Leading with Talent: Stories from the Field

This is the story of six U.S. nonprofits, representing a range of sectors and growth stages, in an enviable position: possessed of clear strategy with reasonable access to capital.

Yet each had identified a need, gap or challenge that transcended their assets. They were adapting to the strategy, or a leadership transition, or rapid growth; they were anticipating, or experiencing outright, gaps in capacity. Or all of the above. Each had identified—and wanted to address— talent issues, but had limited knowledge, time and energy to do so.

As Lori Kaplan, president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center, noted, “Our strategic plan revealed that we needed to focus on talent and related systems. I knew we needed a structure and succession plan … We were trying to get through it on our own, but we really weren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Beginning in early 2015, these six organizations engaged with AchieveMission in a six-month human capital management (HCM) consulting and training program to help establish the culture, structure and processes necessary to implement their strategies and drive social change. As part of the program, the leaders then met together to reflect on the process and on what they learned. Through their joint session and individual conversations with AchieveMission, they share with us some invaluable insights.

“On the cusp of being too late.”

It’s never too soon to establish sound HCM practices, and it is especially critical to do so as the organization experiences key inflection points (like growth). Louisiana Public Health Initiative CEO Joseph Kimbrell was intent on building a strategic culture capable of supporting “new initiatives requiring different skills. Our rapid growth had consequences. We were focused on organizational development and wanted to recruit higher-level talent, but we were being pulled in the direction of shorter term, operational issues.” Succession planning was also on Kimbrell’s mind. Facing retirement, he said, “I want to leave the organization in great shape and people are the #1 piece of that.”

Roca, Inc. Founder and CEO Molly Baldwin reflected, “We were expanding an important program, and as we were growing our structure was not accommodating the entire organization. We’d had success with certain senior hires but not others. We needed to understand why and what we needed to do.

“But just as we began [the process] we experienced a devastating act of violence. Management and safety are at the core of our program, so we needed to look at ourselves, our assumptions, our systems, and understand what we needed to do to improve.”

Kaplan offered a practical example: “One time it took us a week to issue an offer letter to a candidate, and we lost her. People were upset. We were already on the cusp of being too late [with our systems].”

“Own the facts and move forward.”

Each organization underwent a “discovery” phase in which staff were interviewed and surveyed. For some, the results were eye opening. Achieving the Dream had expected to work on organization design corresponding to a new strategic plan. But, said new President and CEO Karen Stout, “We didn’t have strong alignment around what our new plan meant for the organization. We needed to tune our plan and better organize to deliver on it.

“The leadership team initially rejected the data. It’s understandable … My goal was to help everyone decide that we were going to own the facts and move forward. Alignment work includes building internal cohesion. We are now accountable for building a defined culture in the next three years.”

Surprises and blind spots are common even (or especially) for leaders with significant tenure. There was dismay at staff reporting on internal dynamics interfering with their ability to do their jobs. According to City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (PMA) Founder and Executive Director Jane Golden, “I thought I was clear but I learned that I’m not always that clear. There was feedback that an invisible org chart overrides the actual one. This made me think about recognizing staff and holding them accountable.

“Fostering a strong village must begin with building a strong village, with building capacity to be leaders. This led to conversations about the importance of having the right people in our jobs, and how we recruit to make certain that we do—building a pipeline not just when we have a role to fill, but continuously.”

“The ROI is alignment of mission, vision, goals, objectives and individual work.”

After several years of rapid expansion, the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) was undergoing constant, but slower, growth—and a few key people had departed The changes prompted Executive Director Cliff Majersik to focus on “aligning mission, vision, goals, objectives and individual work, with the tools to monitor our progress.” Performance assessment, among other initiatives, meant “placing the strongest managers in leadership positions, with prioritized initiatives aligned to our strategy,” said Majersik. “”Now we will know when things are falling behind before they show signs of breaking.” Added Kimbrell, “We are one organization working toward the mission … My goals and the organization’s goals are the same, and this idea is cascading through LPHI.” And Golden, “We are [now] a highly functional leadership team making better decisions.” And Stout, “Turnover has stopped; we are attracting better people; there is a sense of momentum and confidence.”

“Investment in talent is critical, not self-indulgent.”

New systems and structures are taking some pressure off the leaders. “Infrastructure is always a challenge when resources are limited,” said Kaplan. “The HCM plan is a three-year Holy Grail.” Recalled Golden, “Building infrastructure seemed like it would be time-consuming and a waste of money we could be applying to our work … I started to change my mind when I saw the staff respond really well to what would make things function better.”

According to Baldwin, “Decision-making is much broader where it had been concentrated in just a few people.” Said Majersik, “It’s pretty apparent that without the systems we’re putting in place we would have reorganized more slowly and less smoothly.”

And what particular system supports the CEO? The leaders resoundingly agreed on the need to invest in themselves. Executive coaching provided both an outlet and sounding board. In fact, said Stout, “It is the most important piece. Coaching allows you to reflect on what holds you back and what will propel you forward.”

Carol Trager is the VP of Marketing and Community at AchieveMission. The six organizations and AchieveMission gratefully acknowledge IS member, The Kresge Foundation, for its generous support of the HCM pilot program. Thanks also to the AchieveMission consulting team members who worked with the grantees and provided invaluable insights for this article, and to 2015-2016 New Sector AmeriCorps RISE Fellow Zoe Bulger for her contributions.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: IS Member, ISQ, Leadership Development

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