May 14, 2009

Create a Systematic Way to Attract, Engage, Develop, and Retain Extraordinary, Diverse Talent

In this commentary on the 2009 Bridgespan Group report, "Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits," Chief People Officer Aimée Eubanks Davis of Teach For America shares how her organization's developed an internal system of "talent management" to address Teach For America's potential leadership deficit.

By: Aimée Eubanks Davis

A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

In 2004, we became increasingly convinced that to fulfill our potential, we needed to develop significant capacity to grow our own leadership and management talent as an organization. Like the study Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits found, we saw a shortage of people with the problem-solving and management experience necessary to take us where we were trying to go, given the increasing complexity of leading Teach For America. Our decision to scale our programmatic efforts required us to grow our staff from 200 staff members in 2004 to 1,200 by 2009. While historically we had relied mainly on former program participants (our “alumni”), the vast majority of our alumni were under the age of 30 and did not have extensive management skills and the traditional problem solving skills that many for-profit executives and management consultants obtain through their work.

Related Content

Download the report Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits [PDF]

Read the executive summary

Download a collection of the commentaries [PDF]

While we worked to meet many of our staffing needs by recruiting more people from the for-profit sector, we realized this was not a long-term solution. We knew that in an ideal world a significant number of our staff members would have the firsthand experience and knowledge of our work that our alumni receive from helping the students they teach in low-income communities achieve significant academic gains. Therefore, we needed to think differently about how to prepare our internal talent to assume significant leadership roles in the future, and we realized that, like many high-performing organizations, we would benefit from a robust internal system of “talent management."

This led us to develop a competency model as the center of a Leadership Development System (LDS). The LDS is an integrated suite of activities, which are linked to the competency model. The LDS is the foundation of our Human Assets strategy, which aims to enable us to do the following: attract extraordinary, diverse talent in a timely way to meet our goals; engage staff members to create a productive, sustainable culture that builds Teach For America’s strength as an institution; develop the leaders at all levels of the organization that we will need to meet our short- and long-term goals; and retain our strongest contributors over time. We are on the path to maximizing the potential of the LDS by infusing it into the work we do across the entire spectrum of our management activities.

The Human Assets team’s work, in partnership with managers, is the critical lever to ensuring we live up to the promise of the LDS. While the Human Assets team creates and enhances the centralized LDS tools, systems, and processes, we charge our managers to be the front-line stewards of LDS. For example, managers have access to selection tools that can help them select people who are capable of meeting the skill requirements of their role, and they make certain their new staff members attend centralized onboarding, which provides the opportunity for a new staff member to more deeply understand our culture and mission. Managers develop staff members’ skills through role specific trainings and rich performance feedback, and they partner with Human Assets to reflect on the breadth and depth of their team members’ abilities and proactively retain high-potential talent and identify critical gaps.

Ideally, the LDS will allow us to take talented young staff members and build them into future leaders so that we do not have to go outside of Teach For America when senior level roles open. We are investing significantly in this aggressive effort to build our own pipeline of leaders ready to assume increasingly complex roles that require significant management, relationship, and problem-solving skills because we know that this is the key to Teach For America fulfilling its potential as a force for change. Additionally, our hope is that our staff members can serve as a pipeline into leadership positions in other nonprofit and educational organizations given the importance of our collective work.

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