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Nonprofit HR’s Blog

You may be the founder of a nonprofit, the CEO, a top performer or a staff member who consistently delivers excellence and phenomenal results or outcomes, but the harsh truth remains: You are replaceable. It’s an “aha” moment for many of the executives I work with—the fact that someone else can (and someday will) step into their role.

It’s scary to think another person could do your job, and perhaps even do it better. But the reality is that nonprofits need to be creative and innovative and continue to generate new ideas that lead to mission and purpose-oriented solutions. If the leader in place is considered “irreplaceable,” the organization can only grow so much before it plateaus.

As a leader—a great leader—of a nonprofit, you must view your role differently. Your responsibility to the organization goes beyond today and tomorrow. To truly make an impact, you have to look at the long-term future of the organization while keeping the community and constituents you serve top of mind.

Imagine with me for a minute. When you move on—whether you’re retiring, resigning or moving to a new organization—what will you leave behind? What kind of future do you want to create?

To build a lasting legacy, leaders must think beyond themselves. So what does that look like? How does a leader act with the knowledge that they are replaceable?

Here are four specific actions a good leader (like you!) can take to ensure he or she leaves an organization better, stronger and poised for more success after their departure:

1. Establish and contribute to a mentorship program

In the world of emergency medical services, senior paramedics regularly assess talent and take the initiative to groom those who show potential. They look for motivated, passionate individuals and then employ more formal mentoring, education and support, which promotes the growth of the EMS field as a whole. The nonprofit sector needs to follow suit.

You see, good leaders plan for new leaders. Live that out at your nonprofit by putting a mentorship program in place and being an active part of it. Mentoring is about knowledge-sharing, support and consistent coaching. It sets the tone for an open, innovative workplace culture. Acting as a mentor allows you to recognize exceptional talent—your organization’s future leaders.

2. Implement cross-training across roles

Many of us are familiar with the quintessential cross-training football player who signs up for a ballet class. In a similar example, groups of doctors have been known to study techniques of NASCAR pit crews in order to increase their speed and efficiency in emergency situations. And military leaders have recognized the value of building relationships and learning from other non-governmental groups who may have a deeper understanding of a location’s cultural and logistical characteristics.

The lesson here is that we need to learn from and teach one another, and with that exchange, we can collectively do and be better. Think about it: what do you do that no one else does? When you leave, the last thing you’d want to do is cripple the organization. Now is the time to survey various roles across your organization and make room for opportunities for people at all levels to learn and take on new responsibilities. Encouraging cross-training mentality has so many benefits: it mitigates risk, creates a sense of teamwork, promotes efficiency and keeps people challenged, engaged and inspired.

3. Delegate work

The ability to delegate is a rare quality in entrepreneurial leaders. Among leaders who are founders of an organization that employ at least one person, only one in four demonstrate a high level of delegation. But research from Gallup shows that business leaders who delegate contribute to greater business growth and higher revenues. These leaders are strong, supportive managers who recognize the talent within their team.

People often hoard information because they want to be indispensable, irreplaceable and needed. But a good nonprofit leader knows that sharing information is beneficial to the overall health and mission of an organization. If you want your organization to grow, you must delegate. Teach others what you know. Build a team you can trust to do good work.

4. Plan for the future.

Changes in leadership often produce a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty. Consider the example of Apple and the transition in leadership from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook. Company employees, the industry and consumers all questioned how this change would affect Apple’s workplace and its future. But Jobs—who defined Apple as a brand and had a heavy hand in design, development, marketing and management—hand-picked Cook to succeed him as CEO. The two men had some similarities and many differences in leadership style, but it was clear that the transition would ignite change—and in turn, innovation.

Leaders do themselves a disservice if they don’t plan for successors. For many executives, the idea of finding a successor has never crossed their minds. But planning is everything. Without a solid transition plan, an organization often experiences a “slow down” as new leadership steps in and gets up to speed. To prevent that type of lull, a good leader will plan ahead, identify talent and mentor a successor. The bottom line: You have a responsibility to identify your replacement—a responsibility to your organization, its mission and the community as a whole.

It’s tempting to want to be seen as irreplaceable. But a good leader knows he or she is replaceable and is proactive with that knowledge. Focus on leaving a legacy and making an impact. Mentor, cross-train, delegate and plan for the future. Your organization and your community will be all the better for it.

Searching for your nonprofit’s next leader isn’t easy. The last thing you want is to select someone who you believe to be a perfect fit for your organization only to find out a few months later that they’re not up to the job. Fortunately, a comprehensive and effective executive interview can help you avoid a hiring mistake. It all starts with asking the right questions. Download our list of 20 questions to ask while conducting interview for your next nonprofit executive. 

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