March 1, 2005

The Who Thing

According to Jim Collins, in this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit," the number one constraint on effective growth of the nonprofit sector is not funding, but the ability to attract, retain and develop enough of the right leaders.

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

David Packard, the great entrepreneur who, along with his partner Bill Hewlett, built one of the great companies of the 20th century once observed that a great organization is more likely to die of indigestion of too much opportunity than starvation for too little. He followed this observation with what I like to call “Packard’s Law”: the primary constraint on effective growth is not financial capital, but the ability to attract and retain enough of the right people. To which—based on Tom Tierney’s white paper on The Nonprofit Sector’s Leadership Deficit—I might now suggest a corollary: the number one constraint on effective growth of the nonprofit sector is not funding and other support, but the ability to attract, retain and develop enough of the right leaders.

Everything in our research on what separates great from good in human systems supports the idea that you simply cannot build great organizations and make the best possible impact on society without having enough of the right people on the bus, and especially the right bus drivers. And that’s why Tierney’s analysis of the impending leadership gap should make us worry about America. With the huge impending transfer of wealth, the nonprofit sector may well die of indigestion of too much opportunity, unless it can attract and organically develop enough of the right leaders to make good on that opportunity.

What to do? I’m more of a researcher than a practitioner, so allow me to offer a method of analysis that might shed light on the question. I might suggest an analysis of effective nonprofit leaders, with a special emphasis on comparing leaders who made a successful shift from business to nonprofits in contrast to others who did not make a successful shift in comparable circumstances. Why did some succeed and others not? What does this teach us about what separates those who become effective nonprofit leaders from those who do not? And how can those lessons best be deployed to create a vast army of effective nonprofit leaders?

Whatever the answer, I’m convinced that Tom has identified the right question. Those who build greatness in any human system understand that it all starts—first, foremost, and always—with getting the right people into the key seats. First Who! . . . Then What. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people, especially in the key leadership seats. In the end, the most important thing is The Who Thing.

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