Talent Matters
Talent Matters
Talent Matters is a blog series exploring how nonprofit leaders have achieved real-world results through an emphasis on talent.

Call it the “guilt list.” Most of us carry around in our heads a litany of things we know we ought to do but somehow never get around to doing. That’s often the case when it comes to investing in the future—including, for many nonprofits, developing the next generation of leaders. Many leaders we have worked with recognize the value of leadership development yet confess that it is haphazard and inconsistent at their organization, if indeed it happens at all.

Why the disconnect? The constraints most leaders cited in our online self-assessment are time and money. This lack of resources is a chronic challenge, and often leaders are so busy tackling day-to-day problems that investments in people seem a luxury they can’t afford.

However, there are two simple practices that can put any organization on track to integrating leadership development into the day-to-day. One practice takes advantage of something nonprofits have a lot of: “stretch assignments,” or projects that challenge employees beyond their current knowledge. The other matches those assignments with individual needs.

1. Leveraging stretch assignments

One of the most powerful concepts within leadership development is the 70-20-10 model. Based on a substantial body of research, the Center for Creative Leadership has found that hands-on experience, supported by formal and informal coaching and mentoring, is the best leadership teacher. Specifically, the center advocates a leadership development model comprised of 70 percent on-the-job learning (or stretch assignments), 20 percent coaching and mentoring, and 10 percent formal training.

As previous writers in this series have pointed out, the importance of learning by doing means that nonprofits can use the many opportunities and challenges coming their way as platforms for staff development, rather than relying primarily on formal training that may be more expensive and ultimately less powerful.

The YMCA of the USA has taken the 70-20-10 model to heart. It created a development guide, “Developing Cause-Driven Leaders,” that prompts staffers and their managers to write annual development plans within the 70-20-10 framework. For example, a manager might assign someone who needs more fundraising experience to research and write the first draft of a grant proposal. Her manager might connect her with an experienced grant writer who can provide coaching on the drafting process, and she might then buttress that coaching with an online grantwriting seminar.

Even without a formal framework, organizations can use stretch assignments more deliberately for leadership development. They can assign a developing leader who needs to flex their communication skills to make a presentation to the board or important stakeholders, for example, or place several leaders who need greater organization-wide visibility on a cross-functional task force, and provide the coaching and formal training they need to succeed. When organizations allocate assignments to build needed leadership skills, even seemingly mundane activities can become leadership development opportunities.

2. Identifying and matching individual needs

The next step for managers is to match the right assignments to the right people and thus develop their unique potential. The Performance Potential Matrix, designed to structure conversations with employees about their development needs, is one tool that can help connect the dots. It allows senior leaders to plot the relative leadership potential and performance of each employee, and provides a likely set of development needs.

At Good Shepherd—a New York City-based youth development, education, and family service agency—top executives reflect on the organization’s future leadership needs and embed related skills in the criteria they use to assess leadership potential. From there, they use the matrix to identify development goals for their respective direct reports. They then select appropriate development experiences and assignments to help employees meet their own and the organization’s goals.

As managers choose the appropriate experiences and assignments, they follow the 70-20-10 model’s emphasis on in-house stretch assignments. For example, one senior leader at Good Shepherd promoted a talented manager (who had high leadership potential and performance levels) and heavily weighted her new assignments toward learning by doing (70 percent). She was challenged to develop relationships with tenant associations and city agencies involved with affordable housing—an unfamiliar area for her. A new sports program for disconnected young people required not only supervision (her strong suit), but also going deep into program details and getting hands-on operational experience. The manager’s supervisor provided a measure of coaching, as needed, along the way.

The Performance Potential Matrix and 70-20-10 model are by no means the only tools that leaders can use to more effectively build their pipeline of future leaders. But in our experience, they are an effective way to get started. Once an organization incorporates the tools into its approach to assessment and development, it can be sure that leaders think regularly about the development needs of their staff and connect those needs to the stretch opportunities that are abundant at every nonprofit. Investing in leaders can come off the “guilt list” and instead become part of day-to-day business.