.  If you joined because you recognized an opportunity to have an impact and have something to contribute then enrollment occurs when you join those who are ready to lead.

Make it Yours

Why do so many causes mirror their competition and partners?  I received four end-of-the-year appeal letters this week that all started with the same opening line.  At the airport this morning a person told me all the facts and figures about the nonprofit they serve.  When I asked them how it compared to similar enterprises in their community, this inspired individual told me many more facts and figures.  I immediately recalled attempting to select a new mobile phone number this week.  The phone company representative who I was speaking with offered numerous four digit options in rapid fire.  I could not even write the numbers down since they came so quickly.  Finally, the agent suggested one that seemed easy to grasp.  This was not remarkable, it was simply convenient.

My focus is to inspire causes to create their identity theirs and not be defined by your neighbors metrics.  Own your purpose and wear it.  Tell me what you believe and then have the facts and figures to answer my specific questions.  Be authentic, insist your enterprise’s actions are consistent with the cause’s stated purpose.  Why overwhelm those who are being introduced to your cause with bizarre.  Most house tours I have received do not start out with the owner stating the framing was 2″ x 6″.  They talk about how the home serves their lifestyle.  Guests should be able to see, feel, touch, and feel an organization’s vibe.  Create an environment that brings forth your best ideas.  If that means assembling in front of a campfire in folding camping chairs then bring the marshmallows.  Duplication simply folds you into the batter and you are destine for a cookie cutter.  Please stand out, we need the inspiration you generate!   

Sharing Organizational Values

The behavior of the leadership of your organization says much about your organization’s values.  If you put your leadership in special uniforms and elevate their status they are easier to spot and their actions send a definitive message to those who work with them.

What message is your leadership team sending to your followers?

*In the New York Police Department, the white shirt usually represents an individual in command.

The Spotlight

Leadership is not about standing in the spotlight and talking about yourself.  Leadership is getting others to stand in the spotlight and empowering them to share their gifts.  The stage is a platform from which one can preach or engage.  If you find yourself talking about ‘my’ or ‘I’, perhaps your motivation is the celebrity of the title and the accoutrements of office.  If you speak about ‘we’ and ‘us’ then you are representing the tribe that is united around a belief.  Leaders work the spotlight seamlessly, moving its beam to illuminate the highlights of those who have volunteered.  Leaders stand it the spotlight’s glare when accountability is needed, apologizes are required, and contrition is appropriate.  If you find yourself squinting, perhaps you need to exit stage left and allow the talents of your team to shine.  Our job as leaders is to cast the roles and direct the play, not take the lead.

I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

Nelson Mandela- on the day he was released from prison

Can You Leave?

In college I had a friend who worked at a fitness store.  A couple owned the business and one of them was always at the front desk working the cash register.  If the store was open, you were sure to see one of the two behind the desk.  It was wonderful that they were the face of the store but they never got to leave.  Social sector enterprises that have term limits for board members need to be anticipate the rotation of leadership.  You cannot always have the same individuals in leadership (some try).  

How do you prepare for board rotation?  How do you establish a sense of purpose sufficiently enough that a founder might be able to let go?  Is you CEO able to go on holiday?

Martin Luther King did not march from Selma to Montgomery with five friends.  If he had it would have not received nearly the same level of media attention and probably would not be part of the civil rights narrative.  Instead, Martin Luther King accepted everyone who believed that there was problem and a better future existed.  Have you considered the question, “who is volunteering to join your cause?”  You may not know everyone who has enrolled.  Some may be friends of friends and far beyond your network.  Word of mouth is a difficult metric to track but a powerful point of engagement.  As Simon Sinek says, “a leader is only a leader when people are willing to follow them.  Structuring people’s role is about managing, not leading.”  Have you collected a following that has a desire to help others?