April 8, 2010

The Unexpected Pleasures of Sector Switching

The former head of Bridgespan's executive search services, Wayne Luke, reflects on his career transition from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector.

By: Wayne Luke

(This weblog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.)

Time flies when you enjoy what you do. I've been working in the nonprofit sector for almost two years now, after decades spent in the for-profit world, and I've learned a few things.

Working for a nonprofit requires as much of an emotional commitment as an intellectual one. Leading a nonprofit requires managerial acumen and intellectual horsepower, but even more important, you need to be personally invested in the mission. Seeing how your efforts can strengthen an organization and the effects your work is having on people's lives can be emotionally satisfying. Improving a child's experience in public schools, for instance, requires innovative thinking, sure, but also the tenacity and resourcefulness to overcome the many hurdles embedded in the nation's education system. Intellectual engagement alone isn't enough.

Despite what you've heard, decisiveness is alive and well in the nonprofit world. Endless collaboration and decision-making by consensus do not run rampant in nonprofits; there's plenty of swift action and crisp decision-making. It's important for people to feel as though they've been included, certainly, and that their opinions matter, but more often than not, the buck stops squarely on executive directors' desks, and they are expected to act then and there. How could you not respond rapidly and decisively in the middle of a crisis like the recent earthquake in Haiti? Plenty of nonprofit organizations showed they could do just that.

You can be flexible and patient. Yes, nonprofits have to be resourceful with every dollar. Yes, they have to be creative and move quickly in response to societal needs. But they don't have to worry about "making numbers" in a quarterly report or falling short of analysts' expectations. As a result, they can be more focused on long-term effects and outcomes.

Passion and purpose trump profits and procedures, every time. In my for-profit life, my performance used to be measured primarily by the company's bottom line. Today my outcomes are tallied by metrics like lives enriched, human potential realized, and hopes fostered. It's tough to beat those deliverables. Knowing that a family has a place to sleep and food to eat until it can get back on its feet is infinitely more fulfilling than knowing your hotel is operating at full occupancy at a high average room rate for the coming week.

Learning these lessons hasn't been easy, and I understand why some for-profit executives might hesitate before taking the nonprofit plunge. It's like the child who really wants to go swimming, but the pond feels too cold when he dips in a toe. The only solution is to jump in, thrash around for a bit, and quickly come to realize that the water is just fine.

What's holding you back?

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