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Bridgespan's Plan A for Nonprofit Leadership Development

July 30, 2012

The nonprofit management firm, Bridgespan, recently released a guide to leadership development entitled, "Plan A: How Successful Nonprofits Develop Their Future Leaders." In it, the writers, Kirk Kramer and Preeta Nayak, assert that "the biggest obstacle to improved leadership development may be the behavior of leaders."

Their plan, which they call "Plan A," treats leadership development as a proactive and systemic investment in building a pipeline of leaders within an organization rather than as an ad hoc response to a leadership transition crisis.

This concept was originally set forth by American Express CEO Ken Chenault in a leadership workshop including representatives from Bridgespan and prominent nonprofit organizations as a road map that spells out an organization’s evolving leadership needs, identifies future leaders, and outlines activities to strengthen their leadership capabilities.

Kramer and Nayak outline five related processes in their guide:

  • Engaging senior leaders. A majority of respondents to an on-line diagnostic tool used by Bridgespan say that senior leaders are not held accountable for their development efforts. In order to build leaders for the future, the chief executive officer must be the de facto chief talent officer as well.
  • Mapping out a vision of the future leadership team. A systemic leadership development plan starts with an understanding of needed leadership capabilities. Only 39% of respondents to the Bridgespan survey agreed with the statement, "We have an understanding of the leadership capacity our organization will need 3-5 years from now in order to achieve our strategic goals."
  • Developing future leaders. According to the authors, research has shown that the most effective leadership development involved 70% on-the-job training, 20% help from coaches and mentors and 10% formal training. Only 29% of respondents think that potential leaders have development plans in place.
  • Seeking new talent to fill gaps. Nonprofit organizations do a fairly good job at hiring externally, but very few organizations have plans in place to orient and develop these external hires. 40% of leaders surveyed disagreed that "we on-board and successfully integrate external leadership hires."
  • Monitoring and improving the process of developing leaders. Only 23% of leaders surveyed agreed that "We regularly collect data to evaluate our progress and to understand what leadership development practices and supports are most effective."

Of the 225 leaders surveyed by the authors, nearly two-thirds disagree with the statement that "Our organization is highly effective in developing a strong internal and external pipeline of future leaders." So, clearly there is work to be done.

This 95 page guide may not have all the answers, but it sets out a clear road map for organizations who are seeking a more systematic approach to the development of high potential leaders within their organizations. It will be published in paperback form in the fall, but you can download it now at

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