Don W. Taylor, MBA, CohenTaylor Founding Partner
Our daily professional lives have often been interrupted as of late with announcements of leadership changes. We are living in a world that includes lots of transition.
The past several years’ experience in helping facilitate transitions of leadership have given way to thought about these changes. Often times, it has brought more questions than answers.
All sectors of the work world have experienced the notion of a workforce that is “aging out.” Traditionalists are long gone and now, with a greater sense of financial security and hope, Boomers are following suit. Not unlike all sectors, it’s a generation that represents a significant number of executive leaders in the social sector.
We have not dutifully planned for their succession. Most (but not all) nonprofits with limited resources have focused on service to client stakeholders as a priority. Identification of a succession plan and the critical professional development of inside leaders around future competencies needed for the organization have gone untended.
The departure of this generation from the workplace—many who are long-time organizational leaders or founders—includes the exit of a critical amount of social and intellectual capital that leaves with them. That will bring both challenge and opportunity to complex social problems that exist in our communities.
The challenge (and opportunity) might be to understand more fully how to work differently with this generation of leaders as they exit. They have clearly identified that full retirement is not where they want to be. This generation wants to continue to make contributions—but in ways that don’t represent a typical work day world. Are we thinking about creative ways to capture or retain that capital for the benefit of the sector?
The opportunity is for growth of a new generation of leaders and, potentially, their new and different approach to strategy. Their own life experiences and how they have witnessed their parents in the working world have helped defined their own values and behavior. This new generation of leadership is already shaping how we work in the physical space of workplace.
A September 2015 article in Bridge Partners Insights (www.bridgepartnersllc.com) introduces the concepts of “cognitive diversity” and “cognitive conflict” in problem solving around complex social issues. Okay so, maybe just new buzzwords?—but I like them.
Cognitive diversity incorporates what is innate to our being, combined with the behaviors (or how you act) as result of what you have learned in your life experiences. We all bring both to the experience of and the creativity in problem solving and strategy development. It does not assume that your competence is based on your generation, your ethnicity, or your sector experience (for profit, nonprofit, public). With cognitive diversity, is it likely that each of us brings bias to how we might approach leadership?
Cognitive conflict is a gift—the opportunity to use that diversity to form and create collaborative solutions in leadership. It gives permission for others to challenge any bias we might bring, to consider a problem from different perspectives and to build strategy from collective input.
In our executive search experience, organizations are not always ready to introduce the kinds of leaders who bring cognitive diversity and conflict to organizational management and an organization’s culture. Multinational corporations have begun to find their way successfully and many corporate leaders who sit in nonprofit board leadership are open to it and have a desire to bring it into the nonprofit sector. In the end, boards may not be ready for the inherent risk it brings—especially around disruption of organizational culture. How might we change that paradigm to be open and prepared?
What I’m most confident about—is that the sector’s approach to leadership will be evolutionary, likely to be disruptive and most certainly, transformational.