Monday, July 14, 2008

Non-Profit Executive Directors and COOs or Deputies

Recently, I learned that a former colleague is hiring a Deputy Executive Director. It seems he's been there a long time, and either wants or needs to let go of the management reins a bit. Whether it's "wants" or "needs" will have some impact on the level of difficulty he has in following through on this intention.

"Wants to" implies that he's thought long and hard about his responsibilities and realizes that his time is better spent doing more high level things. He already has an agenda and things he wants to concentrate on, opportunities he wants to pursue, expansion he wants to lead. So while letting go will be difficult (simply because he's been doing it one way for a long time), he has a goal toward which he is headed. He is moving toward something. The person hired has a good chance of succeeding.

"Needs to" implies that he is overwhelmed with his responsibilities and needs someone to take over the day-to-day management. It may be that people on his Board of Directors are urging this step. It could be that he hired a management consultant who recommended creating that position. In this case, he is moving away from something and still needs to find what he is moving toward. The transition will be very painful if this is the case, and the person hired may be the "guinea pig" or "sacrificial lamb" who helps the ED figure out what he needs and then is gone (by choice or force).

In either case, the Executive Director in question will really need good chemistry with the person he hires. Giving up some control is difficult for even the best-intentioned ED. The most successful COOs or Deputies are the ones who can put aside their own ego gratification needs and need for control, and concentrate on keeping the ED happy.

There's a delicate balance of keeping them informed and involved at the right level, and doing things they don't need to concern themselves with. Erring toward more information and involvement is better in the beginning, making sure you are aligned re goals and expectations, and what he needs to know about. Even as the COO or Deputy takes on more responsibility, it is incumbent on him/her to continually ensure that s/he is aligned with the ED's goals and thinking. That means "regularly," "consistently," "constantly," and "often." Better safe than sorry, really.

I had a COO who did not do that and it ended badly for her - and was not great for the organization, either. She seemed to want to be co-Executive Director. Unfortunately, I fed that delusion at the beginning and then it was too late to rein her in. There ended up being two competing camps at work - those loyal to me and those to her. When I finally eliminated her position and her, it was really demoralizing to the organization as a whole. Plus I had acquiesced in some misguided decisions in order for her to feel more powerful, decisions that placed the organization in some jeopardy. I had a LOT of fence-mending and organization-building to do to recover from that situation. Today, I'd be clearer at the start that I was not sharing my power; I was delegating some of my power to her. And I'd be willing to let her leave if she didn't like it.

The COO/Deputy is there to be the ED's right hand, meaning that they do things the ED cannot or does not want to do. If the ED wants to be involved in something, the COO/Deputy needs to understand that it's their right to be involved. Certainly, the COO/Deputy can discuss it and try to make sure the ED is involved at a strategic or conceptual level, rather than the level of execution or implementation. That is part of the job, in a way - making sure that the ED is focused on the proper things so as to get the most benefit for the organization. If the ED insists on doing something, however, it's really wisest not to fight with them about it and get on one's high horse about "but that's my job!" It just sounds like whining and annoys the ED, not to mention making him/her think you are trying to shunt them out of the way. Anytime an ED or CEO hears "oh, we'll take care of that for you," a little alarm bell goes off that warns of a power struggle or behind the scenes politicking and positioning. Depending on how often it happens, the ED may get rid of the parties involved.

Would it be nice if the ED was spiritually evolved and not threatened by someone else claiming some power? Sure, and that's a sign that the ED is not long for his or her job. Honestly, it's great to think well of people and curb one's suspicions. However, I've learned through bitter experience that there are just enough people who are not worthy of my trust. Better for me to be on guard just in case. And the people closest to the ED are the biggest threats to the ED's position. So COOs and Deputies who wish to succeed will make darn sure that they never overtly threaten the ED's position, and will seek an ED job elsewhere if they want to move into that position. Because smart EDs sniff out covert power plays and eliminate the threat. I was not smart, that's how I know.

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