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The Nonprofit CEO: Leading the Organization

November 10, 2014

Last week, we began our discussion of the basic responsibilities of the nonprofit chief executive officer as described by Rick Moyers for BoardSource. The first of these responsibilities is a commitment to the mission of the organization.

This week, three other responsibilities revolve around leading the staff and managing the organization, exercising responsible financial stewardship, and ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the organization's programs.

Some of the responsibilities under the theme of leading the staff and managing the organization include:

  • Hiring, managing and supervising the staff. While the nonprofit chief executive might delegate some or all of this responsibility to others, he or she is ultimately responsible to the board for the hiring, retention, advancement and termination of the staff. Many CEOs report that one of their biggest regrets is allowing difficult personnel situations to drag on too long before making a decision to let go of a staff person. But, a friend of mine has reminded me that leaders should be "relentless in their pursuit of excellence," which often requires difficult and even unpopular staffing decisions.
  • Inspiring and motivating employees. Good leaders need to be able to set priorities and move their organizations according to those priorities. The more priorities you have, the harder it is to motivate people. But, inspiring people and rewarding success are important roles for the chief executive. As our CEO, Ken Chenault, often says, the role of a leader is to "define reality and give hope."
  • Promoting a culture that reflects the organization's values. At American Express, we have a number of values including integrity, team work, good citizenship and the will to win. These values, and our code of conduct, help to drive a culture that values service and trust. The CEO has the most power and responsibility to shape and drive the organization's culture over time, and failure to attend to this important function may result in less desirable values filling the void.

Other responsibilities outlined in Moyer's book include:

  • Creating a staff structure that supports the organization's goals, objectives and priorities.
  • Ensuring that employees have the work environment, supplies and equipment needed to do their jobs effectively.
  • Offering salaries and benefits that will attract and retain qualified staff members.
  • Supporting the growth and development of existing staff members.
  • Leading by example.

In addition to these leadership and management responsibilities, a good nonprofit chief executive must also make sound and prudent financial decisions and safeguard the resources of the organization. Even if the organization employs a chief financial officer, it is the responsibility of the chief executive officer to understand the organization's budget and financial situation and to make smart, objective decisions in the use of the organization's resources.

Lastly, it's the responsibility of the nonprofit chief executive to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the organization's programs and services. Moyers suggests a number of questions that CEOs should ask themselves, including:

  • Are we clear about what we're trying to accomplish? What evidence do we have that our programs are effective or that our approach works?
  • What's our definition of success? Can it be measured or documented, and are we currently making any effort to do so?
  • Do we understand the difference between activities and outcomes, and do we take the time to evaluate both?

If you have a question or comment, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

Next week: Fundraising and Engaging the Board


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