How NPOs can start filling their talent gap - now

How NPOs can start filling their talent gap - now

Leaders of non-profits are often better at selling the mission than managing the operations.

  • min read


How NPOs can start filling their talent gap - now

Most not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) across the world-and in Singapore-fail their mission when they face a gap between leadership supply and demand. Often, visionary leaders head NPOs and their charisma helps promote and sell the organization's mission. But such leaders require different skills to build a bigger organization, manage daily operations more effectively, or sustain success. They either have to acquire those capabilities or build the right team around them to ensure that the organization's leadership needs are met. When NPOs lack an adequate supply of leaders in roles in which they can make the most difference, they struggle to achieve their full potential.

In Singapore, the issue is particularly important as NPOs play a critical role in mobilizing volunteers, inspiring donors and creating impact in the community. Recognizing this, in 2009, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) partnered with Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government to launch an annual programme that develops leadership skills in NPO executives. The effort highlighted the urgent need to close the leadership gap. Speaking at the conclusion of the inaugural Social Leadership Singapore Programme, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong reiterated that leadership is the biggest challenge facing the social service sector in Singapore."

While building leadership is a multi-year process, many Singapore NPOs can take three specific steps that will immediate impact their talent supply.

First, quantify your leadership gap. Many NPOs don't have a detailed picture of the talent challenge they're facing. A rigorous analytic picture of the gap makes the challenge visible. Suddenly the talent issue can no longer be ignored as a lower priority; it is now on everyone's agenda, including that of the CEO and perhaps even the NPO's board.

A leadership gap is, by definition, a disparity between the supply of talent and the demand for talent, both now and in the future. On the supply side, begin by looking at the basics. How many leaders do you have? What are your recruitment and promotion rates? What is the level of attrition—wanted and unwanted—and retirement? What factors will affect recruitment, promotion and attrition rates in the foreseeable future? The results provide a rich set of data allowing you to build or validate a talent-supply forecast. Just as important, analysing the leadership gap this way helps to identify choke points that may require immediate attention.

The demand side begins with a similarly fundamental analysis. What will the organization look like in a year, in three years, in five years? How many leaders will you need to deliver critical pieces of the NPO's mission and what kinds of skills will those people need to have? Matching the supply forecast to the demand forecast shows in broad terms where the talent needs are likely to be most acute.

Second, deploy current talent more effectively. Too many NPOs don't have their top performers placed in jobs in which they can have the most impact. Mismatches can cripple an NPO's ability to grow and achieve scale. We often ask CEOs to tell us how many of their mission-critical positions are occupied by executives they regard as top talent. It's surprising how many have difficulty answering the question. Those who can answer it often reveal an alarming mismatch: most of their mission-critical roles are filled by average performers and some by poor performers, while many top performers are deployed in humdrum positions.

Matching top performers with key roles typically involves three steps. The first step is to identify the positions themselves. (What jobs make the biggest difference to the NPO's performance depending on the calibre of the person occupying them? In which roles will a top performer have more impact compared with an average performer?) The second step is a rigorous and realistic system for evaluating employees. (How well has each individual performed? What is his or her potential?) Step three, after identifying critical positions and realistically assessing employees, is deployment: placing the right people in the right jobs. (How can we release people from roles in which they might be performing like stars? How to match opportunities with a talented person's interests? How should we harmonize compensation?)

Third, reduce your demand for talent. This step is often overlooked, as organizations focus mainly on the supply of talent. NPOs that simplify their processes and spell out accountabilities more clearly can simultaneously keep costs under control and make the most of the talent they have. The two most effective methods of reducing demand are to strip out organizational complexity and to redesign jobs so that they use the skills of managers more effectively.

Firstly, while most NPOS tend to be lean and have very few layers, they do suffer from organizational complexity when roles and accountabilities grow murky. Reducing complexity by increasing clarity helps build morale: people feel they can get more done. Secondly, NPOs often redesign and expand job responsibilities in part due to resource constraints and in part because they believe the people holding those jobs will find them more challenging and thus more satisfying. But this view is oversimplified; what matters is whether people feel they are spending time on things that matter. Redesigning jobs not only reduces the demand for talent, it also helps an NPO deliver its mission more effectively.

Closing the leadership gap is not quick or easy, but the short-term steps can have a powerful effect. They send a clear signal to people in the organization that things are changing. The diagnosis itself uncovers issues that need to be addressed over the long term. Moreover, as any supply versus demand analysis of leadership talent needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of the organization's strategy, it brings discipline to an NPO's activities. If over time, the NPO has drifted away from its mission these steps serve as a reality check. For example, reducing the demand for leaders forces an NPO to focus on the most essential tasks it needs to do to meet its mission and goals. The result can be exhilarating and liberating: the NPO has a far greater chance of success when its talent plan matches its mission statement.

Seow-Chien Chew is a partner with Bain & Company's SE Asia practice and heads the firm's non-profit consulting practice in the region. Alan Bird is a partner in the London office and Bain's global expert on leadership supply.


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