The toughest lesson for nonprofit CEOs is learning what not to do.

Most CEOs came up through the ranks and are devoted to the mission. They get their juice, their energy, from the programs their organizations run. They tend to be far less emotionally involved with the more managerial aspects of the work. Though they are supposed to be focusing on the larger planning and vision for the organization, and though they are the external face of the institution, they can’t help but keep a hand in the day-to-day activities. Or two hands.

A lot of them are also self-conscious about their position at the top of the hierarchy, feeling a certain “aw shucks!” embarrassment about being the boss: they’d prefer to be seen as first among equals.

Nonprofit CEOs have a hard time letting go of the details. They act this way from the best of impulses. But what these idealistic, hands-on, down-to-earth, selfless and dedicated CEOs need to realize is that they’re not doing their organizations or their staff or themselves any favors.

Each CEO needs to ask herself or himself a series of questions:

  • What are the things that I do uniquely well within the organization?
  • What are the most important things for me to do, not for my own enjoyment and sense of reward, but for the good of the organization?
  • What should I let go of so I can focus on those activities?
  • If I stop overseeing certain aspects of the organization, can I accept that those I put in charge will approach things differently?

I know of what I speak. I was once a micromanaging CEO. And being told that I was hurting the organization was the most important lesson of my career.

I was an executive director of a small human services agency, and I interpreted that to mean that I had to have the final word on each and every aspect of the organization. I wore every hat, none of them completely or well. I was leaving behind a trail of dust and confusion and hurt feelings. But I was too busy and exhausted and heroic to notice.

And then one day the staff confronted me in what, in another context, would be considered an intervention.  It was a stunner for me. Where I thought I was setting an example of hard  work, they informed me I was getting in the way. What I thought was my dedication to excellence was seen to be micromanaging and second-guessing. What I thought was setting a fun, jocular tone had been coming across as belittling and disrespectful.

I had had no idea. At first I was angry at the staff, and disbelieving. I tried to explain how their interpretations were wrong. To their credit, they didn’t budge. That night I was an emotional mess. I had been working so hard, I told myself, and they were so unappreciative!

And in the morning, I realized that the staff were both brave to confront me and 100% correct in their assessment.

I was 31 years old when I got this metaphorical kick in the teeth, and it was the best thing that ever happened in my career. I mended my ways. I learned to trust my colleagues. I came to realize that if I helped create the goal, others were capable of shaping the procedures and activities to get us there. I focused on the organization’s achievements, and accepted that I didn’t need to author every successful page. And I learned to catch myself when I swooped in and overstepped my role. I remained far from perfect, but the very consciousness of my bad tendencies kept me from doing real damage.

Most leaders don’t have the benefit of this kind of early-career course correction. Now they’re 40 or 50 or 60, set in their ways, and it’s the rare staff or board that can effectively and safely intervene.

So CEO: heal thyself! Reinforce your staff – don’t second-guess them. Before giving answers, ask them what they would suggest as a course of action. Ask many questions. Judge very little. Get out of the way. And lead by letting other people take charge.

And (getting back to the first question CEOs should be asking themselves): Ask yourself what it is that you do uniquely well for the organization. Chances are, for most of you, it’s to be out of the office meeting with donors and funders and community partners.

Keep in mind what a staff member once told me about her CEO: “I simply love her. Especially when she’s not here.”

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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