The leadership pipeline: A core responsibility

Posted by Nicholas Dragga, Apr 17, 2017 0 comments

The leadership pipeline is an ongoing challenge that is familiar and top-of-mind for many. The problems are well known, especially for emerging and mid-career leaders:

  • Lack of mobility within the field
  • Low wages versus daunting debt
  • Lack of agency within an organization

It is obviously unfortunate when talent, out of necessity or frustration, leave the field for higher paying jobs with more responsibility and/or agency. The brain drain on the field, as with any field, is problematic as it not only makes the next generation of leaders more elusive, but takes away the change agents that could help create a better environment.

There are many issues to unpack here. Many.

One is certainly the stigma of funding operating expenses. With the focus on impact, measurable outcomes, and reporting, funders are sometimes reluctant to fund “operations,” making it more difficult for an organization to invest in their staff.

But I would argue that we, the nonprofit field, sometimes do this to ourselves. Sometimes we are faced with the difficult decision of whether to invest in staff development, pay people a little more, and/or hire another worker, versus expanding our programming—be in one more school, put on one more event. After all, if we work just a little bit harder, we can make the time…the programs are the point of our existence right…and we’re all martyrs…

Martyrdom and expanding programs at the expense of capacity is a shortsighted strategy that does not help develop a better leadership pipeline. While we do the work of convincing funders of the importance of operating support, there are steps we can take now—as in today—within our organization to make the situation better. We can make a better arts field.

The intentional investment in staff development must be a core responsibility and competency of every organization. Put another way, we must fully ingrain into our DNA the idea that staff are an asset to the organization AND bottom line. So, we need to take the time to develop staff, and find ways to pay them more. Although it’s hard—we CAN do this.

Peter Baeklund says, “We should not ask, ‘what happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave,’ but rather, ‘what happens if we don’t and they stay.’”

So, how do we do this?

Consider capacity building over program expansion.

Perhaps paying your staff more, hiring an additional employee, or seeking out and creating development opportunities (like training or conference participation) is a better decision—a more impactful and healthy decision—than adding yet another thing or program for the underpaid and understaffed organization to tackle.

I certainly understand “but we have funding for x,” and “it’s our mission.” But a happy, sustainable, supported staff will do better work and fulfill your mission better. Period. Sustainability is critical. And let’s be honest—really honest—the “but we have funding for x” is at some point a result of priorities. Make staff a priority, or building in the systems and support for program expansion. At some point, we are responsible for making sure programs are supported by more than a shoestring. 

It is a core responsibility to develop your staff. You have the time. Make the time. Teach a person to fish.

I personally struggle with developing staff. I say, or at least think, “I don’t have time for this. I can do it better and faster than trying to teach someone how to do it. Plus, then I will just have to fix it anyway.” This is particularly hard to get over if I’m talking about a volunteer or intern that won’t necessarily be around to “do it next time.”

Again, if I’m being really honest, is that attitude just rooted in not really knowing exactly how to do something myself—or at least not knowing how to articulate it? Have I just not written down the procedure so then anyone can walk up and do something?

Is this not the truth (at least most of the time): Spending the time now will save time later, have a higher functioning organization, and will serve our other responsibility and duty of developing the leadership pipeline. I need to not be lazy, and make the time. We’re all busy.  

Although you may not have a lot of agency (yet), you do have an internal locus of control and opportunities for professional development. Seek out opportunities, read blogs, ask for help and advice (people love giving advice), and share your findings.

These suggestions are nothing new, but “Change happens at the speed of trust,” so be ready. “Decisions are made by those who show up,” so be ready. There is much work to do in order to change systems and barriers for a higher functioning environment. My suggestions are not intended to make light of that, or put it off. But also, be ready.

A critical conversation with a supervisor about what it will take to do a job well will be important for all, and will clarify expectations of what it really takes to do excellent work.

Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to a high functioning leadership pipeline. Like exercising or writing that grant, we just need to make the time. We’ll be glad we did. 

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