Leading By Letting Go

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I was chatting with a friend about professional development recently, and he brought up something that really irks both of us—nonprofit executives that are reluctant to provide mentorship or even to start a conversation with junior staff about their career goals.

If I invest in this rising star, the thinking goes, then she will go get a better job and my organization will lose her talent. Our career development efforts will be wasted. This attitude does no one any good.

It’s not hard to imagine how investing in an employee’s career development could help them be more effective and more loyal to your organization. That’s the counterargument I often hear.

Yet, the argument is not persuasive enough because, more often than not, the people you’ve invested in do take their newly developed brilliance elsewhere. And that’s okay. Before I explain why, let me tell you a story.

When I took a job as a program director, I inherited an early-career superstar on my team. I could tell from day one that I wasn’t going to be able to hang on to her for long. She was smart, well-connected, ambitious, and already freelancing on the side. She had an open conversation with me about her plans to make her freelance work into a full-time business over the next few years.

In turn, I gave her as much responsibility as I could, sent her to conferences, supported her in roles that gave her a lot of visibility and connections in the community, and benefited tremendously from her work until the day she left to launch her business two years later.

That business, a web design firm focusing on small nonprofits, is now a thriving part of our local nonprofit ecosystem. And when she left, it made space for others to step into roles that could help them grow as professionals and bring new perspectives and talents to the program.

How can I say that losing one of my best staff members, after investing in her career development, was a good thing? It’s simple: holding one person back holds us all back. Mentoring and supporting women, and other demographics that are underrepresented in top leadership, is good for equity and it’s good for the nonprofit sector—building talent builds the field. 

Let’s not let small-mindedness, competitiveness, or fear drive our decisions. It’s time to be bold about developing the next generation of leaders and celebrate them regardless of whether they stay at your nonprofit or move on to new leadership opportunities.

Join me and other female leaders as we kick off National Women’s Month with Foundation Center's webinar, Leading Inclusively: A Panel with Women Leaders on Tuesday, March 7 at 2:00pm ET. We will share our experiences and advice on creating more inclusive organizations. We invite you to submit questions for our panelists in advance through this link

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KAREN GRAHAM is Executive Director at Idealware. She is a sought-after speaker, trainer, writer, and consultant with expertise in technology leadership and innovation, nonprofit software, and digital strategy. She leads a team of researchers, presenters, and writers who create technology information resources designed to help nonprofit leaders put their vision into action. In addition, she holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management from the University of St. Thomas. Read more.