Executive Growth Is a Journey, Not a Destination
by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP
One of the hardest challenges facing the nonprofit sector is how to attract, retain, and develop senior management—executive directors, chief operating officers, chief financial officers, and other executives—so critical to the health, survival, and success of any organization. All too often, boards and executive directors alike don’t place enough emphasis on strategies to develop executive leadership and management. And it is important for executive directors and other senior managers to look inside themselves to understand how they need to grow and develop their skills and approaches to continue to serve their constituencies.
Executive directors in organizations experiencing rapid growth often have trouble keeping pace with what they and their organizations are facing. They primarily learn “on the job,” running as fast as they can to keep up with a constantly changing world. As one executive said recently, “I’m an educator. I know how to teach kids and develop curriculum. I’ve never been trained to be a manager and all of a sudden my days are consumed with a growing organization, budgets, administration, plans, and stuff like that—management!” This is not a problem unique to nonprofits; I remember a friend commiserating on how firms in the private sector advance their management: “We knight them, instead of train them!”
Often, we don’t appreciate how performance expectations are changing around us, while we’re still working to yesterday’s standard or expectation. And, this cycle never ends. There is an anecdotal “rule of thumb” in management described as the “Theory of 2’s,” which suggests that the most traumatic changes for organizations and their leaders come when a organization grows from 2 to 20 people, from 20 to 200, 200 to 2000, and so on. Not only do I believe this, I have lived it. My own experience taught me that growth, success, political risk, and other internal and external factors all create increased expectations, and, just when you think you’ve mastered these increased expectations, they change again. Over time you realize that continual self-improvement and adjustment is the norm.
As organizations grow and executive directors find themselves in very different roles, it is tempting to use a stop-gap approach for a larger, systemic problem. Sometimes, a board member or even the executive director may suggest bringing in an “executive coach.” While executive coaching can certainly be valuable, it oftentimes puts a Band-Aid on what is a much more fundamental issue. Executive coaching should be viewed as one of a series of steps that is part of an ongoing process of growth and development. Some of these additional steps should include:
Whenever I make this suggestion, the immediate question is “How do you find this person?” First, look around and see if you already know someone who has the experience and wisdom to help. If not, you—and your board—should keep this as a conscious goal as you select new board members, seek advisors, and recruit members of the management team. I was very fortunate that several people came into my life through these channels—the co-founder of the firm we created was my partner for more than a dozen years and played the role of alter ego, guide, and coach; the head of the firm that invested in us became a trusted advisor; and a chairman and CEO we brought in later in the company’s evolution helped me adjust, yet again, to changing expectations. After all this time, they’re still there when I need help.
Finally, realize that the core of leadership and management comes from within—who you are, the values you live by, and the way in which you relate to, learn from, and respect others. Recognize that you alone are ultimately responsible for your professional and personal growth and ensure you reach out to others to learn and to grow. Your board should hold you accountable for growth, and, more importantly, you must also be accountable to yourself. Always remember that expectations change and increase over time, and you need to change as well.
This advice applies, in some form, to each of us. Learning and growing, in preparation for the next phase of our careers or, more importantly our lives, should never stop.