I recently had a conversation with a CEO of a large education nonprofit organization. The organization, like many other businesses now, is going through trying financial times. The lack of funding is causing considerable pressure on the CEO. The projects that were doable last year, are problematic for this year. Why? The funding isn’t there. Is that going to stop this CEO? No. And that’s part of the problem.
I’m familiar with the organization, as I’ve been asked to provide my input for business strategies over the years. The organization has grown and been successful. Its growth has been primarily because of the sheer force of personality and vision of this CEO. What’s been accomplished? Quite a lot. The organization received worldwide recognition. Educators and students, who have participated in the programs it delivers, have been thrilled with the educational product this organization produced. The vision has been big and bold. You would think that with such a great “product” that funding would be easy and plentiful. It never has been.
Each year, funding was a considerable challenge. I’ve heard the sheer panic in the CEO’s voice when he says, “We’re running out of money and I don’t know what I’ll do.” He commits to projects and then searches for funding. This relentless process has come with considerable costs to the CEO. I’ve seen the toll that this stress has taken on both the CEO’s health and personal pocketbook. He has had several health emergencies this past year. Now, he is funding the shortfalls in finances personally and he acknowledged recently that he’s almost at the end.
That’s where I stepped in and spoke up. Despite the relentless financial emergencies, each year the organization has met its commitments to its audience and produced the educational product. I think it’s time to take a step back and rethink this strategy. Here’s what I said. “Don’t you think it would be better for your health if you funded first and then produced the product instead of producing a product and then scrambling for funding?” I was met with dead silence. Then the response followed. It was curt, forced and filled with disdain.
He said in a frosty tone, “I’ve always done it this way and will continue to do so as I know how to get things done.” Sure you do. And, at what cost? Then I realized, he didn’t really want my opinion anyway. He didn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion who disagreed with him. What a way to lead an organization. Can you imagine making decisions for your business based only on the input of people who agree with you? Does it sound as nutty to you as it does to me?
What a waste of an organization’s talent. He wasn’t listening to anyone else’s input over the years either. How ironic to realize that he could have fired his staff and put their salaries to work for the organization. That would have eased his financial problems, too. He wasn’t listening to his staff’s ideas, so why not? I realized that this leader was lacking a critical leadership skill. He couldn’t listen to people who disagreed with him. Can you? If you can’t, it’s bad for business. You certainly don’t have to act on an opposite point of view, but you should consider its merits. No one is always right. You are paying your staff to think. Your job is to listen.