Busy nonprofit executives often juggle a number of plates in the air, tossing each one about frenetically without any real strategy as to how to keep them spinning in the right direction.  There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and executives can be overwhelmed with managing their roles and responsibilities, board politics, staff issues, and program and project development. 

The 2011 Daring to Lead National Study of Nonprofit Leadership conducted by CompassPoint and the Meyers Foundation revealed that this stressful environment and dizzying work pace are causing 58% of executive directors to develop moderate anxiety within three years of assuming their positions, and 43% are unhappy enough to be susceptible to burnout.  This untenable situation is bringing about a potentially catastrophic leadership crisis in the next several years with 67% of executive directors responding that they plan to leave their positions within that time. Fewer than half plan to assume another nonprofit leadership role in the future.

It’s time for nonprofits to make a significant investment in supporting and developing their leadership and integrate standard training with effective new methods that are proving highly effective.

One of the most successful leadership development strategies is executive coaching, which is quickly gaining popularity as a leadership practice in the for profit world. It is woefully underused among nonprofits. The Daring to Lead study found that only 10% of nonprofit executives have used an executive coach, but those who have found that it to be a highly effective method of leadership support.

Why is executive coaching so valuable? Because it creates a confidential and positive place for executive directors to work on difficult issues, receive constructive feedback and move forward.  The coaching process provides practical solutions for staff and board issues, creates clarity and focus, develops confidence and maximizes leadership potential. The Daring to Lead study states that coaching allows executive directors to “grapple with the universal challenges of their roles and reflect on their own leadership practices in a safe environment.”

But coaching is not just for executives.  It is highly successful in developing the leadership potential of staff.  If the Daring to Lead study’s forecast becomes reality, there will be a deep chasm in leadership succession within the next few years.  83% of organizations reported they had no leadership succession plan, and only 4% of executive directors, who had come up through their organizations, had been trained by them. Nonprofits should be preparing now for the continuity of leadership within their own ranks.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, Career Makeover: How a Loyal Follower Stepped Up to Lead, highlighted how Becky Johnson, Executive Director for the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, contracted an executive coach to work with one of her staff. Ms. Johnson believed the staff member had leadership potential but could not break out of her support role into the spotlight. Working with the coach, the staff member began to understand how her personality traits and loyalty to her boss were limiting her professional growth. With coaching, she learned how to more effectively prepare for and conduct meetings, communicate with her colleagues, and “show up” in manner, dress and language as a confident leader.  As more nonprofits are determining their succession plans and developing their leadership from within, executive coaching offers a particularly effective method of creating sustainable dynamic leadership succession.

So why are such a small number of organizations taking advantage of executive coaching as a primary leadership development strategy to support their professionals?

It may be that the purpose of coaching is not well understood. It’s not therapy, consulting, or mentoring.  Lynn Banis PhD, who has a long, highly successful career as an executive coach and trainer, puts it simply, “Coaching is a specific technique employed by a trained professional that is designed to help clients tap into their previously hidden or under-utilized skills and talents, find and eliminate blind spots in their thought processes, leverage their strengths, build their motivation to succeed and generally help them become even stronger, more confident and effective leaders.”

Organizational budget constraints may also be responsible. At a time when finances are a constant worry, professional development is one of the first line items to go.

But what value should organizations place on empowering their executives and developing their staffs?

Coaching is becoming standard in the for profit world with 37% of executives presently working with outside coaches. The resulting increase of 5 – 7 times in profits is a significant return on investment. But the value of coaching goes beyond profit margins, employees who have the benefit of coaching are less stressed, increasingly productive and have greater satisfaction and commitment to their employers.

The commitment to executive coaching and leadership development offers great value to the for profit and nonprofit worlds.  Starting now, nonprofits need to meet the impending leadership crisis by making the investment in their people for the sustainability and success of their missions. The clock is ticking.