Who Leads Next?
What do today's faith-based nonprofit leaders see as the future leadership needs of their organizations? A few years ago, I was deeply involved in a comprehensive survey designed to try and address some of these questions. The answers we found may surprise you. They will certainly inform you. And I believe these findings are applicable to business and the church as well.
Open seats abound.
Did you know that about 10,000 Baby Boomers will be turning 65 each and every day from now until 2028? That number in and of itself suggests that a staggering number of leaders will be transitioning during that period as well. In fact, the data shows that nearly a third of faith-based nonprofits in the U.S. anticipate that the succession of their senior leader (CEO, Executive Director, etc.) will occur in the next three to five years.
This is an incredible changing of the guard, and an unprecedented opportunity to “rethink and reset” by bringing leaders into our organizations who can lead teams and processes that will better align our ministries to the future.
Four of the most difficult issues today's Christian leaders believe their successors will face are:
- Cultural issues that affect the organization's stakeholders and audience
- The challenge of navigating the balance of the progressive social values of some donors with those who are more conservative
- The need to truly define success (Growth? Faithfulness? Effectiveness?)
- Integrating technology (knowledge of and comfort with all things digital)
Who’s needed? Who’s not?
So what are future positions that might be needed, or not needed, in these organizations? Good question. Not surprisingly, few of today’s leaders could imagine someone who wouldn’t be needed (since nonprofits have a tendency to keep layering and adding programs and people without doing the challenging work of pruning).
Some suggested that the development director may one day soon be a thing of the past… a bit surprising since fundraising and donor development repeatedly bubble up to the top of the list of important skills needed or concerns that must be addressed by future leaders. Perhaps what they’re really saying is that the traditional role needs to be “rethought” in light of the current and future digital age.
One thing that most agree will be needed in the future is someone to fill a new combined role as strategist, technologist and digital guru—perhaps best described as a new understanding or definition of a CTO (Chief Technology Officer).
In their forward-looking white paper from way back in 2002 (digital decades ago!), Tom Berray and Raj Sampath of Cabot Consultants identified four “future” models of a CTO: 1) The Infrastructure Manager, 2) The Big Thinker, 3) The Technology Operations Manager and 4) The External–Facing Technologist.
Which type of tech leader will be needed to help secure the future of your organization? Perhaps real success will be found in a combination of all four at the helm of your digital ship. There is little doubt that the effective integration of technological leadership in nonprofits not only will be, but already is much more critical than we think.
Bridging the Gap
Another timely question is what to make of the stark differences between Gen Xers, Millennials and Baby Boomers? Well, many of today’s leaders believe we must learn to acknowledge and build on the unique strengths of each generation in both today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.
In all of our cultures, each generation must be valued for potential contributions it brings.
In the USA, the individualism of American culture can cause us to separate the generations, to prefer some over others, to exclude rather than include. But this isn’t a challenge wholly unique to America, is it? In all of our cultures, each generation must be valued for potential contributions it brings.
So, what’s next?
I believe that we are now living in a period of ambiguity—even disorientation—between what’s tried-and-true and some much-needed new way of thinking and doing.
The prevailing thought from this survey shows that adaptive leadership is needed both today and tomorrow. Good leaders today see enough of the future in the present to be able to articulate it, which represents opportunity in both the future, and in the present. So, to reuse an overused phrase, perhaps the future really is now.
Leadership challenges now require an extra something that is often intangible. We tend to hire people to solve “technical” problems in our organizations, when in fact many organizational issues that result from working in a post-modern cultural context require adaptive, not technical leadership. Adaptive challenges are harder to identify and quantify, and often require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approach to really work. And people often resist even acknowledging that these kinds of changes are needed. Solutions require experimentation and new discovery and can take a long time to implement (and cannot be implemented by “edict”). As Dr. Tom Phillips, Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, reminds us, “Skills and knowledge are good, but heart and habits are #1.”
All of this reminds me of a famous Bob Dylan song from the Sixties…“the times, they are a-changin'.”
All of this reminds me of a famous Bob Dylan song from the Sixties…“the times, they are a-changin'.” While that's certainly been true in his chosen field of music (where I spent the first half of my career)—not to mention publishing, television, communication, news and retail—we can clearly see that it's also true in the world of nonprofit organizations (where I'm spending the second half). Whether it is leadership needs, marketing tools or donor expectations, huge changes have occurred over the past decade, and there's really no end in sight.
Those who are leading well right now must stand firmly in the present while also looking to the future. They must gain insights into the qualities needed in those who lead “next” by understanding that many of these same skills and qualities are needed in the “now” as well.
Neal Joseph brings more than 35 years of executive-level leadership experience in the corporate, church and nonprofit worlds, with global organizations like Warner Bros. and Compassion International, to his current role as Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Mission:Leadership. Having traveled to 50-plus countries—both Western and developing—Neal understands the challenges and opportunities of doing both ministry and business across the globe.
Special thanks to Slingshot Group and J. David Schmidt & Associates for providing much of the data here from their “Who’s Leading Next?” project.