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December, 2015

Four Signs That It’s Time for Nonprofit Leadership to Move On

 

Jan 2013 Portrait BW

In last week’s blog post, I laid out five arguments for longevity in nonprofit leadership. This week, I’m taking the opposite view. When is it time for an executive director to be replaced?

If it’s time go when the writing is on the wall, what might the writing say? Here are four things that signal time for leadership change.

Number 1: The exec is on autopilot. What does this mean? It means that the exec is keeping his or her seat warm, showing up at meetings, signing documents and posing for pictures. It means the exec has forgotten how to start something new or isn’t interested in taking on new challenges. An exec like this is a drag on an organization.

Number 2: The exec won’t adapt. Adaptation is a key component of effective leadership. A leader who won’t adapt to technology, political changes, diversity and new funding expectations keeps his/her organization stuck in the past. Nostalgia is great but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Number 3: The exec has an excessive number of enemies. In last week’s post, I talked about how an organization’s persona often takes on the characteristics of its leadership. This is both a positive and a negative. An exec that has burned a lot of bridges curtails transportation for everyone in his/her organization. [An interesting note: interagency animosity is often handed down from generation to generation.]

Number 4: The exec has lost the trust of his/her board of directors. This is really the death knell for an executive director. When the board of directors doubts the exec’s intentions or word, when the board questions every decision because they don’t trust the exec’s judgment, when board members communicate directly to staff rather than going through the exec, that’s big, big trouble and a signal that it’s time for new leadership.

I still tend to think that longevity in nonprofit leadership is a plus. But necessary for successful longevity is the need for executive directors to keep themselves current, energetic and positively engaged. Those execs who have figured out how to play the long game are gems in the nonprofit world. If you know one, pat him or her on the back. And take notes. There’s a lot to learn from the senior class.

 

 

Five Arguments for Longevity in Nonprofit Leadership

WilbergProfile

Two extremes in local nonprofit leadership: recently hired LISC Executive Director Laura Bray resigned after only four months on the job and Lupe Martinez marks 40 years as Executive Director of UMOS.

Ms. Bray’s experience is unusual in Milwaukee. Generally, leaders of nonprofit organizations tend to have significantly longer tenure and some, like UMOS, have directors, who, if they aren’t founders, certainly seem like they are.

So one wonders: is longevity in nonprofit leadership a good thing or a bad thing? Here are five arguments in favor of executive directors staying with it over the long haul.

Number 1: Successful nonprofits flourish in a web of relationships with constituents, funders, elected officials, media, government bureaucrats and other organizations. Those relationships aren’t between organizations. They are between people. A long term executive director has hundreds of these relationships – major and minor – critical and casual – that are impossible to replicate.

Number 2: An executive transition takes a huge bite out of an organization’s productivity. First, there is the executive search. This is something that consumes enormous staff and board time and energy. Then there is the learning curve. Even the sharpest new exec will need months to be working at full capacity. This could extend to a couple of years depending on the quality of staff already on board.

Number 3: The old adage that funders fund people, not organizations is absolutely true.  Fundamentally, a funding source (public or private) needs to trust that their funding will be used wisely and effectively. At the end of the day, funders need to look good, need to be able to demonstrate impact. They do that on an objective level with grant proposals and evaluation results and on a gut level using their belief in and trust of the executive leadership. Lose the executive leadership and there will be a lot of rebuilding to do with funders.

Number 4: Organizations headed by stable executive leadership tend to take on the ‘personality’ of the executive. So ways of approaching problems, discussing solutions, representing the organization to the public are patterned after the exec’s modus operandi. An organization’s internal management style can be completely thrown in the air with a change in executive leadership. Yes, sometimes this needs to be done. But often, it’s a completely unintended consequence of a leadership change.

Number 5: It only takes a few executive leadership changes for people to regard and organization as ‘unstable’ or ‘shaky.’ Especially in Milwaukee, where leadership tends to stay in place, executive tenures of two or three years get people talking about an organization’s ‘revolving door.’ Maybe it seems unreasonable but it’s true. And the perception of instability is not helpful for community standing, funding or board development.

These are just some of the things to consider in the discussion of executive leadership longevity. Next week, I’ll present some alternative arguments: why (and when) changing executive leadership is a smart thing.

 

A Good Board Wants to Hear the Bad News

Jan Portrait 3 (2)

If you run a nonprofit organization, you probably already know this: what your board doesn’t know can cause you big problems.

Recently, a long time Milwaukee nonprofit hit the front pages with the news that its board of directors had suspended operations after discovering serious financial problems. While the details are still unfolding, one thing is strongly implied. The board of directors seems to have been surprised.

Now what I’m going to say doesn’t pertain directly to this most current organization since we don’t yet know all the details. But I’ve been in both positions – nonprofit staff and nonprofit board and I speak from that experience.

Surprises aren’t always bad. Boards love surprises like news of a big grant or receipt of a national award. Those are great surprises.

Financial problems, personnel messes, program issues – those are all surprises that boards don’t love. Surprise is the key word here.

A good board wants to hear the bad news. The problem is that, too often, the staff doesn’t want to tell the board bad news. So they omit negative things from board reports, gloss over problems or take the posture that the issue is too complex for the board to understand. Minimizing problems marginalizes the board. And board members don’t like that. They joined a board of directors to be involved, helpful and smart. Board members want their talents and resources to be used, otherwise, they think: why am I here?

When an organization hums along with routine, boring board meetings where critical issues are rarely discussed in any real depth and then something blows the lid off a problem, say, a very bad audit or inability to make payroll, board members tend to get very upset. They feel duped. They feel like staff purposely kept them in the dark. They lose trust in the staff. And that is a terrible thing for a nonprofit. Distrust between board and staff can sink the entire enterprise.

Trust is built on honesty, communication and solving problems together. Strong, effective boards reflect strong, effective staff’s commitment to sharing the good news and the bad news with no extra varnish. Just the facts. Look around at the most successful organizations. This is what they’re doing: making sure the board of directors is always totally in the know.

How healthy is your board staff relationship? Maybe time to do a little check-up!