Monday, February 20, 2006

Where Are the Young Leaders of Not-For-Profit Organizations

Having family that hails from Cleveland, OH, I occasionally peruse the Cleveland Plain Dealer online. Today I came across an interesting article on the leadership of not-for-profit organizations. Since that's where I'm at, it peeked my interest. I was very fortunate to spend five years at ZION Development Corporation here in Rockford. My time there was probably the best investment in my future that I've made. I certainly wouldn't have been prepared for my current position without that time at ZION.

The realities of not for profit leadership (I've stopped saying "non-proft," these organizations can and should make money, that just isn't the reason for their existence) are that it is exceedingly difficult for "younger" people to break into top leadership positions. I often feel a bit out of place given the combination of my position and my age (regardless of the fact that the Coalition is tiny). Getting to the position of executive director of a larger organization is very difficult, and there are currently very few significant not for profit organizations that have the top position filled by people under the age of 50, much less 40. Even in the Plain Dealer article, the young leaders either started new organizations or their ages aren't given.

So, what does it take for younger people (under 45) to reach the leadership positions of not for profit organizations?

Know your strengths and weaknesses. It seems as though a lot of leaders are willing to let folks know what they are doing right. The reality is that human beings have weaknesses. While I'm not advocating for the public disclosure of your weaknesses, it is wise to know what they are so that you can surround yourself with people who are strong in those areas. I'm a firm believer in hiring and working with people who are smarter than I am. If my goal is to be the brightest and the best then I will be focusing on my ego rather than meeting the needs of the community. Fill in the knowledge/skill gaps so that everyone knows that the needs are being met. That is the job of a leader. If you are focusing on leading and not on meeting needs, then you aren't doing either one well.
Be willing to start small. My first leadership role in a not for profit was a tiny organization in the mid-90's. I was going to school to become a teacher, but the organization needed an interim executive director. When I left teaching to join ZION, I was working for a well-known, but still small not for profit. I placed myself in a position to learn from what I still consider to be the leader in the field locally. My move to the Coalition was back to a tiny organization that did work related to my experience at ZION, but different enough that I (and others around me) would avoid making comparisons between the two.
Make friends. This may sound a bit trite, but getting along with people is very important! No one can go it alone. If you spend your time getting angry at people for not sharing your vision, you will quickly find yourself alone. While that may allow you to pursue your vision, it may also come crashing down on you when hard times hit. If, on the other hand, even your adversaries respect you, hard times will be fewer and further between. You don't have to give up your vision, you have to understand that there are a lot of other people who have a stake in the outcome, and their vision may not be the same as yours. If you can at least get along with them, you may end up with happier stakeholders when the job is complete. That may be better than having your vision realized when all is said and done.
Take the time to learn. Some of the people who are farther along in their careers encourage the younger set to be patient. That is much easier said than done. Still, it sure beats rushing into something and finding out that you don't know nearly enough to do the job effectively. It should be obvious that I greatly appreciate the time I spent at ZION simply because it was a great training ground. The reality is that its much easier to learn from other people's mistakes than it is to commit them needlessly. It is also good to spend time learning because you may find yourself realizing that certain dreams and visions that you have may not really be in anyone's best interests. Why rush out to start an organization if you will find yourself questioning that organizations existence five years down the road. Learn first so you don't have to relearn later.
Admit mistakes and fix them. Everyone makes mistakes. It is much better to admit it and fix them than to brush them under the rug and hope they disappear. They don't disappear. And the mistakes don't have to be yours. If your staff person makes a mistake, it is likely going to be an organizational mistake. As the senior staff person, you represent the organization, so you are responsible for admitting it and fixing it. The mistakes may have been made by your predecessor. You still have to admit them and fix them. That is what happens when you lead an organization. At the same time, I'm a firm believer in Guy Kawasaki's phrase "Judge others by their intentions, judge yourself by your results" (note: some people may find portions of this link offensive or disgusting as it covers far more than this quote. I'm a believer in giving links, read at your own discretion). A staff person might make an honest mistake. That happens. You fix it and move on. The staffer will know a mistake was made. You don't have to beat them up over minor stuff.
Act with integrity. I was asked recently about a hiring decision that a friend had to make. My friend wasn't sure if the person was being honest with them, but the person was really talented, smart and fit what they were looking for. What should they do? The fact that I was being asked was a clear sign to stay clear of the potential hire. In a best case scenario, the employer would be constantly looking over the new staffer's shoulder, regardless of whether or not the person is honest. In a worst case scenario, the staffer would give the organization a black eye or worse due to their dishonesty (note: that is different than making honest mistakes!). Value integrity. Expect integrity. I demand it of myself, even when I know that no one would ever know. If I cave in the little areas, I'll eventually cave in the big ones. Since I don't want to go there in the long run, I refuse to start now.

This list is far from exhaustive, but I view it as a good start. I'd be interested in hearing other thoughts. I know I'm not the only under-45 executive director out there. What have some others learned?