NextGen Leaders: Mind the leadership gap

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NextGen Series: This is the first article of five in our new series focused on the next generation of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the secondthird, fourth and fifth articles. There is also a corresponding webinar for new & aspiring leaders - please click here for information and to register.

When I lived in London, England and took the subway (AKA Tube) to work, I experienced a daily mantra that has stuck with me to this day, over 25 years later. "Mind the gap," the tube voice would announce to us passengers standing on the platform. They were referring to the space between the edge of the platform and the train. It always struck me as odd that people needed to be told to pay attention to what was clearly a large space and what was also a known risk. But the reality is that it was only a known risk because of the continual announcement. People were not looking down and paying attention. They were too focused on getting onto the train instead.

When I think about the nonprofit sector and the current state of leadership, I am reminded of this mantra. There is a significant leadership gap on its way and I am not sure people are paying enough attention to avoid it. Everyone is so focused on "keeping the doors open" and/or on the next couple of years, in part due to a short-term, project-based approach to funding/planning, that the sector is in danger of falling into the abyss between now and the future. My biggest worry is that organizations won’t even see it coming. So, consider me the sector ‘tube voice’ when I say "mind the leadership gap!"

I first recognized that the sector was headed for a significant leadership gap when I was running a nonprofit leadership centre and created/delivered a leadership development program for middle managers. There were a number of organizations represented in the room and all were in a management role of some kind. At the beginning of the first day’s training, I asked what I thought was an icebreaker question: How many of you want to be a senior leader? I assumed that because they were all there doing leadership training, they all wanted to advance. Well, you know what they say about people who assume... In fact, only only person raised their hand. I was flummoxed. Taken aback. And truly, that is rare. I tend to expect anything. But I did not expect that in a room of 20 nonprofit leaders, only one of them would want to advance to being an executive director or CEO. I recovered quickly and adapted my training lens but the response has stayed with me since then.

I am not just relying on my own experience when I tell you that the leadership gap is one of the most significant challenges that we will face in our future. Recently, I taught the Leading Through Change course in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program at Ryerson University for the first time and the leadership gap featured significantly. One of the statistics I came across that caused me to pause and draw a quick inbreath was the following:

“A 2015 Bridgespan study asked nonprofit leaders how long they intended to remain in their current roles:

  • Less than 1 year - 11%
  • 1 to 2 years - 21%
  • 3 to 5 years - 36%
  • More than 6 years - 31%"

Source: Landles-Cobb, Kramer & Smith Millway, 2015 in Leading Through Change, Ryerson University.

A total of 68% of respondents indicated they would be leaving their leadership position in the next 5 years! This is an American study but there have been similar pieces of research indicating the same thing here in Canada. Based on numbers like this, even if we take into consideration that some people will be moving sideways rather than out, we can see that the leadership gap is not only right in front of us but that that it is going to be BIG. This leadership exodus is partly based on retirement, but it’s also related to the precariousness of the sector, challenging relationships with boards, and burn out.

So, what do we do about it? This is a whole sector issue and we need to recognize it as such. However, each leader and each organization has a part to play in ensuring that we are mindful of, and address this upcoming leadership gap.

I recommend that leaders do the following:

Mind your story. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Talked about being a senior leader as if it’s a burden. It’s hard. There is too much to do. We haven’t seen a weekend in months. It’s not really what we thought we were signing up for when we started. We wanted to make a difference and we feel like the only progress we are making is getting our inbox down to zero and that’s rare. Sound familiar? Now, I understand that this feels real. But if you heard someone talking about their job that way, would you be excited about applying for it when they leave? What’s real is that we are often focusing on the negatives when we talk about leadership in the nonprofit sector and we need to be more thoughtful about the impact that this has on our people. There are lots of challenges in being an ED/CEO but there are so many wonderful things about it too. I am not saying we be fake positive all the time. But we must balance out the narrative with the good stuff.

Mind your behaviour. As I always say to people attending my leadership training, "If you are too busy doing, you aren’t leading." When we focus all of our energy on funder reports and administration rather than developing our people, or helping them to do their best work, we are letting ourselves and our organizations down. We are not delegating nor are we developing a pipeline of people who can do the work too. I am not judging. As someone who was the ED/CEO of a number of small- to medium-sized nonprofits for over 15 years, I get it. And I still say that it is too easy to focus on the to-do list rather than the bigger picture. I found it helpful when I realized that although I love my to-do list, I also had to do a priority list to guide my time. What is most important today? I also lived by the if I got ‘run over by a bus’ theory of leadership. If I wasn’t here, how would things get done? Being actively cognizant of one’s eventual departure helps to stay focused on the future and ensure that we are involving others.

Mind your board. There have been many great articles on CharityVillage about why it’s important to make sure that you recruit a board that can also focus on the big picture. I won’t go into that in depth here - although I could go on about this for many many hours! I want to focus more on the leadership gap. If your board is continually in the weeds, they won’t be able to prepare for or handle a significant leadership change. It’s the board’s job to guide the organization through a shift in senior leadership. They should be ahead of any change with a strong strategic plan that can point them toward the kind of leader they need next. The board should also be in tune enough with the overall workings of the organization to be able to identify what the next leader’s priorities should be so that stability can be maintained. A board that continually debates over what accounting software is best to use is not a board that is getting ready for the future.

And so, like the tube voice for the London Underground, I shall be saying this over and over and over again to help the sector remember that it needs to be prepared for the medium and long term future – Mind the Leadership Gap!

Until next time,

New and aspiring leaders! We are doing a webinar session just for you. It’s a little different than our usual webinars but we thought we would try it out. We’re doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Lianne on June 13th. If you have a burning question or just want to talk about the next generation of leadership, this is for you! Register here. You can also send your question in advance to Lianne at Join us!

Lianne Picot helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders through specialized leadership coaching and training. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, a 12 week online leadership program that helps new & aspiring leaders to develop a leadership mindset and key competencies. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at and

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