graphic with bitmoji character and words "pretty good, but not great" - manager
The other day I was with a friend who had just completed one year as Chief Operating Officer at a non-profit. I was asking him how the new position was going. He said that after four months into the job he got an “ah-ha!” moment of clarity of what it means to be a good manager, and it was really helping him.
You see, my friend is quite a brilliant person. He’s someone who loves figuring out a problem and fixing it by himself. Believe me, his amazing skills have helped me many times. But as someone who needs to manage people, that skill of figuring stuff out and doing it on your own is not the greatest.
Four months into his job as COO – where he has to manage fifteen people – he was struggling.
As he was telling me his story, it reminded me of the many Development Directors and Directors of Major Gifts who are put into a similar position. What Richard and I encounter over and over is that a majority of non-profits put their best skilled technical people into management positions.
Typically the most skilled people become managers because it’s just generally assumed that going into management is the only real way for you to get more status and increase your salary at a non-profit. It shouldn’t be that way, but in about 95% of non-profits this is the setup. So we have to deal with this reality.
We have written about this dilemma many times in our blog. Typically, we say to non-profit leaders, “STOP DOING THAT!” – especially when it comes to putting your best MGO into a management position. It’s often a disaster.
We recognize that there are scores of Development Directors and Directors of Major Gifts that are put into these positions where they are not naturally gifted for this sort of work. They typically they like to get results through their own efforts (like my friend the COO), not through helping others’ efforts.
But that doesn’t mean a great MGO must be a disaster as a manager. To be honest with you, I don’t think you’re likely to be a great manager, but if your heart is in the right place and you work at it, you can be a good one.
I was actually inspired to write this blog post because of the continued conversation I had with my friend. Remember that “ah-ha!” moment he had? Here is what happened.
He was at a leadership retreat, and the topic of developing the next generation of leaders at his non-profit came up. The CEO started talking about steps he was going to take to build up his successor. That struck my friend.
He realized that if he was really going to make a mark at this organization, the best thing he could do is “let go” and “build up” his people, rather than do it all on his own. That led him on a journey over the next several months to learn how to be a good manager.
He said this to me: “Jeff, I know my natural inclination is to do everything myself. But I realized if any of my people are going to grow, I’ve got to let them fail and help them understand how to correct things. I have to come alongside of them and give them my wisdom and counsel; I can’t do things for them.”
This was a major revelation for him. And after listening to him talk for over an hour about what he had been learning about managing, I realized that, while he may never be an awesome manager, he could still be a good one and help his people to grow in their careers. Why? Because he genuinely wanted his staff to grow and learn.
Now, you may be in a situation similar to my friend’s. You found success in a position where you got results through your own efforts, but now you are in a position of management in a major gifts program. Here are some thoughts on how you can become a good manager if you don’t have the ability to go back and just do the technical work of a major gift officer.

  1. Understand that you don’t have to solve everything. As a manager you have to allow your people to do the work themselves. They may fail. Let them know they are allowed to, but they have to learn from failure. You are there to guide them through it.
  2. Meet with your folks every week. MGOs need structure, focus and accountability. I know you probably have a caseload too, but you have to schedule this time with all of your MGOs. Holding MGOs accountable to their goals and strategies is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
  3. Be a cheerleader. This may not be the most natural thing for you to do, but make it a point to tell people they are doing a good job. Force yourself to do it. Remember how good it feels when you get praised? Do that for your MGOs.
  4. Be an advocate. Every one of your direct reports should know that you have their best interests at heart. Show them you are their advocate to the organization’s leadership. Get them pay increases if they deserve them. Make special arrangements for them at times. Go to bat for them.
  5. Be real. Be honest, don’t jerk people around, be vulnerable to your staff when you make a mistake, apologize; let people know who you are. You may not have all the natural technical abilities of a great manager – but if you are real with your folks, that goes a long, long way.

Put these into practice and the folks you manage will have a… well… a good manager. Managing is not easy, especially when you are wired to spend all your time with your own caseload, but I know your heart is there to help your folks be successful.
Now, be a good manager.