The short-term results can be devastating to a small or fledgling not-for-profit organization. They can include: lawsuits by disgruntled employees; high staff turnover; damaged relationships with donors and even service interruptions for the members or consumers who rely on the organization. Over the long-term, a command-and-control mindset within the leadership ranks all but eliminates the organization’s capacity for progress or innovation, as the decision-makers focus on second-guessing day-to-day operational decisions rather than on equipping themselves to deliver the community or sectoral leadership they were elected or appointed to provide.
So what prompts seemingly well-intentioned people who are reasonable in almost every other aspect of their lives to be entirely unreasonable when relating to the people they must rely on to get a job done? Often, the culprit is an outdated view of work and the workplace. A closer look at three of the common assumptions that underscore this view makes it easy to see just how risky it is to let command-and-control mindsets go unchallenged.
The “boss” knows as much or more than the employee about the organization and the work it does
Increased specialization in the world of work has unique implications for leaders in the not-for-profit and association sector. It has long been the case that no individual board member or board of directors as a whole, no matter how dedicated, how qualified or how intelligent they are, could possibly know as much as the executive director does about how the organization actually functions, what each work unit does, what it costs and where improvements are needed. In recent years, however, the executive director may not even know as much about the specific intricacies of the organization’s work as the organization’s senior managers and major suppliers do. He or she doesn’t need to. In today’s documentation-rich environment, accountability and control are automatically built into most work processes, meaning leadership is no longer about control. Now, it’s about things like coordination, collaboration, empowering those closest to the work, and creating an environment where innovation naturally occurs. An executive director who exhibits these skills, but is faced with a command-and-control board isn’t likely to stick around long.
Collaboration with employees is impossible; they must be strictly controlled or they will take advantage
Without realizing it, many people have internalized the idea that the nature of employment is inherently adversarial, with each side trying to get the most for itself while giving as little as possible to the other. For senior personnel in most fields, going to work is usually about much more than just getting a pay cheque or putting in their time. This is even more likely to be the case with executive directors, senior managers or suppliers whose entire careers have been in the not-for-profit sector. Typically, they are forward-thinking individuals, who have a passion for helping others and creating positive societal change. They are internally motivated and will naturally reject structures or people who don’t acknowledge this. To focus on controlling such employees rather than creating opportunities that capitalize on their passion is a mistake no organization can afford to tolerate.
To get work done, you need to hire employees
Most not-for-profit boards of directors make the mistake of hiring when they could just as easily outsource. Almost any organizational function one can imagine can be outsourced: from telephone reception to membership management, to communications, direct service provision and even the day-to-day leadership traditionally provided by an executive director or CEO. In small not-for-profits and associations, outsourcing is typically a better choice at least for the first few years or when budgets are tight. The advantages of outsourcing are many, including dramatically lower operating costs, better documentation, increased data security and a highly pragmatic approach that uses the best tools and technologies available to achieve the highest levels of efficiency.
The major challenge for many boards of directors and executive directors is that outsourced suppliers will usually ask a myriad of questions before taking on a project. They have to do this in order to fully understand a prospective client’s needs, culture and overall direction. Boards of directors and senior staff that are stuck in the command-and-control mindset are likely to interpret the very act of asking such questions as a challenge to their authority. They may feel even more threatened if it becomes clear that the not-for-profit organization has simply not done the level of record-keeping or analysis needed to answer the prospective supplier’s questions. Even if the organization’s prior performance is strong, its leaders may not have developed the skill sets required to participate effectively in such a collaborative forum, or to graciously acknowledge any shortcomings and ask for suggestions.
In the short term, this can result in not-for-profit organizations hiring people to do things in-house even when it is more expensive and less efficient to do so. There is also a significant long-term cost, as outsourcing generally leads to greatly enhanced empirical data about the organization and the people it serves, which forces the both the board of directors and senior staff of the organization to adhere to much higher standards of performance.
If you serve on or work for a board of directors that wants to move beyond a command-and-control mindset, The Association Expert can help. Please contact us at 1-877-685-4288.