by Chris Bibbo, ReBuild Colorado DirectorSeven Turning Points

Book Report:

Gross, Susan. Seven Turning Points: Leading through Pivotal Transitions in Organizational Life. St. Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance, 2009. Print.

As non-profit organizations grow, add staff, and expand their programs and services, their organizational structures become more complex and their leadership, management, and governance needs evolve. In order to remain effective and relevant, organizations must change and adapt to new circumstances and challenges. Author Susan Gross draws upon more than 40 years of experience consulting with non-profits to identify seven typical transition points that most organizations must navigate successfully if they are to survive and thrive. While these points don’t necessarily occur sequentially, most growing non-profits will have to deal with each of them during the course of their life-cycle, sometimes addressing several simultaneously. Consider whether your organization is currently facing any of these turning points:

Turning Point 1: Do We Need to Get Organized? Most non-profits start out with informal management, minimal structure, a familial operating style, and visionary, entrepreneurial leadership. As they add staff and begin to grow, tensions tend to increase due to lack of structure and the need arises for more clearly-defined roles and standardized systems.

Turning Point 2: Do We Need Infrastructure? A non-profit’s leadership may be primarily focused on program development and execution without much attention to administration, financial management, human resource management, policies and procedures, or resource development planning. An overtaxed staff, lacking adequate direction and feeling unappreciated, often precipitates the move toward increased organizational infrastructure.

Turning Point 3: Do We Need to Let Go? An organization that is entirely volunteer-run has a hands-on board of directors fulfilling programmatic and operational roles. At some point, they realize that in order to grow beyond their current capacity and ensure the organization’s long-term sustainability, they need to hire staff and begin the transition to a governance role.

Turning Point 4: Do We Need Focus? Entrepreneurial organizations are often opportunistic and reluctant to turn down any funding opportunities that come their way. As a result, they grow rapidly but without a unifying strategy or plan. Eventually the organization realizes it is spread in too many different directions and requires a more disciplined, strategic approach with clearly identified priorities serving as a screen for new opportunities that arise.

Turning Point 5: Do We Need to Decentralize Power? Non-profits sometimes require a strong leader who makes most of the decisions and manages staff and operations very closely. At other times, this leadership style can stifle creativity, initiative, and growth. Structural changes must be made to decentralize control, empower staff to take on more leadership, responsibility, and decision-making, and promote a more collegial approach.

Turning Point 6: Do We Need to Recapture our Core? As centralized organizations grow and mature, they tend toward decentralization and often splinter into programmatic silos in which staff members identify more closely with their own program or project than with the organization as a whole. The organization lacks an overarching identity and there is competition for resources amongst the various programs and departments. Strategic planning is needed to identify and strengthen the organization’s core values and programs and build a cohesive, collaborative culture.

Turning Point 7: How Do We Move On? Non-profits with strong and cherished leadership may neglect succession planning either out of complacence or denial. Inevitably, the organization must realize the need to prepare for the leader’s eventual departure so that it can weather the transition effectively and emerge even stronger.

The author describes each Turning Point in detail, explaining the typical signs, laying out the needed adjustments, identifying the counter-tensions that are likely to arise when adjustments are made, and offering helpful suggestions on how best to manage those tensions. She also offers general principles and strategies for helping organizations to navigate change. Gross explains that there is a set of creative tensions that are inherent to, and ever-present in, organizational life, and that each turning point requires finding the right balance for the organization at that particular time. What’s appropriate for one stage of organizational development doesn’t work at the next stage and so requires change. This balancing process is always ongoing in organizational life, and organizations need to be able to recognize the need for change and manage it effectively.