News and Information about the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts. Check back frequently to keep informed.
May 17, 2021
Look for What’s Possible when Hiring Senior Leaders
By Wayne Luke

Wayne Luke
Wayne Luke
Leader or manager? Specialist or generalist? Whether a nonprofit is recruiting senior staff or simply looking to get the best from its current team, a deep understanding of the complementary roles of leaders and managers will ensure top performance.

While there is no standard formula for the right blend between leadership and management in an organization, the blend should always be dynamic. In difficult times, leadership inspires people and deepens convictions about the possible, while management ensures that each asset is properly and fully deployed.

Members of the senior team should be able to demonstrate an unswerving sense of clarity regarding the mission of the organization and an understanding of the importance of the organization’s progress to its constituents. Their examples and “stories” should reflect tenacity, resourcefulness, and an inherent sense of optimism tempered by the instincts that come from practical experience. That’s a lot to ask for in a potential candidate, but nonprofits can do with no less, especially in difficult times.

What traits should leaders and managers bring to an organization? Specifically, leadership is the ability to instill passion and vision in others. Leadership influences others to achieve and aspire to goals never thought possible and to enable each person in an organization to feel that their individual contribution is indispensable to the collective effort.

Complementing leadership is management: the process of ensuring that every asset is put to its best use in an organization and of making informed adjustments to the enabling processes of the organization as it pursues its mission.

Let’s use an aircraft carrier as an example: leadership on an aircraft carrier is the process of setting the course, articulating the mission, assembling and assimilating the crew, and clearly communicating that the mission can only be achieved through teamwork and mutual support. Management on the carrier entails making certain that the watch duty schedules are workable, that everyone gets fed, that there is enough fuel to carry out the mission, and that everyone knows the duties they are expected to individually dispatch.

During robust times, an organization’s leadership runs ahead of the pack to continually chart the course and management works to ensure enough assets are in place to keep pace. Any role can take on the primary aspects of leadership or management, but every person in any role tends to display a "major" and a "minor." It may be hard for the leader to dive into the weeds of management, and it may be difficult for a manager to become an inspiration and source of energy for an organization. Yet, the smart leader and the capable manager both know how to shore up their gaps in order to ensure success.

What helps an executive carry the day? Sometimes it's the people with whom they surround themselves and other times it's what they can muster in terms of personal capacities grown through experience and maturity.

Recruiting and Interviewing: Broader and Deeper

Resume screening can provide insights into career progression, the candidate’s views and values as major accomplishments and contributions, and how he/she packaged and leveraged experience into an engine for career progression. But it’s "deep-dive" interviews, based on detailed discussions of real-world professional situations, that always expose styles, personal measures of success, specific actions taken, and lessons learned in any person's background. Then, of course, the comprehensive referencing process helps ensure that “what you see is what you get” in a candidate, and sheds light on how best to surround and support the candidate in their new role.

Historically, recruiters have felt that organizations benefit from hiring generalists in senior leadership roles. True leaders tend to be highly fungible across domains, varying organizational sizes, and most roles. So, senior leaders do indeed seem to be capable and highly valued generalists.

There is the old adage regarding experts that says, "An expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until they know a lot about nothing." Certainly specialists are key in highly technical roles. However, generalist leaders can truly shine if they have the ability to mobilize and inspire people in a setting where fresh perspectives and alternative points of view are tempered by an abundance of experience and wisdom in those surrounding the new hire.

The biggest mistake most organizations can make is hiring to their strengths, particularly at the most senior levels. Without experimentation and a willingness to think differently about a variety of candidates, an organization will only value and seek out what they already know to be true, versus what might be true. It's in the search for what's possible that organizational learning and new frontiers typically emerge. This idea of what's possible must be explored by considering a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Wayne Luke, managing partner of Witt/Kieffer’s not-for-profit practice, authored this article when he served as the managing partner and head of The Bridgespan Group’s executive search organization.
SUBSCRIBE FREE – Keep current with the Wednesday Report emailed to you free each week. Click here.
Got news, advice, resources? Send it to