Promoting from within? Hiring your leaders

As we all know, there are sometimes significant differences between what sounds like a great idea in theory and what really works in practice. Even more disturbing are the times when there are big gaps between what we really want to do (and how we want it to work) and what ends up happening.

A dilemma that, for me, unfortunately falls in this category is the question of whether or not to hire your grassroots leaders to work for your organization. All entities that do community organizing have this struggle, really, but I think that social service types that also do organizing have even more challenges, both because they are often somewhat less sophisticated in their leadership development structure and because they often have more staff openings that present this quandry.

To me, the problem is this: if we don’t hire our grassroots leaders when we have openings that would be good fits for their skills and interests, then we’re betraying our intentions to do authentic grassroots leadership, sending them a message that they don’t belong as paid staff, and creating a double standard wherein some people get paid to do the mission work that they love and others have to do it (often with comparable sacrifice) for free. BUT, if we hire a grassroots leader for a staff position, that can often create hard feelings among other leaders, who may see the hiring as either a siphoning off of their best leadership or a direct slight to their own abilities, or both. There can also be difficulties on the part of existing staff, in terms of adjusting to the leader’s new staff role, but those are more technical challenges (albeit considerable ones!) than real moral dilemmas.

These dilemmas are real. I’ve seen grassroots efforts nearly derailed by animosity over the selective hiring of a previously dynamic leader, and I’ve seen people turn on each other, and the organization, when someone was hired from the outside rather than from ‘one of their own’. I’ve seen grassroots leaders, hired as staff, flounder in those roles but not held accountable because the supervisors didn’t understand how to relate to them in the new role. And those situations were all, uniformly, total messes.

Have you ever faced this dilemma? If so, how did you handle it? Did you recruit from within your leaders first? Or look to external candidates? Did it ever occur to you to invest in hiring your own leadership? Did you try it? And, if so, how did it work? How did other leaders react to the hiring? What lessons did you learn? What should guide us as we make these decisions? Admittedly, these struggles may not be quite as common now, since we’re just not hiring as much as we once were, but THOSE DAYS SHALL COME AGAIN, and we need to be thinking now about how we’ll handle them, and how what we decide to do reflects on our organizing ideology.

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