What Difference do Managers Make for Your Mission?

mastering mission green final



By Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach


Nonprofit organizations exist to change the world—to strengthen the community and improve the lives of the people in the community.  But things must well-managed in order to fulfill the mission.  Managers are responsible for ensuring that the work of the organization gets done, within established standards, to achieve organizational objectives.

I have been working hard to find solutions to the problem of nonprofit managers being promoted to “sink or swim.”  I spent years of working hard to develop the skills to succeed as a manager and more years trying to figure out how to support the development and effectiveness of managers.   I studied the literature in-depth to identify the skills, insights, and habits that distinguish effective managers and leaders from the rest.  And I recently completed surveys and interviews to understand the challenges and needs of nonprofit managers in Colorado.  I want to share some of the findings of all that study in the next several posts.

The Challenges Managers FaceOne way to look at the impact of managers is to look at the challenges they identify.  In two studies of nonprofit managers I conducted through interviews and surveys, I asked them what their most difficult challenges were.  Below is a summary of the results.

As you read them, please consider this– What difference does it make when these challenges are a) handled very skillfully or b) an ongoing challenge that festers and fails to get resolved?

  1. Interpersonal conflicts and unprofessional behavior among staff. 100% of managers responding reported that this is a challenge for them, with 78% describing this as “quite challenging.”
  2. Difficulty managing job performance problems. 100% of managers reported that this is a challenge, with 56% reporting it is sometimes or somewhat challenging and 44% reporting it is quite challenging.
  3. Lack of clarity about roles, responsibilities, expectations. 89% report this is a challenge.
  4. Upper management is unsupportive. 78% of managers experience upper management as unsupportive, with 67% reporting that this is a consistent, serious challenge for them.
  5. Communications from upper management, partners, or other departments are often confusing. Most (89%) report this is a challenge, while 11% report it is not a challenge.
  6. The workload is excessive. Most (78%) report this is a challenge with more than half (56%) reporting it is quite challenging
  7. Office politics are challenging. 100% identify office politics as a challenge, but most (78%) report it is only challenging sometimes or somewhat.
  8. It is difficult to achieve defined targets and standards consistently. 100% indicated this is a challenge, but most (78%) say it is only challenging sometimes /somewhat.
  9. Changes come too fast to cope. 1/3 reported this was not a challenge at all, 1/3 reported it was a challenge sometimes or somewhat, and 1/3 reported it was quite challenging.

Many studies have demonstrated the central importance of managers’ influence on organizational functioning. For example, employee engagement is influenced by managers more than anything else.  After more than 20 years of study into what makes organizations successful, the Gallup organization concluded that the best organizations have higher levels of engaged employees, and that managers accounted for most (60%) of the difference between high and low levels of employee engagement (Buckingham and Coffman, 1999, First, Break All the Rules).  Employee engagement is, in turn, linked to employee retention and productivity, as well as customer service and profitabilitySuccessful change efforts have also been strongly linked to middle managers (Benham Tabrizi, “The Key to Change is Middle Management,” Harvard Business Review).

Managers carry important responsibilities and confront many challenges to achieving organizational goals. They are the biggest contributors to employee engagement.  Yet it is commonly understood that most organizations invest minimally in the development and support of managers.  My own work with managers has reinforced this.  In a recent survey I conducted of nonprofit managers, 67% reported they receive “minimal” or “virtually no” training and support, while 33% reported receiving moderate amounts (3 – 5 days in a year).

Given the discrepancy between the influence of managers and the investment organizations make in them, perhaps it’s not surprising that some experts report that half of all managers are considered to be failing (William (Bill) Gentry White Paper titled It’s not about me; it’s me and you: how being dumped can help first time managers, ccl.org).  Not surprising– but certainly having a negative impact on organizational potential — and kind of heartbreaking, too!

This lack of investment is certainly holding many managers back from becoming as fully effective as they can be.  So, why aren’t nonprofit organizations investing more in their managers?   There are at least two explanations for this discrepancy –

  1. So many competing needs make it difficult to conduct the thoughtful cost-benefit analysis;
  2. It’s not easy to find (or build) the kinds of training and supports that will truly support great learning and development in managers. I know this from experience!

In upcoming posts, I will answer questions about the best ways to invest in managers and will address the cost-benefit analysis regarding that investment.

 SAVE THE DATE!  Intensive Management Workshop May 22 and 23 in Southwest Denver– Maximize Culture and Constructive Influence to Manage Effectively Up, Down, and Sideways!   Training in:

  • how to use power and influence for good– and to cope with office politics, while maintaining your values and dignity!
  • how to surface disagreements and conflicts in a way that strengthens the people and the organization;
  • how to “manage up” effectively so you and your boss can build a relationship that works for everyone

To register, go to the link below:


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