Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Assessing your fit with a non-profit organization

When deciding whether or not to take up an opportunity to lead an organization, the obvious place to start is with the mission. You need to have an affinity with it. A successful leader is one who believes in the organization’s goals, is passionate about advancing the cause, and has the credibility to sell the cause to the outside world.

Along with the mission, the size and scope of the organization also matter. Is it an organization with five employees or fifty? Does it operate locally or does it have a regional, national, or international mandate?

It used to be that career decisions often made themselves. People worked for the same company most of their lives and advanced through the ranks in an orderly and incremental way, often being tapped on the shoulder when their time for promotion came along.

Those days are gone.

Most careers involve many different employers and often many different types of work. People move between the private, public, and community sectors, from engineering to finance to management, and from large to small organizations and possibly back again.

It is imperative to ensure that your work choices match your talents, desire, and ambition, and to focus on that alignment.

But it is also important to be sure you take into account the needs and interests of the employer. There are many stories of people who have been offered a promotion but turned it down (perhaps it involved moving to another city or leaving a comfort zone), only to find their career path taking a downward, or outward, turn.

The culture and the stage of development of the organization are also important in determining fit.

Is the organization in trouble and in need of major restructuring?

If so, the board may be looking for a turnaround leader who will need to assess the problems and quickly create a short-term plan to renew the organization.

Turnaround leaders are able to manage and resolve crises, can manage a high level of stress, and are able to inspire confidence. They are efficient and expeditious problem solvers who are comfortable with conflict and adversity, and they often have a thick skin. Turnaround organizations need a higher-than-average level of hands-on management for an intensive amount of time.

Is the organization in its early stages of development or in need of a boost?

An organization looking for an entrepreneurial leader needs someone to help generate ideas. The quintessential quality of entrepreneurial leaders is creativity. They consistently see new opportunities that no one else has noticed. They focus on creating value by finding better ways of doing things and with lower costs. They enjoy taking risks — venturing into unknown territory, breaking rules, and going against the status quo.

Often, organizations that are just starting out have limited resources; the qualities of an entrepreneurial leader are essential to the development of this kind of organization.

Is the organization well-established and successful and looking for a steady managerial leader?

In this case, the organization will likely have solid structures in place, and it needs someone who is able to promote and advance the organization’s goals within an established vision.

Managerial leaders are strong at consensus-building, willing to spend the time necessary to learn about the history and culture of a place, and able to adapt to it. They are relationship-oriented. They make sure they have good people in place with the proper resources. They are able to direct program improvements and quality control, and advance the cause without looking like they are rocking the boat.

Knowing your own skills, strengths, and weaknesses at the outset is therefore extremely important.

If your skills are fundamentally entrepreneurial in nature, you probably aren’t going to enjoy a turnaround situation and you might feel stifled at an organization that is already well-established.

Conversely, if your style is that of a steady managerial leader, you might want to think twice before stepping on the roller coaster of a recent start-up. You must be hard-nosed and honest about this self-assessment.

If you believe that you have the skills, experience, and interest to be all of the aforementioned types of leader, well, you may just be too delusional to hold the post and be an effective leader.

You should also be comfortable with the salary.

Often, people taking on their first leadership position will be quite modest with their salary request and accept a salary that is too low. They undervalue their own skills and experiences, and they are so happy to have been picked that they undersell themselves.

It your responsibility to get a strong sense of the organization’s finances and the comparable salary range for the position, and to know if an organization is able to meet your salary expectations. If so, you must make your case to the organization. Your ability to advocate for your own interests in a fair and firm manner is often seen as an indicator of how effectively you will be able to advocate for the organization.

In your contract or employment, you should also negotiate the terms of separation with fair terms of notice and severance, in order to make your eventual departure orderly.

Figuring out what type of organization would best be served by your current abilities and interests is a worthwhile exercise. Here’s a simple process Alan Broadbent proposes you could use to find out whether a new opportunity might be the right or the wrong job for you.

When you are thinking about moving up the ladder, be sure you are moving to a job you can succeed at. I have a personal process that I undertake from time to time, every few years at least, where I make four lists: things I am good at; things I am not good at; things I like to do; and things I don’t like to do. For example, I am not interested in details, and I don’t like making cold calls on the telephone. Some of the things I’m good at, like chairing committees, I don’t like very much. When I am faced with an opportunity, I see how it matches up with those lists. The best situation, of course, is matching things you are good at and things that you like. But when you have a job opportunity, it is good to have an analytical framework, even a simple one like mine, to hold it up against as an indication of whether it might be the right job or the wrong job for you.

The Four Lists

Things I am GOOD at: Things I LIKE to do:
Things I am NOT GOOD at: Things I DONT LIKE to do: