One of the common problems we see in our nonprofit consulting work is a mismatch between the skills of the executive and the needs of the organization – such as the need to grow, change, or restructure due to changes in the environment.
Further, we often watch board members, staff, and the executive struggle to articulate the problem and make progress toward a resolution without the models or the words to describe their situation in ways that others can understand. Often, our organizational assessments and strategic planning projects uncover this particular issue – the mismatch at the top – and the deep frustrations it causes on all sides.
The best way we know of to think about and talk about this dynamic is through a model that describes “four levels” of nonprofit management, each aligned to particular phases in the nonprofit lifecycle. (For those familiar with the concept, these levels are somewhat different in nonprofits than in for-profits.)
In the nonprofit sector, the four levels can be described in the following terms:
- The Entrepreneur executive is the innovator who gets the organization started, is great at motivating people around mission, and can “do it all,” from delivering programs to raising money, staffing the board, and setting up organizational structures. Frustration sets in when it is time to really delegate. In his book The E-Myth, author Michael E. Gerber calls this, “working in the business and not on the business.”
- The Manager executive is needed for the next phase: They’re skilled at managing people, programs, and processes to keep the organization growing. Change and innovation slow down while internal structures and policies are built, and the right people are brought on board to deliver programs and services. In our practice, we refer to this as a kind of “mom and pop” operation, where everything is still within the executive’s span of control.
- The CEO executive (internal) grows the organization and manages a limited span of control, meaning fewer reports and more delegation. This executive focuses on pushing growth, building the culture, and ensuring people have the resources to perform. Systems and internal leaders are already established; program design and decisions go to a leadership team; and the board focuses on strategic issues that strengthen impact and support the organization’s growth.
- The CEO executive (external) takes their impact to the sector at large, spending at least half their time leading outside the organization by chairing collaborations, moving public policy, and influencing other organizations. To do this well, this executive must have a strong organization behind them, with people empowered to lead and sound business practices that keep the organization moving forward.
As you can see, each level requires different skills and approaches in an executive. Some executives can grow their skills along with the organization, but many times the organization will grow faster than the executive can adapt or build new skills. There is often conflict at this stage, made worse by a board unable to identify or articulate the problem to the executive.
For that reason, we must invest more in helping executives gain the skills to move up, or in identifying what an executive does best, and then honoring that.
Kathy Keeley is EVP, programs and a senior consultant at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, the parent company of Work for Good.