Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Worst and Best Boss Ever

A friend and I were discussing job promotions the other day, which morphed into a discussion of What is Wrong With Nonprofit Management Today. Perhaps someone with more corporate experience can jump in and tell us if things are different in non-tax-exempt land, but at nonprofits there seems to be an ongoing inability to weed out emotionally unbalanced, or perhaps to be kind, slightly off-kilter people from the management ladder.

As you may know, I deal with nonprofits for a living, helping them to tackle issues such as this. I am quickly coming to the conclusion that poor management is not solely an organization-specific issue, but an industry-wide issue. And I think it happens like this:

Incredibly talented person, Nancy Nonprofit, comes on board as Director of Communications or Development or Major Gifts or whatever. Absolutely knocks her goals out of the park. Is rewarded by a promotion to Senior Poobah of SuchandSuch, a job at which Nancy continues to excel, thereby being a daily asset to the organization and its mission. Awesome. Super.

So what happens then?! Yep. Our dear Nancy, that amazing on-the-ground performer is promoted to a position that requires the management of staff. Staff who are doing the job that Nancy used to do, used to excel at, and used to love. Nancy doesn't get to do much of the on-the-ground stuff anymore because she is managing a whole staff in her new position as VP for Whatever, even though she has no management experience. She attends meetings with the CEO, she handles HR issues, she sets the course for the dev/comm/marketing wing of the entire organization. Nancy oughta be psyched, right?! WRONG! Because Nancy loved her old job, secretly wishes she could still do her old job, secretly resents the people who are getting to do her old job while she is sitting in Senior Staff meetings talking about budgetary line items. Nancy slowly morphs into a completely horrible boss. The kind of boss who causes the first act of anyone's day to be a walk past her assistant's cube to ask, "What kind of mood is she in today?" so that you can tell if your day is going to be disastrous or productive. The kind of boss who yells at staff in the hallway. The kind of boss that makes you cringe when you see her "having an episode" and think about a caption under her saying, "This is how women in high positions handle stressful situations."

How do these people GET and KEEP power when everyone, it seems, except HER boss knows that she is just this side of mentally unbalanced? As my friend and I discussed our old bosses we realized that the reason Angry Boss manages to cling to power is because she has both the Five Best Traits of a Boss which HER management gets to see (talent, initiative, etc), but also the Five Worst Traits of a Boss (micromanagement, distrust of staff, belief that no one can do it better than her, fear of talented young women on her staff, etc) that they don't, but that terrorize her staff into performing for her. How does someone who is so profoundly feared and loathed by her staff manage to accrue further and further promotions?

"People are promoted to their level of incompetence." I think that was Jim Collins in the book Good To Great who said that. [correct me if I'm wrong]. His point was exactly what my friend and I were discussing: a talented person is promoted and promoted until they are now doing something they were never interested in doing and perhaps have no skills to do, but that they do because, hey, it's a promotion and how do you turn that down?

This is the issue with nonprofits. What we need is a fundamental sea-change that encourages promotions based on ability that are not inextricably tied to management of other staff. That's why even the President of the United States has a Chief of Staff. No one expects POTUS to do performance reviews of his administrative assistant. No one expects him to sit in interminable admin meetings when he should be out doing what he does best, which is the original reason he was hired: to lead. So why do nonprofits take these incredibly talented, skilled people and force them into a position that is not a good or healthy fit for their temperament or career goals under the guise of "promoting" them? Can't we find a way to reward good work without perpetuating a medieval system of rewarding the strongest and best with "dominion over all the people?" Can't we create non-management, super-poobah career tracks that recognize the incredible skills of some people while not inflicting their psychic breaks and ongoing resentment on the junior staff?

Surely we can do better.


Miko said...

Right on as usual, E! This has been on my mind a lot lately. I work in not-for-profits (museums), and I actually left my last job specifically because 'Nancy' was my boss. Then I advanced up a notch in my new job, and am now watching myself like a hawk for any burgeoning Nancy traits -- and trying to pick up some mgt. knowhow on the fly, thanks to friends who are smart and skilled in that area.

At the last museum conference I attended, I spoke at length with a museum studies professor at a major northeastern university about this. She is about to start advocating, within the field, that students planning museum careers take a multi-course management or organizational psychology track along with their art history, history, or science courses. This will be a shocking new idea for most people in this field; and yet I swear, the first university I can reach that offers a Museum Management Certificate program or the like - I'll be there. The solution in the past, which has been imperfect, is to let the 'content' people run things until they're really disheveled, then bring in the 'business' people from the private sector to drop the axe and clean things up, then repeat the cycle. That hasn't been all that productive because of the adversarial dynamic between the scholars and the managers. I like the idea of non-profit mgt. certification and training because it would give the former 'content' people a clearer picture of how to work in a management capacity. They are often smart people; good training would make a big difference. It's just that the content knowledge and skill set that museum people bring to their jobs is often brilliant, but just as often has nothing to do with the job at hand -- getting staff to perform.

I guess the only problem with such a system is the same as the perennial non-profit problem: there's never enough money. Executive training and tuition? Unfortunately, not a high budget priority in most places I've worked. And with salaries much lower than in the private sector, self-funding further education is quite a trick. Hint, rich people: when you make your bequests and generous gifts, think about endowing your fave nonprofit with a budget for tuition reimbursement.

Miko said...

Whoops -- and I meant to add, the "people are promoted to their own level of incompetence" comes from The Peter Principle.

E said...

God love you, Miko! You rock!