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For about 7 years now I have been paying attention to the basic concept of leadership transition in non-profits. At first there the conversation was about the lack of transition planning with dual concerns about “older executives” not trusting emerging leaders to take the reins and the perceived lack of work/life balance in the executive position.

About 4 years ago, the conversation didn’t focus as much about the old folks getting out of the way, (even though most of those who said they planned to retire hadn’t). There was still concerns about lack of both succession planning and opportunity for work-life balance.

Even more recently, it has been noted that the expected mass exodus of non-profit executives still hasn’t happened. There was still a concern about succession planning, though the need for boards to pursue good governance started to come into focus.

Last week Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) drew attention to a study of non-profits conducted by Third Sector New England that examined the issue of executive transition.  The study findings reflect further development of the trends seen in past studies.

Actually, the one finding that hasn’t changed is that “Nearly two-thirds of responding leaders said they will be leaving their jobs within five years, and 30% are planning to depart in the next two years.”

The report notes that number has been consistent for at least a decade and the expected exodus hasn’t occurred yet.

The way things are going, discussion about leadership dying off is going to eclipse comments about audiences dying off.

But per NPQ, there really isn’t a great push for current executives to move aside to allow new blood to take over. Partially because there isn’t a lot of new blood interested in taking over.

…the troubles in leadership transitions may be on the “demand” rather than the “supply side.” In other words, the challenge may not lie in the supply of competent emerging leaders, as has been heralded in the past, but with the attractiveness of the job of executive.

Whether  a result of a realization of this fact or a recognition of the larger issues at hand, the focus has shifted from a need for a succession plan to replace a single person to the need for a plan to sustain the organization as a whole. (my emphasis)

“SHIFT the framework for succession planning to deep sustainability.

“It is time to change how the sector thinks about and approaches succession planning. Succession planning is not just about preparing for an individual leader transition; nor should it be viewed as a technical fix or a transactional exercise. Rather, it is about ensuring organizational sustainability by identifying and addressing key vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader, funder, strategy, or way of thinking. Succession planning touches on everything from framing choices for the future (including asking whether the organization should exist), developing sustainable business models, to strengthening staff and board leadership—in essence, all the core activities needed to support the success of the organization’s mission and its leaders over time.”

As part of the recognition that the success of the organization doesn’t revolve around identifying and hiring a single talented leader, the report also extends the concept of the importance of focusing on board governance.

SHIFT the vision for governance.

The expectations and responsibilities of boards need to shift in favor of governance over fundraising, and that means developing a shared vision for the organization, along with strategies to implement that vision, achieving operational excellence, and, yes, finding the resources to support the work. A short-term focus on fundraising undermines long-term sustainability and leads to continued dissatisfaction between leaders and their boards. This shift will not only require a shared understanding of what is effective and impactful governance, it calls for a higher level of engagement and learning together between leaders and boards – changing what may be a transactional partnership into a generative and transformative one…

This will likely be an important step in making the role of executive director an attractive undertaking again. Per NPQ:

“Among the notable findings of this report is that approximately 23 percent of respondents reported being recruited into what was essentially a turnaround situation—slightly more than reported taking over a stable organization.”

Given only 22% reported taking over stable organizations, the other 78% were in iffy to dire circumstances. That takes a toll on the existing leadership and makes for unattractive prospects for potential leaders. The biggest concerns respondents had were focused on work-life balance and personal health factors.

There are other interesting findings and suggestions contained in the study. One significant area of recommendation is abandoning overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness. Momentum seems to continue to grow around that issue.

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Best Leaders Are Internally Motivated

There was a post on the Harvard Business Review blog site about a recent leadership study – Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead.

According to the study, people with an internal motivation to lead are more effective than those with external motivations. More surprising, a person who has a mix of internal and external motivations, does very poorly.

“As one might predict, we found that those with internal, intrinsic motives performed better than those with external, instrumental rationales for their service — a common finding in studies of motivation. We were surprised to find, however, that those with both internal and external rationales proved to be worse investments as leaders than those with fewer, but predominantly internal, motivations. Adding external motives didn’t make leaders perform better — additional motivations reduced the selection to top leadership by more than 20%. Thus, external motivations, even atop strong internal motivations, were leadership poison.

Many believe that the best way to influence behavior is to incentivize it, and such external incentives certainly work with lab rats. In our study, however, adding external incentives clearly did not improve leader performance.”

and later

“If those we seek to develop as leaders adopt external justifications for leading well — such as an increase in shareholder value, better pay or perquisites, or increased profits — they are likely to be less successful as leaders in comparison to those who seek to lead for more internal, intrinsic reasons alone.”

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you probably can see where my mind is going here. These results made me wonder if non-profit leaders might not make the most effective leaders since internal motivation for doing the job is all but given.

Now remember, effective leader doesn’t necessarily equate to successful. This is a “if you are so smart, why ain’t you rich” situation. Non-profit organizations are notoriously underfunded and lack the resources to achieve the success they aspire to. Not to mention many are pursuing work which others won’t because there is no profit to be made.

Likewise non-profit leaders may make really stupid choices because there was never any time to properly develop and cultivate them throughout their careers. (Not that this type of grooming has kept their for-profit colleagues from making stupendous mistakes either.)

Yes, I am flirting with suggesting that for-profit corporations pull something akin to the movie Trading Places consider looking for effective leaders in non-profit organizations (sans the whole bet thing).

Yes, this regrettably will take talent out of the field, but it would put them in a place with greater resources to provide their leadership skills with more impact. Without maximizing shareholder value as a central goal, the general business environment may shift for the better. Though that might be as big a fantasy as the movie.

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Do You Underestimate The Customer’s Journey?

Inc Magazine recently had an article of 100 Great Questions Every Entrepreneur Should Ask. As you might imagine, there was a lot in the list that have relevance to non-profit organizations.

Some deal with topics that continually arise in conversations about the arts like relevance; allowing a pursuit of funding to divert the organization from its mission; and what metrics are being used to define success.

1 How can we become the company that would put us out of business? -Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group

2 Are we relevant? Will we be relevant five years from now? Ten? -Debra Kaye, innovation consultant and author

52. If our company went out of business tomorrow, would anyone who doesn’t get a paycheck here care? -Dan Pink

6. What trophy do we want on our mantle? – Marcy Massura, a digital marketer and brand strategist at MSL Group
Massura explains, “Not every business determines success the same way.Is growth most important to you? Profitability? Stability?”

7. Do we have bad profits? -Jonathan L. Byrnes, author and senior lecturer at MIT
Byrnes explains, “Some investments look attractive, but they also take the company’s capital and focus away from its main line of business.”

8. What counts that we are not counting? -Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and head of global hospitality for Airbnb
Conley explains, “In any business, we measure cash flow, profitability, and a few other key metrics. But what are the tangible and intangible assets that we have no means of measuring, but that truly differentiate our business? These may be things like the company’s reputation, employee engagement, and the brand’s emotional resonance with people inside and outside the business.”

Others focus on customers/audiences.

10. Are we paying enough attention to the partners our company depends on to succeed? -Ron Adner, author and professor at Tuck School of Business
Adner explains, “Even companies that execute well themselves are vulnerable to the missteps of suppliers, distributors, and others.”

17. Which customers can’t participate in our market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions? -Clayton Christensen, author, Harvard Business School professor, and co-founder of Innosight

21. Who, on the executive team or the board, has spoken to a customer recently? -James Champy, author and management expert

32. Do we underestimate the customer’s journey? -Matt Dixon, author and executive director of research at CEB
Dixon explains, “Often, companies don’t understand the entirety of the customer’s experience and how many channels may have already failed them. They don’t understand that the customer goes to the website first, pokes around but can’t find the answer to their question, and then tries to start up a chat with an agent, only to get frustrated by the delayed response. Only then do they go to the Contact Us tab and call. From the company’s perspective, the call is square one. The customer sees it as, you’ve already wasted 15 minutes of my time.”

62. Do we say “no” to customers for no reason? -Matt Dixon
You may have created your customer policies at a time when you lacked resources, technology wasn’t up-to-snuff, or low service levels were the industry norm. Have those circumstances changed? If so, your customer policies should change to

Number 17 needs no explanation. I actually was somewhat reassured by the fact that for-profit business faced the same challenges about education/skills, access and wealth that non-profit arts organizations do.

I was drawn to #32 because it is so easy to be unaware of all the hurdles a customer faces when dealing with you.

Number 62 also strongly grabbed my attention because it emphasizes the need to constantly revisit and revise your policy. It had particular significance to me because I recently discovered that a practice I assumed was due to technical limitations was erroneous, and was in fact just a matter of history and habit. As a result, we will be selling new subscriptions two weeks earlier this year than in the past.

Number 10 I read both as not giving customers what they need to have a successful experience, but related to partners and colleagues as well. Are you paying attention to the health of businesses you depend on as well as that of other arts organizations in the community? Even if they are doing fine, could more clearly communicating your needs to them lead to a more efficient outcome for both of you? Could mutually beneficial partnerships result, strengthening both organizations?

Some of the question were focused on strengthening your company internally in terms of thinking, planning and self/employee development.

3. If energy were free, what would we do differently? -Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos
Hsieh explains, “This is a thought experiment to see how you would reconfigure the business if you had different resources available or knew that different resources would one day become available. Another question might be, what if storage was free? Or what if labor costs half as much or twice as much?”

9. In the past few months, what is the smallest change we have made that has had the biggest positive result? What was it about that small change that produced the large return? -Robert Cialdini, author and professor emeritus of marketing and psychology at Arizona State University

16. If no one would ever find out about my accomplishments, how would I lead differently? -Adam Grant, author and professor at Wharton

22. Did my employees make progress today? -Teresa Amabile, author and Harvard Business School professor
Amabile explains, “Forward momentum in employees’ work has the greatest positive impact on their motivation.”

37. Am I failing differently each time? -David Kelley, founder, IDEO

The last one about embracing failure is a familiar topic of discussion even in the arts community today.

These last few (though there are many like them in the article) remind business leaders to be introspective of themselves and their companies. It is easy to overlook things like the change that made the biggest impact, or even attribute the impact to something else unless you stop and think about the true source. Certainly paying attention to progress of employees is one way small changes can manifest as big impacts over the course of a few months.

Perhaps the toughest of these last handful of questions is #16 because it challenges you set aside your ego in order to be a more effective leader.

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Care and Feeding of Arts Workers

There was a good example of the importance of good leadership and management in the context of orchestras in a recent post on The Drucker Exchange.

Although the post starts out using the example of basketball teams, it ends up citing Peter Drucker’s observation that as a knowledge based institution,

“A great orchestra is not composed of great instrumentalists but of adequate ones who produce at their peak,” he wrote in Managing in the Next Society. “When a new conductor is hired to turn around an orchestra that has suffered years of drifting and neglect, he cannot, as a rule, fire any but a few of the sloppiest of most superannuated players. He also cannot as a rule hire many new orchestra members. He has to make productive what he has inherited.”

The passage in Managing the Next Society that is quoted is preceded a few paragraphs earlier with “In a traditional workforce, the worker serves the system; in a knowledge workforce, the system must serve the worker.”

Orchestra musicians may not appreciate being characterized as “adequate,” but they all know that their ensemble thrives as a group, not on the specific talents of each individual. It is the music director or similar leader who often creates the environment which allows the whole to thrive.

This is much the case in arts administration staffs. There are very few superstars that multiple organizations engage in a bidding war to woo away. (Though I grant it might be helpful to have more exemplars people strive to be. Drew McManus can’t bear the adulation by himself.)

Most arts organizations are staffed by adequately skilled employees who are on the cusp of becoming great with the help of the right management of their talents and work environment. Some of that management is probably going to require better pay and professional development opportunities. It may also require scrutinizing organizational culture, shifting job responsibilities and revamping the physical work environment.

While the focus of all this seems to be on identifying good leaders and managers who will point the way to success, recall that Drucker points out that the workforce has to generally be left intact. They are the core resource of the organization with which the leader must work.

Knowledge workers aren’t like gold fish which will thrive if fed and put in a bigger, cleaner fish bowl. Dealing with them is far more complicated. It is by their will and agreement that success occurs.

A good leader or manager is merely one who perceives how to best structure the system to serve the workers. A leader shouldn’t conflate their ability with the value of the organization. Ultimately, audiences will come to see a bad orchestra before they come to see a music director in an empty room.

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