How Do You Become a CEO for a NFP of the Future?
25 July 2016 at 9:38 am
A director in the Not for Profit sector, Doug Taylor offers advice for those aspiring to one day lead a NFP. He draws from his experience as a CEO and board member and also from having worked with numerous leading CEOs of domestic and international NFP and corporate organisations.
I’m often asked to speak about leadership and invariably the presentation ends up in a conversation about how you become a NFP CEO. It’s something I’m happy to address because I’m passionate about ensuring NFPs of the future are well led given that these organisations are changing irrevocably with seismic changes in society, greater expectations in governance and the increased marketisation of the community sector.
I’m particularly keen to see people, who like me have started their careers in the NFP sector, find a way into CEO roles because of the experience and insight we bring as practitioners. In fact, to this end I’m working with some friends at the moment on a development program for early career NFP leaders, but more on that later*. The biggest question you need to resolve within yourself is why you want to be a CEO of the future NFP. It’s probably the most challenging role around and undoubtedly the loneliest one so you need some drivers that will sustain you through the toughest of times.
It’s not enough to just have self-belief or even naked ambition – instead you need a sense of vision for the organisation you want to lead or a deep passion for the cause for which you will be advocating. This is what leadership is all about but don’t forget you can lead and not be a CEO, in fact in some ways it’s easier to effect change when you are not encumbered with the time and political constraints that the CEO office holds.
So if you have worked through all these issues and still want to pursue a pathway to become a CEO for a NFP of the future, how do you do this? A few things stand out for me when I look back at the various roles I’ve had and think about which of them best prepared me for my work as a CEO.
There’s nothing like running a Profit Centre
The first roles are the ones that required me to manage a profit centre. In these roles I wasn’t simply managing the expenditure of grant funds (as well as the important compliance and service quality requirements) but I had to develop the disciplines of running a social business. I had to balance the tensions of our organisation’s mission with developing a sustainable business model supported by effective management processes and people. This was like riding a rollercoaster as every month our success or failure would be determined by the profit and loss statement and Customer Satisfaction score. I learnt so much about the importance of creating genuine value for the people we’re here to serve and how critical it is to have a service that’s differentiated. Some commercial acumen will be critical in the future for NFP leaders – just think about what’s happened to Employment Services and the changes underway with the NDIS and Aged Care’s progressive deregulation.
Leading beyond management
When Jim Collins was asked to translate his global business best seller Good to Great for the NPF sector he identified “diffuse power structures” as one of their defining characteristics given the role of members, boards, peak bodies, staff, funders and volunteers. In this context NFP CEOs are required to have a high degree of strategic intent and the capacity to lead by influence and collaboration with diverse stakeholders (not personal charisma or management through command and control).
Obtaining experience that develops stakeholder leadership skills are critically important and are fundamentally different from what you may have developed in management because in this context you are working with shared power and can only succeed by influencing others to support your vision or strategy. I’ve had the opportunity to develop some of these skills by negotiating to create room in various roles through leading large organisation change projects or working with diverse external partners on social change initiatives. It’s clear that skills in leading through collaboration will be vital for future NFP leaders as organisations increasingly realise that the solution to complex social problems are not addressed through solely developing more services but through organisations working together.
Where to from here?
These insights on how you become a CEO for a NFP of the future are all fine but it’s all academic if you can’t create some next steps. Here are two final pieces of advice from my own experience on how to get from where you are now to where you want to be in the future? First, in order to take a step forward you sometimes need to take a step sideways or backward. What I mean is that to get the sort of experience you need to be a CEO in the future; you may need to move into different organisations or sectors in a role that initially looks smaller. My advice is to take it if it develops skills I’ve outlined above. Second, take every opportunity to watch and learn from leaders and CEOs you know. Reflect critically on what you think works and doesn’t work and don’t hesitate to ask them to mentor you. In my experience great CEOs are only too willing to develop leadership in others.
*We are piloting this initiative in Western Sydney for early career professionals in the Not For Sector and if you or someone is interested in participating, please follow this link.
About the author: Doug Taylor is the resilient communities director at Uniting. He has built a 20 year professional career in the social sector out of his passion for social change, as well as an active life in volunteering. His interests are manifest in membership on the boards of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, the Centre for Social Impact Advisory Board and as a proud trustee of the Steve Lawrence Social Innovation Fund. He tweets at @dougtayloruw and writes a blog.