(About 4.5 minutes to read)
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Leadership Development. Click here to actually get the background of what I’m talking about!
Last night, I had one of those “this conversation is so interesting it feels embarrassing that it’s happening via g-chat” conversations. It began as a discussion about job hunting (since I’ll be funemployed after the elections!), then turned to what reasonable expectations are for being a community organizer, followed by how we worry about our long-term sustainability in this work as young organizers hoping to one day be mothers, and finally, the depressing thought: Organizations will not be ready to provide a good balance of work time and non-work time until directors lead by example, and we couldn’t name any organizations that completely succeeded at this balance (though some came close, but at the expense of pay or other drawbacks). And then this one sentence stuck out in my head, over and over again.
Executive Directors are doomed to fail if they do not ascend the “leadership ladder”, rung by rung.
I say this with love and understanding. There are some Executive Directors who are amazing at what they do and were formerly organizers and went straight up the ladder without skipping a beat. And there are some that aren’t so good. More often than not, they’re somewhere in the middle: brilliant, strategic minds who can lead a campaign like a beast but struggle with the fundraising part, or the budgeting, or the staff management, or other skills unique to executively directing. (I will refer to Executive Directors as EDs from here on out. I get lazy typing.)
Last week, I wrote about my member-organizer role model, Earl, who developed his own successful, brilliant leadership development plan. What made it so brilliant was that it pushed people who were not involved to try on new, uncomfortable roles while being supported. Earl made sure each new role offered had more responsibility than the last, but was not unreasonable. We call this the leadership ladder. As we ascend the leadership ladder, we take on more responsibility. But we can’t skip steps, because that’s just not safe, and we’re likely to fall when our steps get too big. In this way, we ensure member buy-in as well as sustainability for our volunteers. It’s our nature as organizers to test and confirm theories of leadership, and train those leaders so that they do not fail in their new roles.
There are some extremely competent organizers out there, who have proven themselves capable, strategic thinkers. And, as is desirable almost anywhere, we tend to promote from within, bringing organizers through the ranks until they reach the pinnacle: to be the Executive Director. But what makes a “good” organizer is not the same as what makes a “good” Executive Director. And the skills that we need from each role are different and should be approached as such.
So why then don’t we exhibit the same patience, support, and training for our staff as we do our members? Where’s the organizational leadership development ladder, the same one that works so well with the people we work for?
The transition from organizer to director should be a gradual one- one that is directed by the current ED, with opportunities for staff to be trained and supported. This training shouldn’t just come when a promotion is about to occur- staff should constantly learn different aspects of running the organization in a way that’s overseen and supported by the ED. It’s in this way that organizations can function at their strongest. Each staff member learns their strengths and growth points within an organizational structure, and gets the space to grow without putting the organization at risk. EDs (and other staff) can come and go fairly smoothly, ensuring that the organization does not rely on one person to survive, and the organization can focus on its strengths as a community instead of all the things their one ED is able to do.
One of my friends has been the ED of his organization for the past 5 years. And he hates it. He took on the role without training, because the previous ED left and the Board felt that he was the best successor- and he thought he could be as well. He works hard, and is so dedicated that when the organization needs to cut their budget, he takes it from his meager salary first. But, as is evident from the need to cut the budget, he struggles with fundraising, and he’s certainly not the only one in this economic climate. He cares about the organization’s strategy, and its place within the movement and within the city, and he does a damn good job at having this birds eye view. But “fundraiser” and “budgeter” were never part of his job responsibilities before, and suddenly he’s in a role where the survival of this organization rests in the hands of someone who has not been given the tools he needs to succeed. He’s finding he doesn’t enjoy the work, and is working now to raise just enough money to hire a new ED so he can go back to the work he is so gifted at.
Would he and others succeed more if they had training? Perhaps not. But that’s why a ladder with increasing responsibility is so important. He and the organization would have discovered many of the issues before he was given this new role, and they could course-correct before there are issues. He may have never even been put in the role to begin with, or may have been, as a last resort, a temporary replacement with a clear plan of how to transition in someone with different skills.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the ED is being supported? If all staff learn all aspects of the organization, how does a promotional structure happen in a way that ensures the best for the organization while retaining the staff that do not become ED? What if a staff member struggles deeply with some aspect of keeping the organization running– does the ED spend more time training this person (and therefore not working on actually running the organization), or does that person skip that part of the ladder?
I’m left with more questions than answers on this issue. I believe that many of us are very intentional about the leadership of the member base, some even going so far as having a “face sheet” of all the interactions they’ve had and a leadership development plan for them. And yet, too often we skip that for ourselves and our staff. What are those barriers that are preventing us from applying our own models of organizing to our own organizations?