I work for a non-profit that has recently expanded significantly. While the CEO has passion, it is increasingly apparent they lack the leadership skills to steer us through a demanding period. We are facing serious cash-flow issues but the CEO seems to focus more on unnecessary trips and planning events. There is no accountability for this decision-making, which creates financial and reputational risk.
At the same time, the CEO consistently shuts down any constructive advice from staff. They don’t manage underperformance of some direct reports, which creates additional stress for others. Morale is low, stress levels are high and some senior staff members are leaving. I am considering leaving as well, but I do also care about our work and I want the organisation to deliver what it is capable of. We have a board but taking my concerns to them seems like a serious step. Is there any advice you could give?
When a leader of any organisation isn’t concentrating on the right things some kind of failure is bound to take place. If those failures are big enough it can put the organisation’s very existence in jeopardy. Yes, taking your concerns about the CEO to the board is a serious step, but it might also be a necessary step because of how precarious a position the organisation is in.
I asked Dr Peter Holland about your question. He’s a professor of human resource management and director of the executive MBA at Swinburne University of Technology. He told me that the problem of inadequate business leadership is age-old and society wide.
“This issue is not confined to the not-for-profit sector but may be more prominent where people are attracted to particular sectors through their passion or vocation to help, rather than their skills set.
“The problem is also not a new one in Australia. As far back as the 1990s the federal government commissioned a review of management performance in Australia, which became known as the Karpin report. The report identified the poor quality of management and it was the catalyst for many universities to develop postgraduate courses in management to address these issues.”
Admitting that he had only “limited context” to diagnose the problem in this case, Professor Holland said he suspected the rapid expansion you referred to, and the complexity that would inevitably go with it, is “a likely catalyst for these emerging problems”.
“The concern is the apparent lack of responsiveness by the CEO to these issues. This may be due to a lack of understanding, ability, insecurity or arrogance – or a combination. And this is where the board earns their stripes,” he says.
“They may not be aware of this deteriorating situation, so providing them with a background to this may enable them to act and save the organisation. The key point here is the organisation is bigger than one individual.
“My suggestion would be to address your concerns to the board, ideally with other colleagues. What I would do if I were on the board is, after a review of the issues, consider providing a mentor to work with the CEO. The mentor can act as a guide, an adviser and counsel on major issues.”
Dr Holland said resignation may still be your best option, but only if it turns out the board doesn’t have the will to make a needed change.
“Now, if the board know about these situations and has done nothing – or, after providing this information, nothing is done – then I would advise you to leave. But clearly you have a commitment to this organisation, and the only way these issues are likely to be addressed is through a review of the processes.
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