Assessing is the first step in leadership

A new leader’s first task is to assess the organization and determine what needs to be done. It is often referred to as surveying the environment. Some organizations need the new leader to take the organization to the next level; some organizations need to be shut down.

Although these ideas presented here are primarily directed toward those who will be leaders of nonprofit and volunteer organizations they are worthy of consideration by those who are about to assume leadership roles in business organizations as well. In general, there are five alternatives which come after an assessment of an organization is made. The most radical is discussed first.

1. Shut down the organization. In today’s world this alternative is getting more attention as the resetting of the economy is also affecting the resetting of organizations of all types. This writer has had one occasion to serve as president of a nonprofit organization that needed to be closed. The board of directors had determined that the purposes of the organization had been met and that it was no longer desirable to continue soliciting funds. The primary reason that the organization no longer needed to be in operation was that the environment had changed. Leading the organization was really more of a management function in winding down its operations. One of the best clues about whether to shut down an organization is a withdrawal of funding by contributors, especially those who are not being affecting by negative revenues.

2. Rescue the organization. Sometimes an organization has a worthwhile purpose and latent support, but for one reason or another it has slid into disarray and/or neglect. Often it is a case of poor leadership on the part of the executive director. Sometimes it is due to poor board participation and oversight. Organizations that need to be rescued are often characterized by poor management on the part of the executive director or poor leadership on the part of the board. Often the best way to rescue an organization is to simply start over. That means replacing the board and executive director. On the other hand, the new leader should not act too soon without gathering all the facts. Sometimes the board and management are just in need of a motivating leader and a sense of direction.

3. Maintain the organization. The adage, “Don’t fix it if it’s not broken,” certainly applies here. There are many organizations that are well-organized, running smoothly and fulfilling their missions. One of the worst things a new leader could do is attempt to impose his or her agenda on the organization. If an organization has great structure, great personnel, great leadership and terrific member support it is best to leave well enough alone. In such cases the leader for a year is really an honorary or caretaker leader. Such organizations are characterized by effective management and staff.

4. Transform the organization. Sometimes an organization needs to become something else. This may be because the environment has changed. For example, an organization that was formed to provide written reports to citizens about local government meetings may find itself no longer necessary if the local government decides to televise its meetings and stream them online. The caveat here is that a transformed organization may need to redefine its mission. For example, an organization that began as a soup kitchen may decide that it needs to address the holistic needs of the surrounding community. Or that an association of nonprofits formed for the purpose of providing training opportunities later discovered that it would be better to become a community foundation. That does not mean that the organization’s core mission should be changed. America’s military has a core mission to defend the country, but it is continually transforming itself based on technology and global events.

5. Take the organization to the next level. This is the one that most new leaders think that they want to accomplish. Nevertheless, caution is urged. There are many organizations that are doing just fine. They are accomplishing their mission, etc. They are good. But they could do better. “Good is the Enemy of Great” is the first sentence of Jim Collins’ business best seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. The leader for a year who wants to take an organization to the next level should concern himself or herself with two very important items. First, how will “the next level” be defined? Is it about more members, more revenue, more people served or more effectiveness? Once it is defined it must be determined how it will be measured. Secondly, will the next level be sustainable? Many a leader for a year were so-called shooting stars for taking the organization to the next level, but did the organization no favor by creating programs and initiatives that were not sustainable.

As mentioned above, this column was aimed at those who will lead nonprofit organizations for a limited time, usually one or two years. Nevertheless, new leaders of business organizations may find it useful to examine the same concepts about their companies.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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