We recently conducted a focus group with nonprofit CEOs in New York City. Given all the recent research that points to the value of peer-to-peer support for nonprofit leaders, we wanted to know why so little of this is done online. One CEO immediately responded, “We don’t have time.”
The facilitator of the focus group was taken aback. “How do you have time to come to this two-hour focus group but don’t have the time to go online?”
The leaders in the room saw the return on investment for a well-organized meeting with their peers to be much greater than anything they could do in the digital commons. They were more confident that they would get actionable insight into management techniques. But perhaps more importantly, the meeting provided an emotional and psychological benefit that is rarely met: a space for candid conversation about successes and failures in a safe, supportive environment.
Face-to-face conversations with other leaders—commercial and nonprofit—remind us that failure is, in fact, the norm and does not preclude success.
“If [CEOs’ successes] were graded on a curve, the mean on the test would be 22 out of a 100,” Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz recently wrote on TechCrunch. “This kind of mean can be psychologically challenging…because nobody tells you that the mean is 22.”
If the buck stops at the CEO, every failure in our organization ends up piled on my desk—whether it’s a typo on the website, a bad hire, or a missed market opportunity. After just a week, the failures stack up so high that it is hard to see past the mountain of complaints.
I remember when I was running product management at a venture in the Bay Area a dozen years ago, my reaction was the same: “Who the hell is running this place?” Now as CEO of my own organization, the disturbing answer is: me.
For Ben and other fellow CEOs from the Hip Hop Generation, these challenges are hard to accept. If, as Eminem said so well, “Success is my only ^&$%ing option and failure’s not,” it’s hard to stay the course as the failures mount every hour. You suspect that your team and board also see the growing list of shortcomings and wonder how you could have let them happen. How can you not feel incompetent?
One of the greatest gifts of my career was being asked to the join the board of Public Architecture. While passionate about its mission, from day one I was deeply concerned with nearly every aspect of its work. It failed to follow the most basic best practices in staffing, fundraising, and strategic planning.
And yet I soon realized that they were achieving astounding things that felt out of reach for my own organization, where we put such pride in doing things “right.” It placed the seriousness of all my daily failures in a new light.
Success, it appears, is about doing a few things right in the presence of countless inevitable failures. This is the difference between management and leadership: The act of management is ultimately about control, while leadership is about letting go and trusting others and the universe. It is about being able to take risks in the face of bad odds and having the resilience to see a 22 percent success rate as a realistic standard.
This, I suspect, is why the heads of nonprofits find so much value in coming together in person. Nonprofit leaders need to be able to get out of their bubbles and see that they are not alone in facing continuous failure. This can’t be done online.
While we need to continue to build formal peer-to-peer support groups for nonprofit leaders, I recommend another path. Nonprofit executive directors should join more nonprofit boards where they can not only gain perspective, but also provide critical support to one of their peers.
Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.