Thomas Rajan, senior vice president of strategic leadership development for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, spoke with Youth Today’s Resource Hub editor Sara Hill about professional development for strengthening today’s out-of-school-time workforce and — most importantly — its leaders.
Rajan works to build capabilities of the Boys and Girls Clubs’ national team and leadership teams around the country. These teams include about 25,000 boards of directors, 1,000 CEOs and their teams, including chief operations officers, human resources officers and fundraising and financial officers. Here he discusses professionalizing this profession.
Youth Today: You are responsible for a very large staff. What do you think have been the major staff issues that have emerged?
TJ: I work very closely with a colleague here at BGCA who works with front-line staff, and we’re attached at the hip as we think about how to build common competency models that relate both to the leadership teams as well as the front-line workforce. The front-line staff is roughly 35,000 to 40,000 full- and part-time professionals. That doesn’t include another 250,000 volunteers. We have a learning council, where we bring everyone together to make sure that we keep those pieces aligned and in sync on both the leadership and front-line levels.
A couple of the big challenges have been a huge variability in performance across organizations. Some are doing really well, and some are struggling. If you start peeling back the layers to understand why, there are differences in communities, the types of programs they offer, and all of those things come into play. But the single common point was leadership. It’s about the capability and capacity of those leaders at the board level and the executive level. The tone gets set there.
We were seeing high turnover, with 40 percent of our CEO leaders in their role three years or less. And 40 percent of the folks who left the job were leaving in the first year. The argument is still out there regarding whether we brought in the right talent in the first place. But you think about the investments we’re making to bring in these executive leaders, and if talent was walking out the door within the first year, that’s difficult.
We starting hearing reasons why they left. Leaders felt that it was the most lonely job in the world. We have 1,100 organizations that serve as Boys and Girls Clubs across the country. And you think about the tremendous network power of a footprint like that, but these individuals felt really isolated. This is a tough job to begin with, and if I feel that I’m not getting the support I need, then I’m going to look elsewhere.
The other part was working with the board. How do I engage with them at that level? As part of a broad leadership development strategy, we completely revamped our executive on-boarding program. We had three-day “firehose,” which was more like waterboarding than on-boarding, and which left people feeling completely overwhelmed. We moved to an 18-month, systematic, highly supported journey for our leaders, and they were supported both at the national organization and, most, importantly, by their peers. We started that in the summer of 2014, and when we looked at the results a year later, we had reduced turnover to less than 10 percent.
The other thing we saw was that when turnover started to happen, organizations were receding in performance. When a new leader was coming in, they [didn’t] know when grant applications were due, or what the United Way reporting requirements were, or [haven’t] done the IRS filing. They were losing money, and these outcomes were quantifiable.
Our goal was to have these new leaders stay flat. If they could just maintain what their organization did in the previous year, not give up any ground, we would be successful. But what we started to see was not only did they remain stable, they were showing increases because we were helping to make the connections among their peers and to help them in a systematic way to look at the areas that they needed to address as a new leader coming in to their organization.
YT: What do you do about institutional knowledge and transfer across organizations, especially for new staff?
TJ: We’re encountering a major issue with that. There are giants in our organization who have been in their roles for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. And we’re seeing that group of leaders starting to retire. Consequently, 20 percent of our leaders are scheduled to retire in the next three to five years. They are the keepers of the culture, the keepers of the mission. We need to address that [knowledge transfer] through appropriate succession plans, through emerging leaders training to make sure that people are ready to step up and fill those roles.
And we need to not only do succession planning, but success planning as well. We needed to partner with entities out there to help us create an environment of learning, to help provide the right set of tools so that the leaders can move upward. We began to collaborate with Harvard Business School to create a leadership-development series to bring leaders together and help build their skills — and at the same time help them solve issues and challenges that have both local implications at their clubs but also drive enterprise-wide initiatives.
YT: It sounds like you’ve been building a community of practice, where isolated staff are brought together to develop a shared vocabulary and culture, so people know that they belong to the youth development community.
TJ: You’re right. We have 1,100 organizations across the country that are like independent 501(c)(3)s. I keep reminding them, if they’re in a small county in Utah and they have a $150,000 operating budget, the worst thing they can do is act as if they’re a small community-based organization versus being a part of a $2 billion enterprise that has a national and international footprint. I’ll be the first one to tell you, and I’m sure that the local clubs will say this, that every community is unique, and every club is unique. But our ability to link to the broader collective mission is key. We’re woven into the fabric of this country; we are in every congressional district in this country.
YT: What do you see as your next steps?
TJ: I think it’s how to position Boys and Girls Clubs of America for deeper impact. Organizations can be successful around three pillars: intellectual capital (what you know, is there something that you do really well that sets you apart), financial capital (do I have the resources available to make that idea a reality), human capital (do we have the right people, the right models to be able to execute our strategies). So often we focus on the first two — the intellectual and financial capital — and we haven’t paid attention to the human capital.
By and large, over the past few years, people have come to realize … it doesn’t matter if you have good ideas and money; if you don’t have the right people with the right skills, you aren’t going anywhere.
How do we professionalize this profession? How do we ensure that people look at this role not just as an encore job, that they’ve spent their entire work life in for-profit and now feel like doing something good, so they work in a nonprofit. Or, that people look at the work as a job of last resort. They need to see that these nonprofits dynamically affect the economic engine of this country.
The roles of our leaders are inspirational, but how do we make it aspirational as well? Organizations like ours need to make a concerted effort to invest in people’s development, in the human capital. I think it’s phenomenal that someone who comes to work at a Boys and Girls Club can go to a place like Harvard Business School to sharpen their skills. How cool is that?
We need to think about a common set of competencies, not just for our organization but across youth development as a whole. How do we partner on something like that, be able to do that? I think that’s on the horizon.
YT: You have that relationship with Harvard Business School for your administration. Do you have the equivalent for your line staff?
TR: That’s being built right now. It’s a question of scaling. How do we take a model that we can realistically do for 50 to 100 people a year and then affect 40 to 50,000 people? We are working with other organizations who have put their hand up, who have learning assets and want to open them up to us. One thing we’re doing is to make sure that human capital development is a priority for the leaders of our local organizations. If they demonstrate it’s a priority for them, then everything will fall behind them.