Knowing when to step aside

I’ve crawled into bed after 11:00pm the past two nights. As a conditioned morning person, I am feeling the grind this morning.

Speaking of feeling the grind: when it comes to leadership positions and the people who hold them, when is the right time for people to move on in order to bring in a fresh perspective and style to the work?

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Transitions in leadership have enormous implications for an organization’s strategic direction and culture. But, our nonprofit sector seems more comfortable sticking our heads in the ground rather than preparing and planning for the inevitable and necessary.

That’s right: necessary. Our society values longevity and gives credence to those who stay in positions of power for years. But, at what cost? That isn’t to imply that such leaders always fail or bring harm to the organizations they serve. That certainly could be the case. It’s more about recognizing that our influence and decision-making will put the organization down a series of paths aligned with our values. Yet, think of all of the other roads available to the organization that could have an even bigger impact. But, we’re not able to see those options, not because we don’t want to, but because we operate from what we know. If we haven’t walked a particular walk, then we’re not going to be able to find that way.

A lot of people have asked me this year how it feels to no longer be on the YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors. Did I miss it? Was I sad to no longer be a part of a tight-knit group of motivated, dedicated leaders?

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This was the North Carolina contingency in Atlanta for the 2017 National YNPN conference. What an easy group to love!

When put that way, of course. The organization brought incredible people to my life who have become some of my closest friends and trusted confidantes. But, when it came to my role, particularly after serving as Chair for three years, I knew that I had given all of myself on the playing field. While I had the institutional knowledge that can be a justifiable reason to encourage a leader to stay, I also had the baggage of my five years of experience dragging behind me.

As a leader, it is my responsibility to prepare the organization to continue moving forward without me in the picture. When people have asked me about my feelings related to leaving YNPN Triangle NC, I could confidently respond that I knew the chapter was going to flourish because of the committed people around the table.

One of the best lessons I learned as Chair: surround yourself with people who aren’t like you. Leaders need to be challenged in their ideas, assumptions, and visions. It is not only unfair but impossible for one person to have all of the skills we’ve identified as necessary to be a successful nonprofit leader. Nope. Not a real thing. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector still operates in this mindset (a la the solo Executive Director model aka martyr aka magician).

I was struck the first time I heard “One Last Time” from Hamilton. George Washington, through what historians have discovered, recognized his limits as a leader and took action to transition the power of the Presidency. Such forethought was not the norm during that period (nor in present day, sadly).

One lyric in particular stood out to me:

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone

Yes, let’s acknowledge there is some trace of ego laced in this idea of building something that will outlive us. Yet, I would argue that it’s more purpose than ego: who doesn’t want to be remembered? Who doesn’t want to leave some sort of positive mark on the world that is lasting? Isn’t that the reason many of us work in the public and social sectors: not necessarily for individual recognition but to have a hand in shaping better outcomes for all people and our broader world?

There’s no blueprint for knowing when it is time to step aside. I believe it comes from a combination of internal reflection (gut-checking) and being open to receiving feedback from others. It’s hard not to take it personally: you want me to go?! No no. It’s not about you. Let’s say that again: it’s not about you. These organizations are about the people the mission seeks to serve: you just have the privilege of being on other side.

Let’s make a commitment, especially as emerging leaders, to be willing to step aside and not grind our organizations/staff to the ground. Let’s commit to having open conversations about leadership transitions — preparing for them as we would any 990 or board report. Let’s commit to building a team around us full of people willing to challenge us, bring new ideas to the table, and share the responsibility of achieving collective goals.

We’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye.

 

 

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