Chief executive officers (CEO) of nonprofit organizations are sometimes their own worst enemies. When they are reluctant to make difficult decisions and instead defer to others in the organization, whether staff members or members of the board of directors, they can find themselves in a very uncomfortable place because a wrong decision was made and it comes back to haunt them.
Recently, the director of the All for Children (AFC) nonprofit found herself faced with having to undo and redo staff assignments because she was unwilling to demonstrate real leadership several years ago. The AFC provides a range of services to troubled children from infancy through 18 years of age and to their parents. Since Israel is a multi-language country, its services are offered in Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, and Amharic, among others.
The AFC has day centers and support centers for these children and their families throughout Israel. Some receive children after the school day is over and provide a hot meal and help with homework. Parents often join the children then and participate in joint activities before returning home. In addition, each center offers a support group for parents where they can discuss their challenges with other parents as well as with the staff. Many parents find this assistance very helpful in dealing with parenting issues.
In one of the centers there was a very bright, articulate, and skillful staff member who had wonderful relationships with the other staff, the parents, and the children. She had been working for the AFC for more than five years and was interested not only in taking on more responsibility but also in developing herself professionally. Over the years she had spoken to the AFC CEO as well as the director of her specific center. There was general agreement that she had a future with the AFC and that when an appropriate position became available her candidacy would be considered seriously.
Of course, she was not the only staff member looking for an advancement opportunity: the AFC CEO had had conversations with a number of staff members about their future in the organization. At the same time the director of one of the other centers was proving to be quite problematic. He did not demonstrate good administrative skills in working with his staff, the parents at the center, and the volunteers who are an integral part of the center’s functioning in the community.
It was not clear to anyone why the AFC CEO was committed to keeping this center director, but for some reason she had great faith in him. Over the years, they had developed a close professional connection, and the AFC CEO told him she was committed to finding him an appropriate position in another local center. The other center directors were watching the situation closely and curious what would happen with this problematic director.
During this same period the AFC was in negotiations with a community to open a new center there, and as the plans moved from discussion to implementation a search began for a director. Of course it was not surprising to anyone that the staff member who had demonstrated her skills and abilities for the past five years was interested in the position, but so was the problematic center director. The CEO now found herself in a very difficult place. Essentially she had made a commitment to two staff members to provide them with new positions.
It was at this juncture that the CEO demonstrated a failure of true leadership. Reluctant to choose which staff member was best for this position, she abdicated her responsibility and gave the decision-making authority to the board of directors. A committee of board members was formed to interview both staff members and recommend which one to hire to be the director of the new center.
Unfortunately, the board selected the incumbent center director, despite his having real challenges in his current position. This decision was based on the fact that he had formal professional training in the area of children-at-risk and parenting, while the other candidate had learned a great deal on the job and was pursuing professional development through continuing professional education courses. When she was not offered the center director position, she quickly found a more suitable position at another agency.
However, this was not the real problem! Once the director transferred to the new center the AFC was confronted with an interesting dynamic. Since the centers were designed to accommodate clients according to the language they felt most comfortable speaking, clients often traveled to different centers to obtain services in the language with which they felt most comfortable. This meant that in most cases clients were assigned to a specific center.
The new center was an English-speaking center, and almost all of the families assigned to it had at least one parent who was an Anglo-Saxon. Several months after the center opened, many of these families requested a transfer to one of the Hebrew-speaking centers, despite their greater comfort in English. What was most surprising is that several of these families actually called the clients at the English-speaking center to recommend that they transfer to the Hebrew-speaking center. It was as if there was a grassroots movement to boycott the new center.
It was not difficult to find the reason for this exodus: the clients were not happy with the way the center director related to them or how the services were implemented. The warmth, care, and concern they expected from AFC staff were missing. They preferred to deal with the challenges of the language than continue in a place that represented the exact opposite of what they were looking for in terms of social services. In a literal sense they were speaking with their feet and not their mouths.
Obviously, the AFC director made the wrong decision by deferring her decision-making to the board and not hiring the right staff member for the new center. She lost out twice: losing a committed and skillful staff member and hiring the wrong person for the job. Although she had seemingly promised the new position to two people, she should have had the strength of her convictions to hire the right person for the right job and not allowed her personal commitment to override her professional evaluation of what the AFC needed in its new center.
CEO’s have to make decisions, and not everyone will be happy with them. However, professional leadership means making difficult decisions even when they may displease staff, board members, or volunteers. When the CEO does not make the right decision at the right time, he or she will inevitably face the consequences later.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.