Kirk Kramer: An Uncomplicated Path for Developing Leaders

The Bridgespan Group’s Kirk Kramer suggests some new approaches to leadership development in recent papers. Here, he cuts right to the chase.

Kirk Kramer: An Uncomplicated Path for Developing Leaders
8 mins read

How do we help senior leaders know how to develop future leaders?

Kirk Kramer of The Bridgespan Group suggests some new approaches to leadership development in his recent papers. For Blue Avocado readers, he cuts right to the chase:

Q: Kirk, what’s the single most interesting point you have to make about nonprofit leadership development?

A: As an executive director, hold your senior leaders responsible for developing future leaders.

Add “developing leaders” to their goals for the year and hold them accountable to it, just like you would any other goal.

When we tell that to executives, they say, “That’s a great idea! I can do that!”

But how do we help senior leaders know how to develop future leaders?

Start with this discussion question in your management team: Given our strategy, what are our future leadership needs?

Second, discuss this with each of your direct reports: Where is your job headed given our strategy? What new work behaviors do you need to succeed? What skills are required? 

And then: What work experiences or other support are necessary to help you get those skills? These are the same questions they, in turn, need to ask their direct reports.

So what you’re saying seems both brilliant and like common sense: What on-the-job experiences can we give people so that they develop the skills and connections they’ll need to be leaders?

Yes! The surprise is that knowing what to do isn’t hard.

It’s a discipline, though, to take the time to have an hour-long discussion with your direct reports, or just to take an hour thinking about what would help your direct reports.

Okay, let’s suppose an organization has a strategy of getting government funds (which they don’t have now). How does this strategy translate into leadership development for someone?

Well, let’s say they want government funds for youth development with an at-risk population. But they don’t know the people in the mayor’s office.

Don’t know the school district leaders. Don’t know the philanthropic funders who care about this community. They don’t understand the ecosystem yet, such as who are the key players and what are they doing well and poorly?

So the organization needs leaders who are more than good program delivery people. They need to know how to walk the halls and build relationships.

So leadership development goals can start with having staff meet certain people, develop certain relationships. These activities are leadership development for the individuals, and developing leaders that the organization will need over the next several years.

But how can someone learn how to meet people and develop relationships?

Research indicates that 70% of our development happens through job assignments. So in this case, being given the assignment and time to build relationships comes first.

20% comes from mentoring; so pairing the individual with someone who is good at this is important.

And then 10% can come from training or study, for example taking an online course on relationship development. It’s the 70/20/10 approach to developing people.

Another intriguing idea you’ve written about is the importance of identifying “high potential leaders.” Should individuals know whether they’ve been identified as high potential or not? Does everyone know who’s been identified as high potential?

You have to talk openly about potential, not just performance, with people. But high potential leaders don’t have to be publicly identified.

This can be hard to talk about in an egalitarian culture where it’s assumed that everybody’s doing their best and working hard, and it’s hard to say, “You’re doing better or have higher potential than many others.”

And not everybody aspires to something beyond where they are now. Some people may have potential but because of their stage of life or lack of ambition don’t want to develop as future leaders.

Start by asking: What do you aspire to do?

We know there are unconscious cultural biases in assessing performance. Wouldn’t these be even more of a problem when assessing potential?

Well, just as you develop criteria and standards for performance, you have to do the same around potential. And do it consistently, over time, and across the organization.

It helps when people work in different parts of the organization, so that they and you can compare individuals and make sure people are being held to the same standard.

Can you tell us a time when you’ve gotten feedback about your own performance that has made you change?

I’ve been working on how not to be perceived as jumping all over someone who has not the greatest idea in a meeting. So I’ve told my colleagues that every time I do that, give me a yellow card.

A yellow card?

A yellow card is something a referee uses in a soccer game; it signifies a flagrant foul.

So I’ve told people to use a metaphorical yellow card after the meeting; real time feedback is the best way of learning.

I can’t help but smile thinking about a meeting as a soccer game where it’s possible to get a penalty for fouling someone. And maybe applause when you score a metaphorical point or make a goal?

You know, I grew up in organizations that didn’t have great performance evaluation systems. I would have appreciated more feedback early in my career, and help with my goals.

We shouldn’t hold up the for-profit sector as having best practices. There are people in both sectors that are doing a great job and lots of people that struggle to do this well.

Last words?

Most nonprofits already have performance systems and processes in place. Leadership development can be added to these systems and processes.

It’s not as hard as you think! But it does take discipline and building new habits.

Kirk Kramer is a partner in the Boston office of the Bridgespan Group and heads their Leadership and Organizational Development practice area. He expands on the ideas in this article in Plan A: How Successful Nonprofits Develop Their Future Leaders.  Currently he is involved as a volunteer with supporting quality education in West Africa. We like to think that being quoted in Blue Avocado will help him meet his performance goals for the year. 🙂

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Blue Avocado is an online magazine fueled by a monthly newsletter designed to provide practical, tactical tips and tools to nonprofit leaders. A small but mighty team of committed social sector leaders produces the publication, enlisting content from a wide range of practitioners, funders, and experts.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

3 thoughts on “Kirk Kramer: An Uncomplicated Path for Developing Leaders

  1. It never occurred to me to tell my direct reports that developing their own staff as leaders should be a performance goal for them. Great nugget.

  2. I couldn't agree more! The #2 nonprofit leadership competency in my forthcoming book entitled "Lead for Good: 7 Steps for Unleashing the Great Nonprofit Leader Within" is "invest in yourself and others." This is a great way to invest in others! Karen Ramsey, President & CEO Lead for Good

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