When clients inquire about the elements of successful strategic, business, development or campaign planning, our response always begins with leadership. Although leadership has many definitions, its essence remains the same: Leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire others.

A recent Gallup study, State of the American Manager, states that much of an organization’s success rests on its leadership. In fact, effective, or “high-talent,” leaders tend to have more engaged employees, many of whom act as “brand ambassadors” or vocal advocates for their institutions. Successful leadership also contributes to substantial increases in profitability and productivity as well as decreases in employee turnover.

However, the study also revealed that 82% of leaders lack the necessary skills to “lead the team toward common objectives.” This leads to the question: How can you recognize strong leaders?

Gallup identified five common skills of a great leader:

  1. Motivates and engages others
  2. Has the assertiveness to drive outcomes and overcome challenges
  3. Makes decisions based on productivity rather than politics
  4. Creates a culture of accountability; and
  5. Builds relationships that foster trust, are transparent and provide an opportunity for open dialogue.

Although we’d like to think that we value and can identify these qualities in others, Gallup found that organizations fail to choose candidates with the right talents a staggering 82% of the time!

What are we doing wrong?

According to Gallup, job promotion often has more to do with long tenure or high performance than with talent. Fortunately, you don’t have to look far to find your next leaders—talent is hiding among your current employees. Gallup found that 10% of employees have all of the skills of a good manager. Another 20% have some combination of the necessary skills and, with proper training, could become effective leaders.

While reflecting on the Gallup article, our thoughts turned to the zoo and aquarium industry—a nonprofit sector that S&W works with extensively and one with a keen awareness of the need for and value of effective leadership.

At its recent annual conference, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) leadership strongly advocated for its role in worldwide animal conservation. The message was clear: AZA’s approximately 230 accredited organizations have the opportunity to become the largest force in wildlife conservation, but doing so will require that member institutions work together, harder and smarter, to save animals from extinction. It will also require visionary leadership throughout the industry.

Fortunately, zoos and aquariums have benefitted tremendously from a robust cadre of strong leaders. But a recent survey, Demographics of AZA Directors and Their Implications, revealed an aging base of leaders: average age of 54.6, 26.4 years of zoo experience and approximately 10 years of experience in their current role. This means that, in the next ten years, approximately 74% of AZA member institutions will be hiring a new director. The trend has already begun—in each of the last three years (2012-14), over 20 directors left their positions and another 7 left in early 2015.

AZA’s call to action concerning the impending leadership transition within most AZA member organizations represents an opportunity to take stock of the type of leadership that will be needed to realize AZA’s ambitious agenda for the next decade.

When thinking about how to identify the talent in your pool of employees and how to mentor future leadership, consider AZA’s recent efforts to cultivate their own next generation of leaders. In response to the high volume of transitions that will occur over the next decade, the AZA established the Executive Leadership Development Program to identify and train talented individuals, providing them with the resources to move into the most senior levels of leadership in an AZA zoo or aquarium in the next two years.

This program, now in its third year, has been very successful. But the program itself is not enough because the demand for talented individuals who can replace outgoing directors far outpaces current supply. Zoos and aquariums need to look closely within their own ranks to identify skilled individuals and implement training programs that will prepare them for leadership. In addition, AZA member institutions must have a succession plan in place to proactively manage imminent change.

We encourage you to read more about the Gallup study on leadership here and to think about your employees who exhibit Gallup’s five fundamental traits of effective leadership so you can help them develop into the next generation of leaders.

Special Content: The Roadmap to Recovery

As nonprofits everywhere face unprecedented challenges, S&W is stepping forward to help—working on rapid response strategies with our clients, curating resources for easy access, offering answers from our expert team, and bringing people together from across the nonprofit world to share ideas. The point, as we say, is Powering Missions That Matter—now at the moment they matter most.

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