Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Foraker Group Blog

Seventeen-percent – that number represents the average of Alaska’s workforce that works for nonprofits. In rural and remote rural Alaska, it can be as high as 40%. Rarely is the sector talked about as an industry, but if we were, we would be the second largest Alaska industry based on employment – right behind oil and gas. The data is compelling for many reasons. One is the opportunity to look closely at what we are doing in the sector to both attract and retain this workforce.

In 2006, Tom Tierney published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called The Leadership Deficit in which he articulated his view of our future as a sector. A key element of that future was a high turnover of Baby Boomers and a serious gap in both the number of Generation X and Millennials and their interest in the work as it was or is currently framed. He warned this was coming in the next decade. Well it’s a little late – perhaps because of the national economic recession – but we are here now.

As complex challenges go, this is a big one and we have been preparing for it on many levels at Foraker. We have focused on retention strategies to support current nonprofit employees to stay in their jobs. At the same time, we have created opportunities for people to explore new skills and the emotional IQ sides of leadership so they could advance in their careers. All of this work can be framed under “Leadership Development,” but for us we know it also has the added bonus of organizational effectiveness, and even greater impact to our communities overall.

In complexity there are also mistakes. For example, we learned the hard way that few like to think of themselves as “emerging leaders” because it diminishes the contributions they are already making. We also continue to clarify the leadership gaps that exist related to executives and board members from diverse cultures and ethnicities. We are diving into these aspects of leadership and look forward to sharing more in the future about ways we can grow together in these areas. In the meantime, we are dedicated to looking at leadership as more than a title, and certainly not something you achieve solely with age.

So, as the “silver tsunami” breaks across our sector as the Baby Boom generation retires, we can evolve to meet the next generations in the workplace. This evolution can mean we find ourselves with far more leaders than job titles or organizational charts convey. The questions then become: How can we support leadership development no matter which chair is occupied? And how do we grow when there is nowhere to go?

How will you answer these questions? What will you do in your role today?

I ask, because a recent article in the online publication Quartz at Work suggests that together we are not doing enough. The writer cites persistent national statistics and studies on the revolving door of leadership. I know budgets are tight but a well-executed retention program and a focus on developing leaders are worth the time and expense. We simply can’t afford not to do it, so let’s do more of it together.

If you are not sure where to start or you simply want to do more, here are my top 10 recommendations to put into practice in 2018 and beyond.

  1. Be loud and clear. If you are the CEO/Executive Director, lead by example to let your team know that their development as a leader is important regardless of their title or seniority. Talk about it in staff meetings and in one-on-one time with employees. Do one of the other nine ideas or all of them. Do it yourself by getting a coach or a mentor. If nothing else, make space for the conversation. Invite the opportunities. Explore the possibilities.
  2. Offer opportunities outside the box. If you are a senior leader, look at your day, week, or month and consider inviting other staff into new rooms and experiences that they likely will not get invited to on their own. Exposure to new ideas and people is important, but so is sharing the larger ideas and the bigger scope of issues and concerns at a meta level rather than the tactical level that they might be exposed to on a daily basis.
  3. Know which room to be in might be the opposite of suggestion number 2 but not mutually exclusive. Sure, you can go to every meeting and be at every podium as a leader but what if you didn’t? Consider how not being in the room allows others on your team to grow, to speak, to learn, and to own their own experience.
  4. Include “heart” questions in your employee evaluation tools. Evaluation should not be a punitive exercise nor should it be focused on deficits (If you are there with an employee, you need an improvement plan, not an evaluation). Consider including at least one goal that is employee driven about how they would like to build on their strengths as a leader – not just in the workplace but in their daily lives. Consider a question and goal that gets to motivation, resilience, or growth. Agree on ways to meet this goal together or by engaging other team members who would see it as a benefit.
  5. Join an affinity group. This is more than networking – leadership is about a supportive framework to listen, learn, and share. It is about a safe space to test ideas and gain new insights, not just exchange business cards.
  6. Stretch to strengthen. Sure, sometimes it is easier to do a project yourself than take the time to engage someone else on the team to have a go at it. But learning by doing and especially learning where real mistakes can happen is golden. There is much wisdom around how mistakes are both information for the organization, for the team, and for the person who made them if the organizational culture truly allows for learning to happen. So go ahead, give away a key project that stretches someone in a new direction. Build on existing strengths, trust the process and the person, and step back to let the process go.
  7. Celebrate the wins. Of all the things on this list, I think nonprofits struggle with this aspect of leadership development the most. We are doing so much with so much pressure to do good in the world that when we get to a milestone or win or cross a finish line we just put our heads down and keep going. Yikes! The next generation on our team has reminded me this is not okay and they are 100% right. Stop. Celebrate. Breathe. Reflect. Recognize the strengths of the team or a personal milestone of one person. Talk about how it makes a difference to the mission you serve. Yea! Okay, now you can go to the next thing.
  8. Allocate annual funding. A lot or a little money is only one consideration to ensuring a leadership development result. Make sure to engage each staff person in picking the right opportunity – one that they are excited about, that builds skills, and that is applicable in many ways to their life and their work.
  9. Create a safe space to connect the dots, brainstorm, test ideas, and critically reflect. Most leaders will tell you that it is lonely at the top and that that there are few safe spaces to think out loud. Journaling might be just the spot to work through your next big idea or greatest challenge.  Want to know more? Check out this article by Dan Ciampa in the Harvard Business Review.
  10. You choose. Not the CEO/Executive Director? What do you need to succeed? Pick one of these and ask for what you want. You might not get it all, but you won’t get any of it unless you ask and fully participate in making it happen.

We may be experiencing a leadership deficit in sheer numbers, but we can all do more to encourage, engage, and expand the leadership potential right in front of us. Nonprofit leaders – we see you. We need you. Let’s take the next step together.

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