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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: Leadership Development & Performance Management - Reflections from Daring to Lead 2011

Welcome to Research Friday! This week we welcome Marla Cornelius, co-author of Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership. If you're interested in learning more, this topic will be explored in more depth in the upcoming Daring to Lead 2011 brief: Inside the Executive Director Job, which you can find on the Daring to Lead website next month.

When asked what aspects of the executive director role leaders find most depleting, Daring to Lead respondents named human resources more often than any other job function. One-third of executives said that they do not spend enough time managing and developing staff. And, among all domains of leadership that the role requires (leading self, leading others, leading the organization, and leading externally), executives believe they are least effective when it comes to leading others.

In the words of one executive, personnel management is a "sucking bog."

Yet, executives also report enormous satisfaction in working with talented, dedicated, and inspiring staff members. Leaders are proponents of professional development, and the vast majority of them value shared leadership — meaning an approach that is both inclusive and collaborative, and shares decision making and authority with others throughout the organization.

Is this a contradiction? How can managing people be satisfying and rewarding while simultaneously frustrating and depleting? One reason for this disconnect might be found in the distinction between leadership development and performance management.

Guiding, supporting, mentoring, and coaching staff is indeed rewarding. Executives who engage in these activities as part of their personal practice know how critical these development activities are to an individual's career — and they themselves get immense satisfaction in seeing people grow and excel in their jobs.

However, individual practices do not necessarily mean that an organization has a performance management system in place that extends beyond the characteristics of one person. Developing and maintaining such an infrastructure — the articulation of staff competencies aligned to organizational strategies; establishment of supervision processes to hire, manage, develop, and review employees; and the ongoing assessment of overall staff performance in relation to organizational outcomes — can be daunting.


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The lower satisfaction ratings that executives give to HR functions can be contributed, in part, to the classic challenges associated with personnel management, such as hiring and firing, giving feedback, and keeping the whole staff on track with performance goals and objectives. In other words, performance management requires rigor. And rigor demands ongoing attention.

Executives are constantly faced with competing priorities, and allocating sufficient time to the multitude of management needs is challenging — especially when you consider that many executives are also the de facto finance director, head fundraiser, and operations manager (to name just a few of the many roles leaders fulfill).

Performance management also calls on leaders to make tough decisions, such as conducting layoffs when strategies shift and structures need to evolve, firing a well-liked employee who just isn't the right fit for the position, or giving negative feedback about someone's performance. Problems can become exacerbated if an organization lacks the adequate systems to swiftly and carefully handle personnel issues.

The challenges inherent in human resource management are never fun, which is why it's so important to ensure that good performance management is in place. Not only will performance management processes help to mitigate problems when they occur, they also provide leaders with tools and a framework to do more of the things they enjoy — developing and supporting staff.

Marla Cornelius, MNA, is a Senior Project Director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. She developed and manages several of CompassPoint's nonprofit management and leadership programs and research projects. She co-authored the national research reports Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out (2008) and Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership. She develops curricula, trains, and consults in the areas of staff performance management, leadership, personal development, performance metrics, and governance/boards of directors. Marla frequently speaks and writes on these topics and can be reached at


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