NextGen Series: This is the fourth article of five in our new series focused on the next generation of leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the firstsecondthird, and fourth articles. There is also a corresponding webinar on June 13 for new & aspiring leaders – please click here for information and to register.

In this series, we have identified a major leadership gap coming up in the nonprofit sector. In the next 10 years there will be a significant number of retirements and/or moves out of the sector by senior leaders. We need to get ready for a leadership shift that will have a serious impact on our ability to continue to make social change. In my work with leaders and organizations, I have found some dynamics at play that will impact whether or not we will have future leaders that are ready to take up the reins. Senior leaders say that they don’t have any potential candidates that they consider able to step up into their role and younger staff talk about the role of Executive Director/CEO being too burdensome and not what they want to do in the future. However, this dynamic fails to take into account that we need to be intentional about helping people to move into leadership. We need to give people a chance to try out leadership rather than just relying on their own perceptions. To do that, we need to make room for the next generation of leaders. And that may be what we are not getting quite right.

Recently, I have had a number of coaching conversations with aspiring leaders that are struggling to get on the first rung of the leadership ladder. They are doing all the right things in terms of doing their research for the positions, applying for every opportunity, and making it known they want to advance. However, they are experiencing challenges to moving up that I would consider structural and require an active commitment by their organizations to make room for new leadership. We don’t realize that some of our policies and practices may be blocking the way for great talent to take the lead or learn new things. And if aspiring potential leaders do not get opportunities to develop their skills and advance in our organizations, they will move elsewhere and be someone else’s asset.

Here are six things you can do to make sure you are making room for up and coming leaders:

1. Do an audit of your HR practices. Find out where in your hiring and promotion process you might be creating barriers for people who have not yet had the title of leader. For example, we often rely a lot on what people have done previously to indicate to us what they can do in the future. We use ‘when did you?’ or ‘where did you?’ questions and have significant experiential requirements for many leadership positions. But when you are hiring for lower level leadership positions in particular, these questions can create a barrier for people who have not held a leadership position before. Even just adding a line that if potential candidates haven’t been in the situation before, they can tell you what they would do if they were, would help to make the process more accessible in your job postings. You can also use behavioural questions to pull out leadership behaviours that you are looking for in the position rather than direct experience. For example, ‘tell us about a time when you dealt with conflict effectively’ is better than ‘tell us about a time when you dealt with a conflict in your team as a leader’.

Similarly, when looking at promotions, focus on aptitude rather than job titles. This may seem like common sense but many HR processes have built in checkpoints that rely heavily on previous experience in the organization or on titles when shortlisting candidates. Too much box ticking eliminates the human interaction required to see someone could be promoted into leadership and do well if they had the chance.

2. Prioritize the pipeline. Often, leadership development resources are focused on current and senior leaders. Now they need support and training too. But, if we never invest in the next generation of leaders in our organizations, we will continually face transition issues and succession challenges. It is sometimes good to hire outside the organization to bring in ‘new blood’ and generate new thinking. However, we often don’t realize the potential of those already working for us because we have not invested in their development or given them room to show what they can do outside the narrow zone of their job description.

3. Check your biases. We all have unconscious and conscious biases and they impact how we view our world and other people. We can be biased about race, gender, age, disability, sexuality and even personality when we think about leadership in our own organizations. The nonprofit sector prides itself often on its inclusion and many of our organizations exist to promote diversity and inclusivity. However, when we are in a room of senior leaders, it becomes clear that something is happening between the writing of the policy and the recruitment into leadership positions. The diversity we say we are committed to is often not reflected in who has power in the sector. And, the next generation of leaders faces a double whammy on top of their own race, gender, etc as the narrative about ‘millennials’ is so negative. Younger people are talked about as ‘entitled’ or not wanting to do the work. It’s important to check the stories you hold as you are reading resumes and conducting interviews or in considering elevating people within your own organization.

4. Create ‘stretch’ opportunities. How can you see if someone can step up if they are never given the chance? Often, our organizations follow a traditional hierarchy approach and decision making is concentrated at the top. I could spend a great deal of time talking about the benefits of moving toward a shared leadership approach but for now, I want to just point out that if we never allow people to take the lead, they can’t become leaders. So, of course we can’t see their potential. Creating opportunities for people to ‘stretch’ themselves and participate in decision making can make a significant difference to whether your people see themselves as leaders in your organization too. Setting up working groups or action committees is a great way for people to take the lead on a particular piece of work. You can also elevate people to roles to give them a chance to try them out when a maternity leave occurs or a change in funding happens. Invite them to lead a project for a year but still have the option of them going back to their other role if either of you think it isn’t working out. No recriminations.

5. Take a people first approach. Often in organizations we view people based on their job role. We think of them in terms of their job description because that’s how we hired them. However, people are SO much more than the seven or eight points that you wanted them to have in your recruitment process. I once became Executive Director in an organization that was not doing well in terms of presence in the local community. Very few people had heard of the organization even though it had been around for almost 30 years. There was a woman doing reception work who turned out to be an amazing marketer. She was a genius with words and talented in graphic design. We had our own in-house marketing expert and didn’t even know it. I moved her into a communications role and the organization experienced significant growth in exposure and engagement. When you know your people and what they ‘love’ to do or can do, you will find your potential leaders.

6. Stop Looking for a ‘Mini-Me’. This is a tough one. I know. I was an Executive Director/CEO for over 15 years and I understand that it’s hard to think of someone completely different than us being able to do the job that we may have spent years building and shaping. But the reality is that someone else can do the job, even if they are not us. When we look at our people, we need to look at them with the lens of potential leader rather than potential doppelganger. Otherwise, we won’t see the possibilities. As mentioned above, we also bring our biases into recruitment and need to be careful of wanting to hire people that look like or are like us. Balance out the tendency to want to hire ourselves by having other staff, leaders, volunteers or even people you serve on the hiring committee for new leadership positions.

So try some things out. Grow your pipeline. Make some room for new and different people to take the lead. That’s how your hard work will continue and where your most important legacy lies. The next generation of leaders will be grabbing the baton and running with it to continue making progress in social change. Let’s make sure it’s a smooth handover so that they build on what we’ve done and hopefully get there faster.

Lianne Picot is a leadership coach, trainer and speaker that helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders. She also helps organizations to ‘future proof’ through leadershiop development at all levels. 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 affordable and accessible online leadership program for new & aspiring leaders. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at and