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Turning Leaders into Learners

jump5A few months ago, Phil Buchannan of the CEP had an interesting blog exploring the career trajectories of the current CEOs of the 100 largest foundations – a job Phil calls “the very juiciest of the plum philanthropy jobs.” He reports that his researchers found that the majority – 60 of the 100 CEOs – came from outside foundations. Only 21 were promoted internally – that is, their previous position was as an executive at the same foundation where they now work as CEO. The rest came from a variety of backgrounds, but were certainly not insiders.

Among his conclusions are that foundation boards don’t place much value on previous foundation experience or grantee experience for that matter. That’s a shame. In particular I’d like to see foundations focus more on how to improve the capabilities and scale of high-performing nonprofits – and that takes executives with an understanding of what life is like in the trenches.

My experience is that this search for the wise outsider is true in other areas of the nonprofit sector as well. In public broadcasting, where I spent 25 years of my management career, the tendency is always to go outside. For the first time I can remember, today both presidents of National Public Radio and PBS have extensive public broadcasting experience. That’s rarely been the case. Most presidents of the national organizations over the last couple of decades as well as the major market stations have been new to the sector.

What accounts for this tendency? In public broadcasting, often time those doing the hiring assumed that the challenges were so enormous that it required a fresh perspective, usually around addressing new technology and raising money. It reminds me of the saying “we go out and find the best and brightest and then grind them down to be just like us.” In a smaller organization, there probably aren’t sufficient layers of skilled management necessary for developing a farm team where people can move up to more responsibility. In public broadcasting, with thousands of employees system-wide, you would think there would be more upward mobility of skilled leaders than has historically been the case. The increased complexity of management positions undoubtedly makes going outside a necessity in some cases. Or: maybe nonprofits – or their boards – lack self confidence.

Reading the great book “The Start-Up of You” by Reid Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn, and Ben Casnocha gave me another thought. The authors suggest that the best way to get a new job today is not with your “professional allies” but with “weaker ties and acquaintances.” Allies, the book defines, are people you regularly consult and proactively share and collaborate together. You will have a small number of these and they will tend to be people you work with frequently. The authors suggest this is a good thing, but I wonder if it could also suggest insulation or isolation. A more likely source of job referrals, they say, are people you know only a little (through conferences, online exchanges, old classmates and so on) – what the book and research call “weak ties.” Weak ties in and of themselves are not especially valuable; what is valuable is the breadth and reach of this network since they’ll be exposed to new information or a job opportunity you won’t know about.

If course, all of this can be seen as a way to promote the power of LinkedIn and similar services. But it makes a lot of sense to me. If we’re going to be the leaders of “learning organizations” we need to be learners ourselves. That means sharing problems and opportunities with not only your closest allies, but also building a network of interesting people we can learn from. As Hoffman and Casnocha put it, “The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.”

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice