Does your organization more closely resemble a one-man band or a symphony orchestra? Remember the charming chimney sweep Bert from Mary Poppins? Early in the movie there is an extremely entertaining segment when Bert (arguably one of Dick Van Dyke’s greatest roles) performs as a one man band. In case you missed Mary Poppins you can catch that scene here. If you prefer a more modern version, you can check out this Croatian one-man band.
While one-man bands are extremely entertaining and those performers are incredibly coordinated and talented; they aren’t sustainable and certainly couldn’t master the complex movements of Mozart or Mahler symphonies. Let’s mine this metaphor of the orchestra and explore three staffing practices that promote organizational sustainability.
All nonprofit organizations had (or have) a founder or a group of founders. For many nonprofits, the founder is still actively involved in the organization’s leadership and operations. Their continued involvement and presence does not necessarily present a problem. However, many founders experience a struggle in releasing their vision (for some the organization is their baby) and allowing others to share responsibilities or assume “ownership” for the vision. I label this the ME to WE transition and successfully navigating this transition is absolutely essential to an organization’s maturity and sustainability. Failures to make this transition actually limit the sustainability and may stifle the future growth of an organization.
Founders who refuse to “let go” operate as a one-man band trying to do everything that needs to be done in the organization. Leaders like this are what my mother called “a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” As entertaining as the one-man band may be to watch (I certainly lack the musical ability to pull it off), the musical quality of a one-man band pales in comparison to the symphony orchestra and cannot be sustained for long periods of time.
A common challenge to the growth (and sustainability) of all organizations is moving from ME to WE. To be sustainable, the organization’s vision must be reproduced in the hearts and minds of many others besides the founder. Think back to August 28, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what’s become one of the most famous speeches in the history of the world. He said, “I have a dream”, yet one key element to the success of the Civil Rights Movement was that Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement mobilized thousands of leaders in hundreds of cities to share the dream. Consequently, Dr. King’s dream became our dream and collectively we shared the responsibility for the dream becoming a reality.
I’ve watched a few founders as they navigated the transition from ME to WE. They carefully recruited others with a broad range of skills, mentored them in the work, and then began to delegate (and eventually transition) responsibilities to them. Some of these founders shifted from the day-to-day operations and assumed a more strategic role or focused more on relationship and resource development for the organization.
It’s almost like they became more of a conductor and orchestrated the work of others rather than being directly involved in the daily program operations and service delivery.
Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility observed that, “I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound.” The conductor leads the orchestra and, to a large degree, is responsible for the outcomes produced by the orchestra, but does not personally, directly produce any of the sounds made by the orchestra.
Where is your organization in navigating the Me to WE transition?
A second key sustainability insight from the symphony is that every member of the orchestra has a part to play and a contribution to make. Jim Collins in Good to Great challenged us to consider that “getting the right people on the bus” is the first task of a great organization. Collins also noted that it’s imperative to have the right people in the right seats and this is certainly a key principle of the orchestra. Orchestras are divided into sections and the sections arranged by chairs and someone is designated as first chair (principal instrumentalist) and section leader. Section leader may be the best descriptive term as they provide leadership to the other musicians in their section of the orchestra and may frequently lead sectional rehearsals.
Think about your organization. Can the mission be subdivided into sections? Who can (or have) you identify as sectional leaders? These are people who embrace the vision, share the mission, and provide leadership to a group for a set of tasks that support and advance the mission. As organizations grow, it’s important to address the span of control of the key leaders. It is also important to continually divide or section the work into smaller, more manageable parts and develop leaders for each section of the work.
What progress has your organization made in building its orchestra?
Several of the world’s oldest orchestras have existed for over 300 years; admittedly these orchestras are or have been sustainable. Germany’s Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra traces its origins back to 1743 and Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic was founded in 1765. These orchestras (and myriads of others) became institutions in their communities and it didn’t happen just because of a great conductor or any single musician. People in their communities saw them as vital to the life of their community and worked to support the orchestras.
Many communities host youth symphonies. These groups are instrumental (pardon the pun) in breeding not only the next generation of musicians but also the next generation of patrons for the symphony. This is a type of succession planning as they groom future leaders and supporters. Orchestras also address their sustainability by having built-in redundancies through their various sections and have growing ranks of multiple instrumentalists. (There’s not just one violinist and the show will go on even if the first chair is ill.)
These two staffing principles alone have great impact to an organization’s sustainability. Nonprofits benefit when they build a robust team (at all levels) including professional, paid, and volunteer staff - including those at the board level. Once an organization has segmented the work into sections, is intentional at developing a strong team (section) and creating job descriptions and team leaders, as well as cross training opportunities so that it develops an orchestra of folks each playing their part then together they create a sustainable work of art and beauty.
Succession planning is a sustainability imperative for all organizations. Make it a priority to ensure you are grooming future cohorts of leaders, volunteers, and philanthropists all supporting your work and enhancing your sustainability.
Where is your organization at in its journey to perpetuate its impact and longevity?
Kevin Monroe is the Founder
and Managing Partner of X Factor Consulting, a consulting firm that
makes the world a better place by equipping leaders and strengthening
organizations. Through active partnerships with businesses,
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has a wealth of experience and a passion for nonprofit and
philanthropic organizations, as evident in the results he has achieved
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