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January 20, 2022
From Individual Practice to Orchestration and Delegation
By Barry Dym

Much as we would like to think that nonprofit management comes naturally, for most of us it does not, because it requires a major shift in attention and orientation. As people grow more fully into managers, it isn’t just their roles but their whole outlook that changes.

Most people selected for management come to the attention of others because they are very good at something: teaching, prosecuting legal cases, treating patients, working with teenagers. But the skills of management and the temperament it takes to be effective are quite different.

The biggest shift is from doing things yourself—and relying primarily on yourself—to accomplishing things through others. That means that your success depends on their success, and your attention must be focused on facilitating their success. While management jobs generally represent a leap up in organizational hierarchies, they are also a humbling experience.

The Movement from Individual Practice to the Practice of Management

  • Working through others, and not just one by one but collectively, as in building and sustaining teams.
    • To get the feeling for this way of thinking, see if you can describe the people who work for you in a collective way. For instance, “my team is very energetic. They argue a lot but always manage to come together when it matters most. In fact, they keep each other on their toes. While I might like a more peaceful atmosphere, their edginess seems very useful.”
    • What would you like the team—not each individual—to achieve. In other words, do you set team, as well as individual, goals.
    • Where is the team in a developmental sense? For example, are they dependent on you? Increasingly independent? Able to initiate and evaluate their
    • own work? Are you encouraging their development as a team?

  • Developing synergies among those who work with and for you. How, for example, do team members complement one another? Do the highly organized and the more imaginative people, the more technical and the more social people have ways to help each other? Do they recognize and affirm each other’s distinctive contributions? And are you encouraging and building on this use of difference?
  • Much of management skill involves the art of delegation. Here is a sequence of activities that breaks delegation into constituent parts.
    • Frame the task, challenge—with the sense of urgency or regularity: This is what I need from you. Here is the objective, the time frame, the importance of the task.
    • Wherever possible, give room for people to come up with their own solution and plan.
    • Review plan with green employees. That is, ask them to develop a plan for accomplishing the task, then review it before they set it in motion. But let experienced and trusted employees go right from plan to implementation. This kind of autonomy is a sign of respect. It also saves the manager considerable time and energy.
    • Hold people accountable for completing their tasks in a high quality way. The approach to accountability will vary person to person, team to team. Again, inexperienced people might be monitored more, while experienced people should mostly be evaluating the quality of their own work.

  • Create a culture in which people take initiative, so that delegation is often not required. Encourage it, respond to it, reward it.
  • Provide the resources necessary for people to achieve their goals. Otherwise, it is not fair or productive to hold people accountable.

Obstacles to the Practice of Management

  • The habit of doing. Most people are so accustomed to doing things themselves that they continue in that mode. Early on, it may be easier and quicker to do things yourself, and working through others can be awkward, time consuming and frustrating.
  • The belief that you can do it better. Often this is true. You can do tasks better than most others—that’s why you got promoted. But you can’t do things better than three, four, or ten people.
  • The vicious cycle of micromanagement. Many, if not most, inexperienced managers hover over employees, offering more suggestions—often critical—than anyone can follow. It is hard to trust others to do things as well as you would do them. But this form of micromanagement and mistrust breed dependency in workers. It makes them nervous. It can stiffen their back in resistance because it feels like they are not respected, treated like children. Then they work less productively, less independently. This disappoints managers, who conclude that they need to hover and suggest and criticize more, which, in turn, leads to more resistance and poorer work. Thus a vicious cycle is created, making delegation worthless.

The Inward Journey of the Manager

As these obstacles suggest, becoming a manager requires more than behavioral change. It requires a change of heart and mind. In the early stages, there is often a wrestling match that goes on inside the manager’s mind: I trust them, I don’t trust them; I might as well do this myself, but that’s not the right way; I’d be a good manager if they would only do as I say; I know how to manage—no I don’t.

The objective in these internal wrestling matches is, eventually to let go, to support and trust others, to enjoy their successes. These are difficult goals to achieve.

Barry Dym is executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership at Boston University. Call him at 617-899-6550 or email
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