I was speaking to the outgoing board chair of a non-profit recently because I’m considering joining the board, and after thirty minutes or so of conversation, she mentioned that she was sad to be leaving the board. From all appearances, she’s been a great board chair, is still very much into the vision and mission, and is someone I’d love to be on the board with. I’m sad she’s leaving, too.
So I asked why she’s leaving. The simple answer was that she “termed out” — meaning that the organization has a two-term limit of three years per term, and she’d served her two terms. The organization made an exception to extend her time on the board for a few months because they rightly determined that there needed to be more time for the outgoing board chair to assist the incoming board chair.
My spidey sense was tingling that the organization’s term limit policies aren’t good for the organization. In my previous career as an Army officer I experienced how organizational time limits for command leadership caused unintended consequences that may have been more harmful than beneficial for Army units, including the unit that I commanded. I told her so, and explained where that was coming from.
Leadership “Term Limits” Hurt Transitioning Army Units
About a decade ago, one of the recurring patterns we saw in deploying and redeploying Army units was that key leaders were rotating out of positions too quickly. A leader would come in and get a unit ready for deployment, then their term would be up right before the unit went into theater. The length of deployments at the time were such that the unit’s leaders would term out shortly after returning from deployment, so a third commander would come in to transition the unit into garrison/training status. Given that doing this took many leaders eighteen months to two years, by the time they’d transitioned and re-stabilized the unit, a fourth leader was coming in and prepping the unit for deployment again.
The most significant reason that my unit was able to shave our redeployment time down to nine months — a record time for our state — was that many of the unit’s key leaders stayed with the unit after deployment. A large part of the reason they stayed is because their commander was relieved in theater and the leaders recognized that the troops needed stability and people they trusted, but these leaders had also grown up in the unit. Having one’s commander relieved of duty can be demoralizing and embarrassing, and the commander’s personal choices did not reflect the honor and accomplishment of the unit. The remaining leaders knew that the incoming commander would be walking into a challenging situation and would have zero room for failure, missteps, or ignorance — the troops were even more antipathic toward officers than soldiers generally are.
I had already seen some of the patterns and problems of key leader transfer due to the fact that I was the second-in-command of my unit when we redeployed and did much of the logistics and leadership planning that helped our unit beat our redeployment timetable. Our commander had also been relieved in theater, so I was often advising our new commander about personnel history and organizational patterns. Many of our key leaders had transferred to other units, so there were also plenty of gaps that I was being filled in on by the troops stepping into those positions. (In case you ever wonder where I learned how to “fix the plane while flying it”, now you know — it wasn’t in business.)
So when I stepped into my own command position, one of my main priorities was to retain as much of the leadership team that I could. I knew that I didn’t have long to earn their trust, get things moving, and get the unit where it needed to be before I transferred out. I was also walking in as minority first lieutenant, when commanders at my level were general captains (one rank higher). I had to get in, accomplish the redeployment objectives while balancing that with the unit’s high-profile mission, and rebuild/stabilize morale so that our troops were proud to be a part of the unit and wouldn’t transfer out. Too easy.
Much of what was creating this tension, though, was that there were too few command positions for captains and a command position is a requirement for advancement. Army officers spend a long time in non-command staff positions waiting for a command position, and command times shrunk from three or four years to half that in a few decades, partially due to downsizing and also due to more incoming officers (since college graduation rates among soldiers continue to climb). Those organizational and cultural dynamics were well above my paygrade to fix then and still are now.
The Mission Should Drive the Organization, Not the Organization’s Rules
The non-profit in question doesn’t have all the same forces in play. I’m guessing that the rule is in place to keep the board fresh and relevant to the organization’s current objectives, to make sure that there’s a diversity of leadership and advisory perspectives coming through, and to prevent an under-performing or under-engaged board member from staying on the board. Those are all good things to be looking out for, and there are other ways to accomplish those aims — all of which require stronger explicit expectations and accountability of board members and even stronger leadership from the board chairs. At the very least, a board member becoming the chair of the board shouldn’t count against their term limit. (To be honest, knowing of the term limit made me consider whether it’d be best for me to wait to join the board given that I may not be as powerfully engaged right now as I might be next year or the year after.)
The other fundamental dynamic in play for the organization is that it’s taken on a much more ambitious challenge than it had in the past, or that it knew it was getting into. The scale of their project has shifted from something that can be done in five years to something that will take decades to really cash out. Getting food in the hands of a certain population is a logistics problem surmountable in five to ten years for a focused and funded organization. Mitigating the forces that lead to food scarcity in that population are cultural, political, and economic problems that require decades to address.
The larger the scale of the problem, the more you need to retain committed, effective, and knowledgeable leaders. (Tweet this!)
Those spidey senses that were pinging while I was hearing from the outgoing board chair are ones I certainly needed to pay attention to while I was in the Army, especially when deployed, and they still serve me today in business as I work with organizations and leaders to identify issues within their organizations and how both implicit and explicit rules have led to unintended consequences.
When your vision and mission level up, your team has to as well, which means it might be time to check whether your rules, organizational patterns, and sacred cows advance them. If they don’t, change those things — not the talented people you’ve worked so hard to enroll.
Andrew Brandt says
Many good thoughts on leadership here, Charlie. An important difference, though, in your comparison is that military unit leaders are professionals and, in deployment, full-time leaders (even in the reserves). In the non-profit, the Board Chair is a volunteer, and the board usually directs the organization’s Executive Director, who is the full-time professional in charge of continuity. (In smaller nonprofits without the budget for a professional staff, the roles can be blurred.)
In my experience with nonprofit volunteer boards, burn-out is a constant possibility, with the volunteers often balancing families, careers and their nonprofit leadership. New blood and new ideas (and new community connections) are often needed as much as anything. Although there are term limits, often people who time out can be considered again for board membership after a year or two. Retired Board Chairs can be given a Board Chair Emeritus status and sometimes be included in an Advisory Board (separate from the leadership board) and also help with fundraising and the like.
A board member’s main jobs are to provide leadership and to help the organization fundraise. Too many burnt-out board members forget to do the first and refuse to do the second. It’s better to reward and thank the person for their terrific service before burnout occurs than to wait to kick them out after they get tired of the organization. Recruiting new board members also expands an organization’s reach into the community, with a growing group of influential people who support and like the nonprofit on the outside. Your comments on leadership are well taken, but it’s also easy (and common) to impose too much on a volunteer leader, too.
In the meantime, you have a great mentor to work with as you join the board. I say seize the day and do what you can. You may be surprised how inspirational other board members and staff can be, too.
Charlie Gilkey says
I totally see where you’re coming from, Andy, especially about the differences between the two. I also get the need for new folks, new ideas, and new entry points to the community.
My concern, though, is that the NPO’s rules provide a counter-productive crutch. Rather than having intentional and constructive conversations, it’s easier to let the rules do the work, costing the board time and energy. We then have to create new terms and positions for people who are good leaders and valuable board members, adding to even more complexity and murkiness in the relationships and responsibilities. I also wonder about what feels to me like scarcity thinking about what volunteers can and will do, especially if they’re in leadership positions.
There’s a very good chance that my current focus to be powerfully involved in a few NPOs will change my perspective on a lot of what bugs me about NPOs, in general, and there will be a more tempered future Charlie that may amend this version of myself. But, from where I am now, there’s a lot about NPO mindsets that seems to lead to ineffectiveness and, at the end of the day, fewer lives transformed.
Very interesting post on organizational time limits. Still, all of the best leadership ideas are nothing without productivity that will turn them in real successful results. In general, to level up your mission you should focus all your efforts on it and work hard.
Thanks for this great post. i really appreciate your blog.
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