Building Bench Strength, Developing Professional Skills

Career changes within the American Red Cross were predominantly employee-driven 15 years ago. Today, talent movement, leadership development and succession planning all help the Red Cross match employees to skillsets they are interested in within the organization.

Leadership development has been one way that Red Cross employees have moved over by moving up. Lead, Red Cross’ leadership development program, has welcomed in four classes since 2012, totaling about 100 employees. The program is three years long and employees hold their current positions while participating, according to Melissa Hurst, senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

Year one focuses on strategic leadership, working with subject experts and developing a business plan. Personal career development is the emphasis for year two followed by specific skills and competencies within the organization in year three. About 20 percent of participants have moved across department lines through the program. Identifying necessary skills and development needs has been built into the organization’s annual performance review process.

Supervisors at the Washington, D.C.-headquartered organization work with employees moving into new roles with development needs. The organization’s learning hub, featuring online classes and access to lectures, is used in designing an employee’s curriculum. “There is a lot of, I think, self-assessment that they do facilitated by the organization and the coaching and mentoring aspects of the program and getting 360 feedback,” Hurst said.

Red Cross managers look for employees in early or mid-level management across disciplines. Key traits Red Cross looks for, according to Hurst, are leadership skills, agility for learning, display of core values such as compassion and collaboration, and an interest in developing skills in a way that will lead to them becoming a cross-functioning manager. “We want people who are sitting in a chair today who want to lead and want a skillset,” Hurst said. “We want people to cross the line [of disciplines].”

Assessments on fit are made prior to employees being welcomed into the program, Hurst said. Employees are continually assessed on how they work with others and their leadership style during their time in Lead. Some employees, during that time, might realize that the program is not for them or decide that they don’t want to leave their original department and will exit the program to continue on their previous career path.

Participants in Lead spend a lot of time with their peers from all around the lines of organizational business and across the country — that has been identified as a valuable aspect of the program. Buy-in from top-level managers has also been of benefit, with leaders including the chief financial officer and general counsel coming in to lead sessions, share their personal styles and mentor. “It’s really all hands-on,” said Hurst.

A lot of the cross-discipline movement seen at Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), too, has a leadership tilt. Movement within the organization’s 1,100 affiliates leads to situations in which a director of operations at one club might take an executive director role at another, necessitating supplemental trainings in skills such as fundraising and development, according to Thomas Rajan, senior vice president of strategic leadership development of the Atlanta, Ga.-based organization.

BGCA is building out its readiness program for emerging leaders, a program targeted at employees who could one day fill a C-suite role or even a level below. Aligning competencies with the work BGCA is trying to accomplish through its mission and broadening scopes of skillsets are program priorities. Funding savvy, resource development, the ability to engage with the board and tenacity are skills sought after, Rajan said.

Rajan described himself as a big believer in rotational development assignments as a means of developing a variety of abilities at high levels. Nonprofits’ tendency to keep workers where they excel as opposed to exposing them to different things creates a dearth of leadership talent, he said. For-profits are more likely to work emerging talent in various functions even if they are a star in one particular field.

A background in the for-profit sector, aviation specifically, led Rajan toward an interest in “professionalizing the profession” of nonprofit executives. Rajan used the example of a pilot who works his way up to flying a 747, but doesn’t cease training and certification once he reaches a top level. “So if we’re talking about some of these critical roles that are there in social services…why wouldn’t we look at some sort of professional credential that comes with a role like that,” he posed.

BGCA is still years away from making the hypothetical certification process a reality, Rajan said. Still, developing on necessary functional capacities and creating a system that builds on an ongoing commitment to learning is seen as a next frontier for professional development at the organization.