Build Your Staff’s Capacity for Greatness from the Start
In Good to Great, Jim Collins’s seminal work detailing the ingredients for sustained business success, “getting the right people on the bus” is an essential element in the equation. My focus here will be on another ingredient in Collins’s formula for organizational success, one that I believe is an even greater challenge for nonprofits: getting the wrong people off the bus.
Hire for Success
As Collins notes in his 2005 monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” summary dismissals are far less common in the nonprofit sector than in the business world. Not too many Donald Trump (You’re fired!) types choose the nonprofit path, I suppose. In many ways that’s a very good thing. But it also means that we tend to suffer more consequences for a longer period of time when we make poor hiring and retention decisions than do our less-constrained or more autocratic colleagues in the for-profit world.
I’ve heard consistently over the years from my fellow executive directors that the most challenging and frustrating personnel situations aren’t the ones which involve the worst performing employees. Those folks (thankfully few in number) can generally be dealt with via standard performance review and progressive discipline processes.
It’s the marginal performers – employees who aren’t quite bad enough to fire but who add little, if any, value to the organization – who hold organizations back from achieving their missions and serving constituents as fully as possible. These are the staff members who do just enough to get by, often stymie their colleagues’ progress and have demonstrated limited capacity for or interest in self-reflection and growth.
That’s why vigorous recruitment and a thorough hiring process, while essential, aren’t sufficient. You can’t truly assess new staff members until you’ve seen them on the job. For nonprofits then, it’s crucial to be clear up front about expectations and to have in place a system for early and honest assessment of new-employee performance.
Provide Thorough Assessment
Even if you think you generally do pretty well with recruitment and hiring, what kind of early assessment do you do? Is it just a pro forma three-month review where the standard for continued employment is “satisfactory” performance and which virtually every new employee sails through? If so, you may be dooming your organization to perpetual mediocrity.
Does it make sense to set the post-hiring bar at such a low level that almost everyone can step over it? What does that say to high-performing staff? On the other hand, if you establish superior performance as the benchmark for successful completion of a “probationary” or “orientation” period, particularly for positions where the financial or reputational stakes are high, you are sending a message to the entire organization that “satisfactory” work isn’t good enough, that excellence is the organizational aspiration.
In 1970, U.S. Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska achieved dubious renown when, responding to criticism that Supreme Court nominee Harold Carswell had been a mediocre judge, he said, “So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises, Cardozos and Frankfurters, and stuff like that there.”
(Hruska was widely criticized for these remarks and was subsequently defeated for reelection.)
Establish an Expectation of Excellence
Having the wrong person in one of the seats on your nonprofit bus isn’t quite as permanent a problem as seating a mediocre Supreme Court Justice, but it can still be a serious disability. So don’t assume your job is done after the hiring process is over. If you want excellence to be the norm for your organization, establish that expectation up front and enforce it consistently at the initial assessment stage.
In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing nonprofit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.