Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: February 2004

February 04, 2004

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:

  • Find an alter ego, a guide and coach that will be with you a while. Everyone needs one. I still turn to key people who I have full trust in, who will level with me, serve as a check-and-balance when I get overzealous, tell me when I’m being an idiot or wrong, and push or encourage me when they think it’s needed. Hard to find? You bet, but I can’t say strongly enough how building this relationship with someone you trust and confide in can help you (and your organization) grow. There’s a lot of truth to the saying “it’s lonely at the top” and the more you grow, the lonelier it can become. We all need someone to remind us to stay focused, push us to be honest to ourselves, or be the nudge on our shoulder that adds an additional touch of conscience to our actions.

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.

  • Have a few board members who provide counsel. As I said in last month’s column, I firmly believe that executives need to develop close relationships with one or two members of their board who will have the time and be able share insight and advice, both personally and managerially. If you don’t have those relationships right now, we urge you to recruit people for your board who can provide that guidance. Developing close relationships with them—people who have been where you need to grow—helps you navigate through leadership and management challenges you’ve not faced before.
  • Hire up! Hire people you will learn from, who will challenge and push you to grow. This, obviously, requires balance. You can develop some folks from within, but don’t be afraid to “rattle the system” and bring in someone from the outside whose experience and knowledge can help raise the bar for the whole team. The sports world sometimes says the greatest athletes are those who raise the play of the others on the team. Same thing here—bring in people who raise your play and that of the organization.
  • Reach out to others. Admitting we need help is sometimes hard because we think it displays vulnerability. I’ve found, though, that most people welcome being asked for advice. When you’re facing a problem for the first time, again, reach out to those who have “been there” and benefit from their hard-learned lessons. This again is where the members of your board can be of great value, helping to introduce you to people in their networks who can provide this advice.
  • If you decide you need (or want) assistance in the form of executive coaching, make certain you find the right person. “Executive coaching” is an amorphous term—there are various modes of delivery and, unfortunately, a lack of consistency in execution. Look for executive consultants and advisors who will address your specific needs: time management, focus, interpersonal skills, delegation, etc. We also encourage you to pinpoint defined areas of need, rather than simply relegating the resolution to the generic label of “executive coaching.” If you’re not sure what those needs are, ask your board, your team, your advisors, and then spend time in introspection before bringing an executive consultant or advisor into the mix. And, be sure that the executive coach works in tandem with your other resources—not as a “lone ranger.”

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.