Business Leaders May Have the Wrong Stuff

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There is a great scene in the first half of the movie The Right Stuff. A group of men is crowded around a table in a dark, smoke-filled room.

As the discussion unfolds, it is apparent that they are U.S. government officials affiliated with the about-to-be-created space program that became NASA. The men are arguing about who should serve as the first astronauts, debating what kind of experience and prior careers provide the best preparation. The careers proposed include acrobats, race car drivers, stunt men and surfers.

Out of the shadows and into the forefront appears President Dwight Eisenhower. “I want test pilots!” he proclaims in a voice filled with certainty and authority.

Sen. Lyndon Johnson tries to talk him out of it: “I suggest you reconsider, sir.”

“I want test pilots,” the president repeats.

My interpretation of this is that Ike wanted the first men in space to be individuals who had the experience of being in the air, who knew firsthand what it was like to be at the controls of complex machinery, and who had proved they could do so even knowing the tremendous personal risks involved.

I think of that scene whenever I read the “Newsmakers” section of Youth Today, particularly when it names individuals who have been hired to become executive directors at youth-serving nonprofits. What I find disturbing are those instances when a board of directors hires an executive director who comes from the business world.

In March, for instance, it was reported that a Washington state coalition of youth-serving nonprofits had hired as its CEO an energy industry veteran, who had recently headed a consulting firm that focuses on project development, acquisitions and risk assessment.

Just as Ike doubted that surfers or acrobats could function well as astronauts, I have my misgivings that an individual with no experience in the field of caring for abused, neglected and disconnected youth can function well as an executive director of an organization that serves them.

Wondering why a board would make such a hire, I imagine that much of the rationale has to do with that individual’s ability to raise money. The boards probably hope that after years of success in the business world, the person’s valuable connections to people of means will bring the flow of private dollars so needed by nonprofits.

I sympathize. I, too, seek those dollars, especially at a time when government funding is shrinking. But putting someone in charge of a youth-serving organization primarily for this reason seems to be abandoning a sense of mission, not to mention professionalism.

I suspect that another rationale is that someone coming from the for-profit world is seen as an inherently better manager of people and organizations than an individual from the nonprofit side. Some people believe that the standards of management performance are much higher in the corporate world, so the person will almost certainly be a superior performer.

This kind of thinking has no basis in reality. I started out in the for-profit world. There is nothing magical about the people who make it to the top in the business world. In fact, in my experience, nonprofits are likely to be much more complex enterprises to manage. I have 40 different revenue sources at my present organization, each with its own reporting schedule, requirements and regulations. Even large for-profit companies rarely deal with that level of complexity.

Yet nonprofit boards tend to stand in awe of individuals who emanate from the corporate ranks. Remember, people once stood in awe of the likes of Dennis Kozlowski and Bernard Ebbers. Gretchen Morgenson, who writes for the business section of The New York Times, made this point in a recent column titled, “Remember When Ken Lay Was a Genius?” Business leaders are extolled as management gurus one year and written up as such in magazines and books, but when they’re later indicted, say in their defense, “I was just the CEO. I really didn’t know much about the actual operation of the organization.”

When recruiting a new executive director, nonprofit boards should look for people who have worked in our field, who know what it is like to develop or run a program for at-risk youth and families, and who, through their labor and experience, have earned the opportunity to serve as the organization’s leader.

In other words, stick with the test pilots.

Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Vermont.