3 Considerations to Ensure the Right Nonprofit Leadership at the Right time

ensure the right nonprofit leadership
What makes a great leader? The answers to this question vary greatly. However there is a framework for for considering context specific skills that afford the competencies that an organization needs in its leadership.

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Organization change can mean a need for different leadership competencies, because some leadership needs are context specific. Context specific competencies represent one of the three areas that The Bridgespan Group’s recent summary/meta-analysis espouse make a good leader: general competencies, context specific competencies, and core values/beliefs. While Bridgespan asserts agreement that these three areas are what matters, the specific skills or traits needed in each area vary with the organization and role. The article link is below.

Why does context impact competency? During change management, context matters more than ever. In order for change to stick, an evolution in culture must begin to happen. Leaders must have the skills to positively impact culture through clear, consistent communication that keeps the end goal in mind. Additionally, once change takes place, the needs of the organization become much different. Most of us have seen a founder of an organization do amazing things as the organization grows. However, the founder’s skill set is different from the leadership skills needed to sustain an organization’s impact over time.  Additionally, as organizations evolve in a healthy way, they often grow. Growth means that communication systems must change; methods for communicating with a staff of five or ten is much different from a staff of fifty. Growth often means an ability to offer better pay and benefits and attract more talented staff to different positions. As this takes place, the leadership and supervision style of the leader must change because the staff s/he is supervising require less daily oversight but more challenge to help them think strategically.  Sometimes leaders fail to grow with the organization and the skills that worked in one context fail to work in the new context.

I once worked with an organization that grew from a staff of twelve to sixty-five and from one program model to five program models.  I supervised a senior leader who was highly effective when we built one program from the ground up. However, when she began to manage several managers and her role was more strategic thinking and risk management, she and everyone she supervised worked really hard all the time but we weren’t seeing many results. Everyone was constantly confused.  Her hands-on approach to program management worked in the smaller setting, but good communication and managing less directly was the new (context specific) skill that was needed. She didn’t have it.  Context matters. She was an amazing leader for a length of time, but we reached a point where she was no longer the right leader at the right time.

Three key considerations for ensuring the right leadership at the right time:

  1. Rework job descriptions to include leadership competencies and update them regularly enough to adjust the context specific ones when there is organization or role change. Ensuring that needed competencies are included in the job description gives clarity to the organization during the hiring process, makes these skills a clear part of job expectations for the person in the role, and makes it easier to add these skills as a part of a person’s annual goals (number two).
  2. Work context specific leadership skills into each employee’s annual goals and make them a part of their annual review too. Some managers do better than others at ensuring employees have clear, measurable goals they are working toward. When they do exist, in most cases they are task driven goals. If the employee needs some growth in one competency area, make sure this skill/competency makes it onto the goal sheet and that there are some clear examples of what this competency looks like in action. This makes it more natural to talk about the employee’s development around the competency and in the annual review process. After all, regular feedback is key and there should be few to no surprises in an annual review.
  3. Consider a coach to help leaders evolve their competencies, especially during change. If an employee needs to shift a basic part of his or her leadership style, sometimes coaching is the answer. When someone has been leading with one style, it is very hard to change.  There is a pattern that is already established. Most managers don’t have the time to truly invest in coaching; they can “manage” successfully but coaching is a whole other thing. It is unfortunate to see a good employee failing because of one habit or the lack of one skill.  Sometimes coaching can help. Coaching is not managing. Non-profits don’t typically have resources for coaching, but foundations are increasingly seeing the value in it. Consider making a pitch.

Are there things you might add that help to build context specific leadership competencies?  Or examples of why they matter?


ensure the right nonprofit leadership