Strategy Session: Give Your Association Leaders a Solid Start

How to prepare your future association leaders by working on your staff development.

For many associations, a ladder is a weak metaphor for how leadership succession actually happens­. Too often, it functions more like a carnival dunk tank. Senior staffers occupy a steady perch until a change occurs, plunging­ them into a role they might not be prepared for. That doesn’t serve the organization, or the person suddenly in charge of it.

What’s lacking is systematic thinking about what needs we’re going to have for our future leaders.

A considered staff development program has a documented impact on the bottom line: According to the Corporate Leadership Council, leaders who successfully develop staff achieve 7 percent more revenue and 6 percent more profit than the average leader. And the need to start

that process is urgent at nonprofits. Research by the Bridgespan Group found that by 2016 nonprofits will need 80,000 new senior managers every year. Bridge­span manager Preeta Nayak, coauthor of a recent white paper on the topic titled Plan A, says the leadership gap is due to a combination of retiring baby boomers and a surge in nonprofitdom. “We’re seeing growth in the size of nonprofit organizations,” she says. “That’s increasing the overall demand for leaders.”

So, what steps can you take to get your staff on an honest-to-goodness leadership ladder—or to find out if you need to look outside your offices for leaders? Nayak’s advice:

1. Emphasize on-the-job training. Stretch assignments that allow staff to build new skills and receive immediate feedback most effectively prepare future leaders. But current leaders need to think carefully about those assignments and who performs them. “What’s lacking is systematic thinking about what needs we’re going to have for our future leaders,” Nayak says. “And for the folks we see growing into those roles, are we making sure they’re getting the right stretch opportunities?”

2. Make a business case, but skip the ROI analysis. If board members and other stakeholders resist investing in staff development, Nayak suggests pointing out that high turnover and long hiring searches “get expensive in all sorts of dimensions. What you can show is that in year one you identified a gap and we needed to meet it, in year two we got 80 percent of the way there.”

3. Make offsite education meaningful. “Formal training will be much more powerful to the extent that it’s linked to something you do on the job and your manager knows that you’ve learned these skills and that you’re trying to use them,” Nayak says.

4. Expect skepticism. Veteran senior staffers may doubt the need for a formal plan—or worry that such a plan will marginalize them. They’ll need reassurance and a reminder of the plan’s purpose. “It’s about saying, ‘Look, here’s where we’re headed. Realistically, do we think we can get there without developing our own skills as current leaders? Or those coming after us?’ ”

(Yuji Sakai/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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