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

Ellie Canter spent four months building her management skills through an intensive leadership development program. Since then, she has been promoted, has taken on more direct reports, and is helping the education nonprofit she works for expand to new cities. For Ellie, regular trainings and a support system has been essential to her success in managing teams and building sustainable programs. She says that the support has given her confidence to lead and allowed her “to question [her] management and leadership processes and expand [her] arsenal of management strategies.”

Like Canter, most nonprofit leaders see the value that prioritizing talent recruitment, development, and support can bring to the social sector. Without sufficient investment in talent, the sector will fail to meet its full potential. One of the best ways to strengthen talent, especially for a growing organization, is to focus on managers. Creating better bosses—ones that empower, support, and hold people accountable for results—consistently yields higher staff satisfaction, engagement, development, and retention. Even more important are the downstream effects: better results from the precious (and costly) resource of people, and ultimately greater organizational impact.

Despite this, mid-level employees often find themselves managing others for the first time without sufficient skills or support, and meeting with less-than-optimal results. Beyond external trainings, what can organizations do to address this manager development gap?

Last year, Net Impact created a comprehensive program to develop managers who oversee the work of others (currently 12 of our nearly 40 full-time staff). Based on learning and research about how organizations such as Global Giving, Year Up, and College Summit approach manager development, we propose four steps that organizations, large or small, can take to develop strong managers:

1. Establish a set of managerial competencies.

What kind of managerial skills does your organization most need? For example, do your priorities include effectively communicating up, down, and across departments? Coaching and developing others’ skills? Inspiring and motivating team members? Developing emotional intelligence? To define the managerial abilities most critical to your organization, engage people at all levels. At Net Impact, we used a combination of interviews, focus groups, and surveys to listen carefully to staff and managers and identify pain points. Build buy-in from managers along the way, before finalizing the competencies.

Once you define these, embed them into your organization. Share them with all staff, build them into manager job descriptions, incorporate them into professional development priorities and plans, and integrate them into the performance review process. In our performance review process (inspired by the Management Center’s helpful templates), staff members are evaluated on the results they’ve achieved against set goals and their performance in role-related competency areas. All of our managers are reviewed based on the same three managerial competencies, as well as 2-3 other abilities that are essential to their specific job. We’ve seen clear evidence that managers are more intentional about their managerial responsibilities knowing that they’ll receive feedback from junior staff, peers, and supervisors on those specific dimensions of their work.

2. Design a manager development program.

We’ve seen a wide range of approaches to training and supporting managers—customized to the size, needs, and resources of individual organizations. Year Up, for example, developed an annual, two-day manager-training program for all new supervisors at its national office. This spring, College Summit is piloting a two-day manager-training program by ProInspire that draws on curriculum from ProInspire’s successful Managing for Success program. And Global Giving created a management “boot camp” that takes a small group of managers through a six-month program, consisting of workshops, discussion, homework, and one-to-one coaching.

At Net Impact, all new supervisors attend the Management Center’s crash course for managers to build a common baseline. We supplement this with ongoing training and support through in-house, monthly sessions throughout the year. These sessions alternate between workshops facilitated by an HR or executive staff person, and self-directed discussions within peer cohorts. The sessions help managers generate and own solutions; they also build peer support by creating space to discuss management topics and get advice on management challenges.

Often organizations feel like investing time in developing people is too costly, but it’s worth noting that none of the organizations mentioned here, including Net Impact, developed leadership development programs from scratch. Each took what was out there and adapted it for its own needs.

3. Run an annual program.

The right approach to developing great managers varies by organization, but it is essential to keep manager skills and responsibilities fresh and top of mind. Developing these necessary skills is crucial, because managers can potentially be the biggest enabler or the biggest obstacle to achieving results. Our managers and staff have provided positive feedback on maintaining a monthly cadence of training workshops and peer group-led discussions. Other organizations have had success with a single, more intensive annual training and individualized support. Whatever the mechanism, managers need ongoing support, and access to resources and coaching.

4. Evaluate and improve.

Evaluation enables learning what works and improving the approach. At Net Impact, past feedback from staff resulted in us organizing more learning events and ensuring that managers offer more frequent feedback. We also aim to maintain flexibility in our programs and respond to situational factors. Because we are evolving toward a new programmatic strategy, for example, we recently decided to swap in “managing through change” as a timely topic.

It’s important to recognize the pivotal role that managers play in any organization. If we seek better results and greater impact, we must invest time in defining managerial competencies, design and develop programs that help managers meet these competencies, and then evaluate and improve through continual feedback loops. Leaders must view the support and development of good managers as core to our own jobs and theirs.