A Better Plan for Emerging Leaders

Organizations should identify leadership candidates for their staff and volunteer corps early. To do that, give them a taste of what leadership really looks like.

The post-pandemic world is a complex one, but if there’s a common theme that’s emerged in organizations in the past few years, it’s contained in one question: How do you keep good people? In the midst of quiet quitting, pressure on middle management, and anxiety over toxic boards, the conversation around finding the right people for roles, and keeping them there, has intensified.

Resolving that challenge means developing a pipeline of talent, both for key staff roles and positions on your committees and board. In a Forbes story last week, DocuSign Chief People Officer Jennifer Christie explained how the company does that. First and foremost, it provides training to demonstrate what that leadership and management actually looks like. “We want people to go into people leadership with their eyes wide open about what it entails,” she explained.

A Harvard Business Review piece on research by Gartner on management pipeline training reinforced the need for clarity about realities of the job. Organizations “need to help the individuals discover whether management is really right for them,” according to the article. “The focus … should be less on the mechanics of the job, such as the performance review process, and more on the tough issues that increasingly arise, about topics such as pay equity, support for social justice, remote work, and layoffs.”

Leadership is emotional labor as much as it is thoughtful strategizing.

One company mentioned in the article does that through some formal training, but the process also includes informal conversations around how candidates have developed resilience in their lives and at work. It’s not hard to see how this might be applicable to volunteer work—associations have developed matrices to satisfy committee and board needs based on work experience, industry roles, diversity, and more. But sifting for skill at being decisive, and comfortable with difficult decisions, ought to be on the nominating committee’s agenda as well. People should know going in that it’s emotional labor as much as it is thoughtful strategizing.

That process is inevitably going to lead to some participants deciding that leadership roles aren’t for them—or at least not for them at this moment. But that doesn’t mean abandoning them. DocuSign’s Christie and Gartner point out that organizations need to create a culture where that kind of opting-out is respected and destigmatized. This isn’t easy: According to HBR, Gartner’s research found that “only half the managers surveyed said that people can return to individual contributor positions in their organization without a loss in pay and respect.”

So organizations should be ready to discuss what the leadership gaps are, and how they can potentially provide opportunities for people to fill them—ad hoc committees, task forces, small teams, outside training, or other opportunities. People join your organization, either as staffers or volunteers, in the hopes of becoming better skilled over time. Giving as many people as possible the opportunity to develop leadership and management skills, now and in the future, gives people a reason to engage—and helps your organization keep those good people in a competitive time.

(Jinda Noipho/iStock)

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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!