How do successful not-for-profits develop future leaders? Part 1: Start at the top


Great leadership is central to all successful not-for-profit organisations.  In this five-part series, we look at strategies to recognise and realise the leadership potential within a not-for-profit. Part 1 looks at where to start with engaging your current senior leaders:

Step back and look at the people who are running your organisation. Look at your CEO, your general managers, your management/leadership team and your senior workers or team leaders.

Are you looking at a group of leaders, a group of managers or just a collection of employees?

All too often the real leaders in an organisation are not the people with the most impressive titles, and those with the titles are not necessarily leading.

That’s where the role of identifying and developing potential and current leaders comes in. Identifying and nurturing future leaders will be essential both to ensuring that your organisation has a bright future, and also to retaining those valuable staff within your organisation, rather than losing them to someone else.

Grass grows up but the sun shines down

Everyone who has ever been through a CEO-changeover will attest to the powerful influence a CEO’s vision, priorities, management style and personality have on the performance and culture of any organisation large or small.

They not only make important decisions that impact on staff, but they go out into the world and fight on behalf of service users, staff and the issues that matter.

Your CEO is also your Chief Talent Officer. They are directly and indirectly responsible for ensuring a reliable supply of talented people is available and ready when needed.

This is not something that can be delegated to human resources or a general manager. It’s far too important for that.

Leadership Development: Sell the vision

Leaders need to send a strong, clear message that leadership development is a strategic priority. CEOs and senior managers should embrace their inner-Obama regularly in explaining this.

They should explain:

  • Why pursuing a leadership development program is important
  • How that program will look and how it is linked to the organisation’s strategic plan or direction
  • Where each staff member fits into that program and how both formal and informal leadership looks within your organisation
  • How this program connects with professional development and career progression

Be a role model

The CEO and senior managers need to start with their own teams and direct reports. Expectations need to be clear, both in terms of what staff need to do and in the support they will receive.

Set specific goals, both for the short and long term, to enable monitoring, evaluation and accountability. These goals then need to become an integral part of supervision, work planning and professional development processes alongside operational matters.

You should ask your direct reports to do the same within their teams and so on. You can provide resources and support in delivering the program, but it is your own behaviour that will set the tone so make sure you always remain role model number one.

Document your progress and celebrate your achievements. Show how leadership from staff is contributing to the success of your services and activities.

Make the most of HR

Depending on the size of your organisation, you may have a more basic or more sophisticated human resources team.

Not only should your HR team have access to data on things like staff turnover, lengths of service, staff satisfaction survey results, staff complaints, performance management and reasons for exits, but HR staff usually have a good sense of staff sentiment due to their day-to-day contacts.

In larger organisations the human resources manager should be one of the key leaders within your organisation and capable of providing not just technical advice on HR issues, but support to the CEO and senior managers in developing current and future talent and integrating this with training, performance review processes and recruitment.

Engage your board

Many NFP boards consider their only role in leadership development to be the recruitment of the CEO (or equivalent) and monitoring of their performance in delivering the organisation’s strategic plan. A good board should also be trying to support and develop their pipeline of future leaders to reach their full potential.

The result should be that future leaders within the organisation have an opportunity to develop valuable relationships with board members who can serve as informal role models or mentors (but never as managers!)

The best CEOs should welcome and encourage this interaction, which in turn gives the board important exposure to candidates for senior roles, including the CEO’s successor.

Next week: Creating a plan to meet your leadership needs into the future

More information: Read the full report, “Nonprofit Leadership Development: What’s Your “Plan A” for Growing Future Leaders?” from The Bridgespan Group.

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