The Evolution of Nonprofit Leadership: We Need More Conductors

Conductor 1

Nearly everything has changed in today’s digital world – including the most important duties of executive leaders in successful organizations.

I’ve recently been involved in conversations exploring the new roles of executive leadership (the Chiefs) in today’s evolved world. Everything related to managing effective organizations seems to be changing – audiences, engagement mechanisms, desired public values, and even the roles of institutions themselves. Organizations are “flattening” hierarchical structures, opening authority, and some are even letting staff members work from home. Even the role of email and websites has changed. These are all very different and far more prevalent situations than they were even five years ago. As such, the way that executive leaders lead must evolve, too.

Today’s evolved world demands that Chiefs play the role of symphony conductor rather than first chair of an instrument within their organizations. In other words, the days of the Chief as “expert practitioner” have past. It’s more important than ever that Chiefs “conduct the symphony” rather than getting lost in the weeds (a place that – let’s be real – some Chiefs have been known to camp out)!

In this bad metaphor of Chiefs as conductors, the role of the CEO is to make sure that all of these departmental orchestras develop a cohesive symphony that is consistent with the organization’s overall values and objectives.

Today, organizations need conductors because even the most renowned first chair requires a maestro. Indeed, many of the most successful Chiefs have long been playing the role of “conductor” – and this skill has never been more valuable or in-demand. The world moves too quickly for Chiefs to be “expert” at everything in their department or organizations – and successful Chiefs benefit by orchestrating the collective talents of their entire team to achieve success.

Here are three reasons why the need for conducting skills has never been greater:

 

1) We are in the midst of revolution

The Digital Revolution (emphasis on the word “revolution”) is so named for a reason – nearly everything has changed. To ignore this unassailable fact is to actively refuse to evolve an organization to keep pace with the surrounding world. It is the equivalent of choosing irrelevance.

Further compounding the challenge of the revolution is that fact that it’s still happening. For example, Facebook algorithms change and the very tactic that works best one month can hurt your organization’s virality the next. New technologies create new advertising efficiencies – last season’s “tried and true” may be obsolete this season. It’s several full-time jobs just keeping up with the various aspects that go into a department. For instance, at IMPACTS, we are increasingly observing smart, forward-thinking organizations “outsourcing” aspects of their advertising strategy to more expert practitioners. This is not a knock on internal expertise – it is a compliment to the self-awareness of organizations that recognize the functional impossibility of maintaining expertise in an increasingly esoteric, evolving space. The advertising world is incredibly dynamic – it takes true experts who live and breathe it every day – to work with maximum efficacy. Increasingly, it’s simply too much for an individual working for one organization (without a grasp on the broader industry and without devoting significant resources to keeping up with day-to-day changes) to optimize an advertising plan.

Even a magical Chief who could stop time could not possibly hope to fully catch up on any one branch of their department – let alone all branches. Organizations increasingly need real experts. And organizations need Chiefs to hire these experts and trust them. Chiefs may benefit by realizing that – as awesome as they may be – it is unrealistic to think that they need to be more expert than the experts they’ve hired when it comes to the details.

When a leader plays the popular, “Now explain every aspect of this new thing to me while I fire back with actually-irrelevant, pre-digital revolution logic” game, the organization loses. If you’ve hired a good person, the only things a leader needs to consider are: “Will this work?” and “Does this fit with our organizational values?” and “Does this bring us closer to achieving our goals?”

 

2) Someone needs to preach to the choir

Sounds counter-productive, doesn’t it? In today’s world, though, it’s increasingly necessary. One of the most important roles of a good Chief is managing successful internal communications.

It’s difficult for conductors to successfully conduct when the sheet music hasn’t been distributed to the musicians. Worse yet, it’s even more difficult to sound like a brilliant symphony without hours of practice. Yet, in a rush to engage external audiences in our fast-paced world, organizations regularly underestimate the critical importance of taking a moment to get everyone on the same page. This is increasingly glossed over, and yet this is arguably more important than ever before given our real-time, digital world!

Reputation plays an important role in an organization’s success when it comes to garnering support – and managing reputation is a duty that every department – and the CEO and Board, of course – must work to carry out in concert. A good Chief communicates purpose and reinforces the “why” of the organization within their respective department and organization. Without this, nobody plays the same song at the same pace. Without first aligning internal messages – a function of relentless communication – it’s impossible for staff to successfully communicate externally.

 

3) You cannot rule from the mountaintop while stuck in the weeds

Organizations must be accessible 24/7 on real-time, digital platforms to answer questions and/or provide information from nearly all departments. The opinion of one, connected individual can have a real impact on an organization’s bottom lines.

If CEOs of the past needed to stand on the mountaintops to get a view of their kingdom, now they need to look out from space shuttles. Simply stated, today’s world demands that leaders develop a wider view of the institution and how it is perceived in order to develop strategy and confidently maintain an agile organization. If a leader is spending a disproportionate amount of time on one aspect of the organization (or one department), then they may miss the larger, more important, “big picture” aspects of the overall performance that they are supposed to be conducting.

More constantly-evolving areas of expertise (as we have in today’s world) mean more details with which Chiefs may unknowingly distract themselves. Real leaders don’t hide in the weeds – especially when their organizations need them most.

The opportunity here isn’t to simply encourage leaders to stop micromanaging.The opportunity is to clarify structures and roles to meet the opportunity of an evolved world. Today, successful leaders are conductors – they bring talented musicians together, communicate the song for everyone to play, and work hard to create beautiful music.

 

Like this post? Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

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