Finding new leaders from within

publication date: Jan 20, 2012
author/source: Kathryn McKechnie
The Canadian nonprofit sector is facing a leadership crisis, declares CrawfordConnect president Deborah Legrove.  In a presentation to AFP Greater Toronto Chapter's Congress 2011 in November, she outlined the twin causes of the leader shortage. Kathryn McKechnie photo

Some Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964), who make up 30% of the population, have already started retiring, and in eight years the majority of Boomers will follow suit.  Therefore, charitable organizations across Canada face the reality that their CEOs will retire in the near future.  On the other hand, the Gen X (b. 1965-late 70s) and Gen Y (b. late 70s-1997) cohorts are smaller than the Boomer cohort, and insufficient numbers of Gen X and Gen Y professionals within the nonprofit sector are being groomed for leadership.

Why aren't we growing our own?

At present the majority of nonprofit leaders are recruited from outside the sector.  Just one-third of nonprofit leaders are promoted from within the organization.  This compares with 60% in the for-profit sector.  With 1.2 million people, or 8% of the labour force, working in 69,000 nonprofit organizations across the country, one has to wonder why the nonprofit sector isn't producing more of its own leaders.

In a recent CrawfordConnect survey of 17 nonprofit leaders in Canada, over two-thirds did not have a succession plan for the CEO position.  LeGrove states that not only is a succession plan vitally important, but that everyone in the organization should be aware of it and that the CEO should take the lead in verbalizing and sharing the succession plan by actively engaging staff and the board.

Since succession planning can take up to two years, many organizations begin by creating an emergency succession plan before commencing long-term planning.  Given the looming leadership deficit, succession planning will be even harder for CEOs and boards who have yet to start thinking about replacing their leaders. 

How to build our own leaders

Since there are fewer Gen X and Gen Y individuals to replace retiring Boomers, it pays to be mindful of your own internal resources.  Are you capitalizing on the human potential within your organization? Who has potential to lead? Look carefully at your staff team, Legrove advises, and seek out the leaders-in-waiting.  Look for key competencies and personality traits such as strategic thinking, relationship building, high integrity, adaptability and perseverance. 

The greatest skills gap among potential future leaders from the nonprofit sector is in financial acumen, she explains, so this is an area in which to consider investing your professional development dollars. 

Don't cut training, career growth

Resist the temptation to downsize your professional development budget during periods of financial pressure.  Gen X and Gen Y value a career path. By investing in professional development, you demonstrate to those staff that you are serious about helping them develop the skill set required for leadership.  Unfortunately in Canada, there is a lack of formal education options for nonprofit leadership, although this is changing slowly. There is great value to be found in mainstream leadership training and education opportunities. 

When thinking about potential leaders from among your current staff team, you need to be sure you really understand the people on your team.  If you believe you have the right people, set your Gen X and Gen Y staff on a career path which affords them the opportunity for self-development. 

Motivation is the challenge, Legrove reminds us. Gen X and Gen Y staff will not stay at your organization if they are not challenged.  It is in part because the majority of nonprofits cannot or do not currently offer a career path that the majority of our leaders come from outside the sector, she believes. 

Proper training and development will allow potential future leaders within the nonprofit sector to be accepted into leadership roles.  It is not too late to start grooming the next generation of leaders within your organization.  Start investing in tomorrow's leaders today. 

Kathryn McKechnie is a Toronto-based fundraiser with over seven years of small shop fundraising experience in Canada and the UK. Recently she started Kathryn McKechnie Consulting, focused on providing advice, resources and hands-on fundraising services for emerging charities and small shops.  She sits on the Board of Directors and is Chair of the Fundraising Committee for the Scarborough Women's Centre. Contact Kathryn by email or 647-459-4858.

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