Associations and foundations invest substantial organizational and human resources in strategic planning to remain competitive in the marketplace. Consultants are engaged to assist with the process, competitive research is conducted, membership surveys are done, staff meetings and board retreats take place and, finally, a multi-year strategic plan is completed. The stage is now set for future activities of the organization. Many organizations, however, overlook the fact that leadership planning and strategic planning must go hand-in-hand if the strategic plan is to succeed.
A good strategic plan includes a process for regular assessment and review, including staff and committee reports and an annual board discussion session. This is all well and good, but what about the issue of organizational leadership? After making a significant investment in planning the future of the organization, who, from the volunteer perspective, will lead the process as it unfolds?
Will the Board have leadership with the requisite skills needed to guide and oversee the fulfillment of the goals and objectives of a long-range strategic plan? This question becomes more critical if the association is planning to undertake one or more of the following three initiatives:
(1) Embark on a major project
(2) Develop new programs, or
(3) Re-structure or consider a merger that may take years to complete.
While assisting a client with Board orientation and a strategic plan assessment, I learned about a proposed multi-year, multi-million-dollar project that is a significant part of their strategic plan. Much excitement surrounds this new venture, which has a timeline of more than five years to full roll-out. The more I learned about the project, the more my thoughts shifted to the question of who would lead the association over this long-term project.
Would there be a continuing high level of leadership commitment to providing the financial and human resources required to complete the strategic plan? Or will the CEO face the newly elected board-leader syndrome known as, “During my term, this project is the legacy I want to leave?”
By now some readers are saying, “This couldn’t happen to us; our association has policies and procedures to prevent things like this.” Unfortunately, things have a way of changing unexpectedly, surprising even the most experienced CEOs and staff. And that is why I propose that you develop a leadership plan that is aligned with your strategic plan.
Nominating committees and Boards should consider what I call the Three T’s of Leadership: Time, Tasks and Traits. The Three T’s should be considered as an overlay to your strategic plan. As you look at the plan, the time element of the Three T’s will track the various activities that are projected to take place. Next, you will need to outline the specific tasks that have to be accomplished for each project. Then it will be critical to reach consensus about the leadership traits that will be required to insure accomplishment of those tasks.
As board and nomination committees begin to draft a leadership plan, there are many questions to be considered, including:
- What leadership traits and styles will we require to carry out our long-range plan?
- Will the projects we expect to undertake require specific skill sets (traits) that should be reflected in our Board leadership? Sample traits we may want to look for in candidates could include: project management skills, specialized financial expertise, a willingness to engage in fundraising, or recognized public speaking skills.
- Will future leaders be willing to commit to multi-year projects even if that means sacrificing personal legacy projects?
- If a project requires, for example, expertise in a particular scientific or philanthropic area or in fundraising, will we have the right people at the right time?
The need to assess the relationship between strategic and leadership plans is a new challenge. As our associations and foundations develop more sophistication in responding to membership expectations, the process for recruiting, assessing and electing volunteer leaders becomes more important and more complex. The work of nominating committees will require more time, an in-depth understanding of the strategic plan, the ability to assess candidates from a broad spectrum of leadership traits, and a willingness to make difficult choices to “marry” organizational leadership needs with the specifics of the strategic plan.
A well-developed leadership plan that incorporates the Three T’s will need to encompass all levels of Board leadership, from entry-level officer positions, though the role of Board president or chair. This is especially so if the bylaws provide for automatic ascension of officers. In that case, the Time factor will require charting the upward movement of individuals, aligning that with the tasks set in the strategic plan and the traits required in elected leaders.
The proposal to develop a leadership plan that is compatible with your strategic plan does not rule out the vagaries of the democratic election process that many associations embrace. The lack of a rigidly structured leadership selection or progression process resulting from an open nomination system does not negate the need for consideration of specific leadership traits and experience. Prospective candidates should be made aware of the expectations of the organization in regard to its strategic plan as they consider whether to seek or continue to serve elected roles.
A leadership plan based on the Three T’s of Time, Tasks and Traits will help ensure the fulfillment of your organization’s strategic plan and ensure a successful marriage of leadership abilities with long-term goals.