How do successful not-for-profits develop future leaders? Part 3: Bringing out the best in people



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. Follow the links to part 1 and part 2. Part 3 looks at how to offer your future leaders meaningful development opportunities to step into areas where you have leadership “gaps”.

In the 1980s, a group of researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina – Morgan McCall, Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo  – began to theorise that leaders develop best through means other than formal training.

In ongoing research through the 1990s, they developed a model known as 70:20:10, which suggests that lessons learned by managers roughly divide into a 70:20:10 pattern. That is, 70% happens on the job, 20% happens through coaching and mentoring and the last 10% happens through classroom-based work. In other words, mostly, we learn by doing.

Plenty of evidence has since been collected to support the 70:20:10 model of learning.  This means the vast majority of your training and leadership development focus should be on real work situations and supporting emerging leaders to rise to meet real challenges.

However, traditional training remains important. The developers of the 70-20-10 learning model found formal training was most effective when the person receiving training had strong support from their supervisor, including:

  • Discussion of how training can and will be applied to their specific role
  • Explicit support and encouragement for the value of the training
  • Opportunities for recognition when training was applied to their work

This is all good news for NFPs who typically offer staff challenging roles that stretch their skills and experience.

However, workplanning, supervision and support from managers has to back this up to avoid staff feeling they’ve been just been thrown in the deep end.

Supporting your brightest by supporting their supervisors

Line managers are the key people in the day-to-day fostering of talented staff and this is particularly true for the line managers of those you’ve identified as having the potential to step up to greater responsibility in the future.

Hopefully, work with senior managers will cascade down to all line managers, but this can’t necessarily be relied on. Organisations should be:

  • Making coaching, mentoring and supporting the development of their staff a high priority, including setting time aside in workplans and calendars
  • Focusing on first-time or newer managers and those striving to improve their performance
  • Shifting the focus of line managers to encompass a broader understanding and ownership of your NFP’s strategic goals
  • Ensuring an equally high level of support to line managers from their line manager

What do on-the-job development opportunities look like?

Good learning opportunities need to do one or more of the following things:

  • Take someone out of their comfort zone but be realistic
  • Make someone accountable for the outcome
  • Be clear in purpose and desired outcome
  • Be relevant to their current role and linked to an organisation’s objectives

Write it down

Every HR professional and manager knows the value of a well-developed workplan.

A good process for developing a leadership development plan includes a frank and honest discussion of the organisation’s needs, the staff member’s interests and capabilities and their supervisors impression of performance and future potential.

Often this is best spread over a few smaller meetings, with the early ones given over to bigger picture thinking and creative discussions of future possibilities, and later meetings condensing this material into a clear plan that meets the needs of all three stakeholders: the organisation, the staff member and the supervisor.

Don’t forget to follow up

NFPs are typically over-worked and under-resourced, which is one of the reasons staff get great development opportunities and the chance to show what they’re made of.

Nevertheless, the 70-20-10 learning model breaks down unless the 20% of one-on-one follow-up with a line manager takes place.

Even worse, staff who spend too long swimming alone in the deep end inevitably burn out or drown.

Time to get started

None of this is rocket science. It just requires NFPs to take things they are doing anyway and do them in a slightly more planned, transparent and accountable way.

It also asks NFPs to be far more honest with themselves about the potential shortcomings of their staff team and to explicitly identify those with leadership potential and provide additional opportunities.

The trick is to create a healthy recognition for effort and achievement through transparency and accountability while avoiding the toxic environment that develops when staff are set against each other in prestige-based competition. NFPs are well placed to do this well.

Next week: Smart recruiting to fill your leadership gaps

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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