Most of us started our clinical careers not as managers but as line staff at local mental health programs, eventually working our way up to positions of more authority and responsibility. Some of us have worked very hard to learn the craft of nonprofit management, while others have simply transferred into these new positions as they became available without receiving any additional training or education beyond learning on the job.
Given enough natural ability and time, many things can be learned on the job, but being in a position of leadership without possessing the requisite knowledge can result in making many avoidable mistakes. The key in nonprofit management then is not just natural ability and time but a concerted effort to learn the job prior to starting your first day.
Many of us have experienced a boss who pretended to know everything but was often found to be clueless instead. I have consulted with companies having issues with retention and staff morale. These companies have asked me to investigate and come up with possible solutions to the problems plaguing them. At times these issues are systemic or otherwise deeply embedded; other times, it takes only a matter of moments to identify the source of the problem. Examples of this include bosses who have no idea of the many tasks and jobs being performed by the folks they supervise. Other bosses are unaware of even the basic methods applied in successful management.
Simply put, being good at one job is no guarantee that you will be good at another. Almost every counselor clinician is a good listener and communicator, and these qualities provide a good foundation in management. But these qualities alone do not guarantee a successful transition into nonprofit management.
Years ago as part of my dissertation, I interviewed several clinical managers about the approved clinical supervisor (ACS) credential offered by the Center for Credentialing & Education. I was shocked by the results. Although the credential was only six years old at the time, not a single person I interviewed had or was actively pursuing the credential (many became interested in it during the course of our interviews, however). The majority of the clinical managers thought that because they were already supervisors, they were obviously successful and should be grandfathered into the credential. They believed, however, that others entering the realm of supervision could benefit from training; therefore, they supported credentialing in the future. It was beyond the scope of my work, but it would have been fascinating to have been able to ask these supervisors’ subordinates to rate the supervisors’ styles, abilities and overall leadership skills and compare these ratings to how the supervisors perceived themselves. Most possessed little more than on-the-job training.
One of the keys to leadership is knowing when to react (and with how much energy) and when not to react. When leaders show fear, anger, anxiety, etc., it tends to greatly affect those who are looking to them for guidance. Staying calm, not overreacting and maintaining focus can be the difference between a program operating in panic mode and one that quickly rebounds.
Although natural ability can take you far, is it fair to expect clinicians with no formal training to successfully make the transition to management? Is it fair to those they supervise or to those who are in treatment?
Success is within reach for those making the transition, however, and it need not cost a ton of money or take years to achieve. Self-study can take you far, and today is perhaps the best time in history to access information on just about any topic with the help of interlibrary loans, low-cost books from various Internet companies and a plethora of online resources.
If your knowledge level is low in this area, however, self-study may not be the best way to start. Instead, consider formal course work (you don’t necessarily need to gain another degree in this area, but it wouldn’t hurt). A certificate of advanced graduate studies might be a great option because it offers the comprehensive studies found in doctoral programs without requiring the dissertation. Most of these programs will cover the core areas for the ACS credential while giving you a more than solid base of knowledge about clinical supervision and education.
Some employers may also offer formal training, supervision and experiential learning in the area of supervision. Participating in these programs could allow you to advance within your current company. Above all, when entering into nonprofit management, make sure that you go in with a wealth of knowledge, just as you did when you entered the clinical field.
Carl (not his real name) was a tough but fair clinician. He did well in his work, but as he got older, he wanted to move up the ranks a bit to make a little more money and to have the chance to make some changes in the company for which he had worked for years. The transition was a bit strained at first. He lacked any formal training as a manager and supervisor, and his co-workers considered him to be just another clinician instead of the new boss. As was his style, Carl met this head-on and found that he was often butting heads with his workers.
Carl started writing his subordinates up in order to “show them who’s in charge,” but things only got worse. Soon enough, some of his key clinicians were leaving, and the overall morale was declining. Carl also found himself getting angry because some of the changes he had promised himself he would make once he had the authority were not coming to pass due to funding restraints and other contractual obligations. He began to hate his job because of what he perceived to be a setup for failure.
Carl actually was quite talented. Having known him for years, I grew very concerned over the tone his ever more infrequent emails to me were taking. I called him at work one day, which surprised him to no end (I am not known for telephonic communication if I can help it). Still, he shared his frustrations and concerns. It became very apparent that he had underestimated this transition, but with some tweaking, training and time, he would be able to do very well.
We started by reviewing some of the literature in the field and the basic techniques of leadership. He learned that a Rogerian approach to training staff and basic management is often most effective because it allows for a nurturing environment while also providing guidance. He also learned ways to better review funding and other contractual requirements so that he could start implementing his ideas for the program.
Whenever new leadership comes into a nonprofit program, some changes in staffing are likely to take place. In fact, it is not uncommon for up to half of the staff to turn over within the first year or so of new leadership, depending on the size of the company and many other factors, including the normal turnover rate (which might be at 30-40 percent anyway). Learning that some staff turnover in the face of change is to be expected took some of the pressure off Carl. He had previously viewed the loss of each staff person as a personal failure on his part.
In time, our mentorship-type relationship, coupled with Carl’s self-study and experience, made a real difference in his leadership style and ability. He became more confident and better able to make decisions. As his confidence grew, he also found that he felt less threatened by his staff when they disagreed with him. Thus, he rarely if ever found the need to write up staff. (Coincidentally, I’ve found that the supervisors and managers who do the most write-ups tend to be the ones who are struggling the most in their positions.)
When you decided to become a clinician, you worked very hard to learn the literature, techniques and related issues of your craft. Becoming an effective manager will require that same dedication. Discover your personal style, but do so in tandem with the knowledge required to do the work. In time and with study, there is no telling how far you can go.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.