Less is More

The great American-German architect, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe helped to popularize the expression “less is more” in the early years of the twentieth century.

The wisdom of “less is more” extends far beyond architecture and well into our own era, as well. In his book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Drucker gives new meaning to this idea when discussing organizational structure and staff supervision. “It is a sound principle,” he cautions, “that any one person in an organization have only one ‘master.’” While Drucker was not addressing himself to the nonprofit sector at that time, his wisdom is particularly resonant for those who work on behalf of this country’s myriad 501(c) 3 groups. Indeed, I would argue that failure to live by this principle ranks among the leading causes of professional disaffection in the not-for-profit workplace.

In far too many nonprofit groups, particularly small and mid-sized ones, reporting lines are unclear and employees are often torn between more than one supervisor. It is not uncommon for such individuals to identify some combination of multiple department heads, the CEO, and in more than a few cases, even a volunteer leader when answering the question, “Who is your boss?’

It is rarely in my nature to speak categorically, but in this regard I will make an exception. No not-for-profit employee should ever be supervised directly by a volunteer, unless, of course, that employee is the CEO or senior clergy person. And even in those latter cases, the supervision comes not from a single individual acting independently but on behalf of the board of the organization following a formal review process.

Over the course of my work I have counseled dozens of nonprofit professionals who, because of weak senior management or overreaching board members, report that they are supervised by both a professional and a volunteer leader. As their testimonies make clear, such a situation elevates dysfunction to an art form.

Best practices for nonprofits insist on clear distinctions between two discrete yet interdependent arenas, namely management and governance. Management, the purview of the professional staff, is responsible for an array of functions ranging from administration to programming. At the heart of management’s work is the hiring/firing, supervision, and review of every employee of the agency, except for the CEO or its equivalent. The governance function, on the other hand, belongs to the volunteer board of directors, the organization’s fiduciaries, whose responsibilities include, among others, hiring/firing, supervising and evaluating the Chief Executive Officer.

The benefits of such clarity cannot be overstated. At the heart of effective supervision is the crafting of a relationship that enables an employee to perform at maximum capacity. Anything that impedes that effort is unfair to the employee and the organization, and violates the sacred trust donors place in us. Nothing stifles an employee’s growth and effectiveness more than multiple bosses with divergent expectations and styles. This is exacerbated in nonprofit organizations when board members, even those with the best intentions, take it upon themselves to provide direct instruction or other forms of supervision to an employee. Not only does such an approach send mixed messages to the particular individual, it upends the entire staffing structure of the agency, calling into question the authority of the CEO and her department heads, and encouraging other board members to behave similarly.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not suggesting that volunteer leaders and professionals across the organization cannot work together, share ideas, adopt mutually agreed upon action plans, and the like. Indeed, in increasingly sophisticated not-for-profits the lines separating the traditional binary categories of management and governance have become more porous than ever, often with wonderful results. Moreover, a professional supervisor may on occasion consult with a volunteer leader in advance of making a high-profile hire or conducting a direct report’s personnel review. But there is a difference between meaningful partnerships and hands-on supervision. It is the purview of management and not governance to engage in the array of standard supervisory practices including: performance assessments, vacation approvals, portfolio changes, specific assignments, goal setting and promotions.

While my focus has been on the dysfunction that arises when volunteer leaders are allowed to supervise members of the staff, Drucker’s concern about multiple supervisors also applies when an employee has more than one professional boss. Similar challenges arise about mixed messages, confused expectations, and misalignment. Small nonprofits often opt to hire one full-time employee and divide their time between two separate departments as a concession to tight budgets or as a way of avoiding part-time employees. While I try never to second-guess people in the trenches who make decisions based on the exigencies they confront, I would caution against doing this for the reasons just identified.

The best way for a nonprofit to succeed is to have happy, motivated, empowered employees who have a clear understanding of who they report to and what is expected of them. To the degree that multiple supervisors are unavoidable, management should pay particularly close attention to the processes utilized. Supervisors should confer regularly in an effort to identify the optimal approach to the employee in question. Clear messaging, mutually agreed upon expectations, and close monitoring should be implemented for as long as necessary. As soon as possible, however, Drucker’s advice that “any one person in an organization [should] have only one ‘master’” must be heeded.

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