Leadership Throughout the Life of an Organization

February 23, 2017

Organizations grow and change. We can understand this change in terms of a life cycle with organizations being characterized as “start-up,” “adolescent,” “mature,” “stagnant,” or “defunct.” Ideally, an organization moves smoothly as it progresses from start-up to maturity. However, this is seldom the case—unanticipated crises or unexpected successes can cause a regress or progress at any time and the life cycle isn’t always linear.

In an ongoing series, we’re going to be looking at different challenges that organizations face as they move through this “cycle.” We’ll begin by talking about executive leadership and turn to other aspects of organizations in later posts.

A start-up generally consists of a volunteer board with the founder(s) playing an important hands-on role. With little or no paid staff, board members handle strategic direction, program development, and day-to-day operations.

As an organization heads into adolescence, staffing usually grows and we begin to see more of a distinction between the roles of board and staff, with executive leaders directing programs and program evaluation as well as operations and human resources. This is an important time for executive leaders to intentionally develop their management and leadership skills as well as seek out training opportunities for their staff.

Maturity describes an organization with well-established programs, formalized operations, and a high-functioning board. With a larger, professional staff, executive leaders of mature organizations can serve as a liaison between the board and staff harmonizing strategy, programming, and operations. Freed from day-to-day operations, an executive leader can dedicate more time to high-level advocacy, strategic relationships, and thought leadership.

For a variety of reasons, an organization at any of these stages can stagnate. Stagnation can take the form of a crisis or a slow, subtle decline. Hopefully, board members and executive leaders will recognize the signs and respond appropriately. Because of the uniqueness of organizations, these responses will take different shapes. Partnering with a consultant or seeking out very specific knowledge and trainings can help turn crises into opportunity.

At CNE we offer a range of programs and services to support executive leaders and staff members taking on leadership roles. Through our Leadership Circles and coaching services we provide leaders with professional development opportunities. In recognition of the need to support leadership, we’re designating March as Leadership Month and have teed up a number of trainings for March on this important topic.

© Center for Nonprofit Excellence 2017
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