Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

How a first-time non-profit CEO can develop the proper staff structure

illustration: linked heads in social network

Before you can figure out your non-profit’s human resources needs, you will need to have a good sense of its business model, work culture, and business plan. A strong business plan will outline the objective(s) that you need to achieve and the key tactics you will employ. This will help you identify the key competencies, skills, and experiences needed in-house.

When you conduct an initial assessment of the current staff, start at the management level and work your way through the organization. With the staff you inherit, figure out what they are good at, what motivates them, and what their outcomes have been. You should have a preliminary sense of this from your own job interviews, when you asked the board leadership about the strengths and shortcomings of the staff.

Be advised that the external assessment given to you by people such as directors or donors is not necessarily complete and accurate. The external input should not override your own judgment. You should have access to personnel files and conduct interviews with your staff that are focused on their past performance. You may even have the benefit of speaking to the former CEO and any current supervisors.

In your interviews with the staff, you should ask questions that might reveal the high- and under-performers. A few good questions to consider are the following: What resources or supports have you received from the team that have made you more successful in your work? What is hindering your progress? What do you want to see changed?

Once you have taken a preliminary inventory of staff competencies, you can figure out your redundancies, gaps, and mismatches; and you can organize this information into a preliminary management structure. You will figure out which teams you need, which ones need to grow, which ones need restructuring, and which ones need to be eliminated. You will also look at the team leaders and determine who should be reporting to you directly. In your former job, you may have had more direct reports than is appropriate for a CEO.

In short, you are drafting a preliminary organizational chart. The structure should not be so elaborate that it obscures the clear lines of accountability. The decision-making responsibilities should be clear.

One major change for the first-time CEO is stepping away from day-to-day operations and focusing on strategic priorities. This includes making the switch from being a manager to managing managers. Mid-level managers are managing direct reports in the management structure and dealing with internal issues. CEOs will instead manage up (board chairs, and committee chairs and members) and out (donors and supporters, strategic and operational partners, and other stakeholders). Stay connected to your management team during this transition so you don’t isolate yourself and lose touch with the business of the organization.

Once you have outlined your management structure, you should have clarity on what work can be outsourced. Outsourcing should allow you to benefit from lower costs, increased efficiencies, and access to skills and resources that are outside your organization’s key competencies.

The essential tasks are those directly associated with your key drivers. These will require in-house competencies. The other activities necessary in running the organization can often be outsourced to a business whose key driver is that very task. For example, an organization whose purpose it is to provide a website that gives online support to other organizations may need to have in-house web-development and IT expertise. For most other organizations, IT or web-development skills may be things that should be outsourced.

In this initial assessment phase, you will decide which employees are indispensable, which need to be further engaged and developed, which you need to monitor closely, what skills and knowledge you are missing altogether, and which members of the current team need to leave the organization. This is always a tough thing to do, and one that new CEOs often put off because  they don’t want to rock the boat too quickly or because they want to give people a chance to prove themselves.

Sometimes a change of leadership works wonders, there is a special synergy, and things pick up. But usually the change is slow in coming; perhaps with hints of progress, but slow. And often the CEO waits far too long, so long that they develop a relationship with the employee, making the change even more difficult.

The best timing for making these personnel changes will depend on the organization. It is up to you as CEO to make these calls within the larger framework of the organization’s immediate and long-term needs.

Firing staff is always a disruptive process; this is particularly difficult for smaller organizations in need of extensive personnel changes. In the event that a number of people need to be let go, you may want to consider which parts of the work need to be put on hold until new staff is hired.

Once a person has been let go, there are established checklists, requirements, and protocols. Before you fire anyone, get the proper legal advice, particularly if the employee is part of a collective agreement. Think through the process of terminating someone’s employment, prepare the proper documentation, decide on a fair severance package, and minimize any potential legal action against the organization. You will need to decide who else should be told, and when, and have an agreed corporate narrative to share with staff and partners. Throughout, you are keeping your board chair well informed.

When someone is asked to leave an organization, they should do so promptly. This is the same for someone who has resigned. It’s tempting to try to keep the person as long as possible, especially if he or she was a good employee, but the reality is that when people resign, they usually check out mentally. There are always exceptions, but they are just that — exceptions. The majority of the time, once someone has been fired or has quit, you should not expect them to take care of the long-term interests of the organization.

The process of drafting a management structure assumes you will have the necessary latitude for making the personnel changes noted above. This is, of course, more complicated when you have contractual agreements with employees that are tough to break or when you are working in a unionized environment.

One of the concerns with letting staff go is the impact it will have on the morale of the remaining staff members, particularly when there are numerous personnel changes being made, or when someone being let go is a long-time employee or popular with their colleagues. As popular as an employee may be, the reality is that if this person has been doing a poor job, other staff members will have had to compensate for it. Their reaction may well be, “What took them so long?”

In general, while you can’t share the reasons for letting someone go with other staff members due to confidentiality and simple decency, you will have to engage them to ensure that the functions of the organization are being managed while a replacement is found. It is helpful for people to have clarity on your vision and plans for the organization so they understand how decisions are directly linked to them.

Franca Gucciardi: A few months into my tenure, Alan [Broadbent] suggested I think about outsourcing our accounting. I remember thinking what an outrageous idea that seemed. Around the same time, a former board director suggested I speak to a friend of his who was running an accounting business providing services to for-profits and non-profits too small to justify having accounting departments of their own. He put a proposal together, and I realized I could have the services of a professional bookkeeper, supervised by a controller and a senior account manager, for less than the cost of a full-time junior bookkeeper. In addition, because his business provides these employees with the development and career opportunities of the bigger accounting firms, I would be getting top-notch professionals on top of best practices in the field. In the end, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made in my first year on the job.