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Reflections from a Nonprofit’s First Director of Talent

This guest post is written by Brian Hughes, Director of Talent and Administration at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

Between accepting the offer to join The Center for Effective Philanthropy and my first day on the job, our president, Phil Buchanan, sent me a package that included a memo sent to staff announcing his decision to create the position of Director of Talent. It started with the following few statements.

“Conversations with many of you…and reflections on our growth have led me to the conclusion that we need to take significant steps to continue to put ourselves in a strong position for the future with respect to recruitment, retention, and development of staff.”

Phil went on to share his aspiration.

“My goal is for CEP to be nationally recognized as a leader in its approach to these issues amongst nonprofit organizations, making this a significant competitive advantage in the battle for the best talent.”

My first reaction when reading this was “what have I gotten myself into?” After taking a few moments to consider the scope of this goal, while breathing into a paper bag, I grew increasingly excited by not only the organizational enthusiasm for a position like mine but also by the notion of talent leadership being viewed as a competitive advantage. 

Human resource professionals have long desired a voice amongst organizational leadership, to have “a seat at the table.” I have shared numerous conversations with fellow talent professionals about evolving the standard perception of us from the administrative “policy police” to valued business partners working alongside our colleagues rather than solely in support of them.  As I took another moment to let CEP’s view of the talent function marinate, I soon realized that I was on the verge of an ideal opportunity.

This brought me to day one on the job, where I found an organization that had already established a robust benefits structure, a thoughtful compensation philosophy, a rigorous recruiting and on-boarding plan, and a detailed performance evaluation process. As they say in real estate, CEP was a house that had good bones.  After consulting my colleagues and evaluating where we were and where we wanted to go, we identified plenty of opportunities to enhance an already well positioned organization.

Since joining CEP 16 months ago, I’m proud to say we’ve achieved a lot. We’ve implemented a more metrics-based approach to evaluating staff retention and turnover rates. We’ve identified the retention gaps from analyst to manager, which has led to the creation of more progressive and bridged career ladders at both levels. We have implemented the DiSC Workplace personality assessment to facilitate many helpful conversations about individual working styles contributing to our broader organizational culture. We’ve converted our performance evaluation process to an online portal, allowing us to store performance history and commentary on a cloud based platform. We also have successfully filled eight positions directly over a 12-month span, thus stabilizing the talent and capacity within the organization. With a fully staffed workforce at manageable capacity, we are now positioned to focus on staff and leadership development initiatives through internal workshops like constructive feedback training and effective delegation for supervisors. Rather than plugging the holes in a boat, we’re now building a motor. 

Another achievement , which reflects CEP’s culture prior to my arrival just as much as it reflects the influence of my role, was our ranking by the Nonprofit Times as the second-highest rated small nonprofit in their 2013 “Best Nonprofits to Work For” national survey. This ranking was based on survey responses submitted by our staff focusing on organizational culture, employee empowerment, and overall job satisfaction.

It’s fair to say that I have a skewed perspective as a talent management professional. But, a fair question for any nonprofit leader to ask is “what is the value to my organization in hiring a talent leader?” If your motive is simply to centralize your administrative processes and implement organizational policies, I’d encourage you to set the bar higher. One thing I’ve learned working in a nonprofit is that our sector can be a very challenging place to work. Continuous pressures like worries about funding sources, earned revenue sustainability, and in many cases trying to do as much as possible with lean or even scarce resources, can be daunting. This is all before worrying about creating the positive impact that your mission calls for.  Having a strategic partner when it comes to managing your staff in this environment is not a luxury, it’s an asset.

As I wrote on CEP’s Blog earlier this year, staff satisfaction is fleeting. If organizational culture and staff satisfaction are not monitored and cultivated, an organization can quickly find itself transforming from a melting pot of diverse skills, expertise, and experience to a sieve of dissatisfied employees taking their talents elsewhere or worse not making the most of those talents within your organization.

As talent professionals, our focus is to attract and retain your strongest performers and help nonprofits develop the skills and abilities needed to best capitalize on your talent. We can be thought partners and intermediaries that effectively bridge the perspectives of staff at all levels and assist in maintaining a cohesive workplace with shared or at least understood goals across an organization. 

As a nonprofit leader, if you find yourself asking “why can’t I keep my best people?”, I’d say you need a talent professional. When you find yourself asking, “how can I make the best of my best people?”, this is when you’ll want one.  We’re here, eager to help. If you’re willing to open up a seat at the table for us, I promise, we’ll come prepared.     

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