Many Hats

How Many Hats Can One Person Wear… Really?

Thoughts from a former executive director….

One of the greatest strengths and one of the greatest weaknesses of nonprofit organizations is the ability of staff to wear many hats, to get things done with few resources and to learn new skills on the fly.

But is this sustainable? Does it engender growth?

The other day I came across a job description from hat-wearing hell. It was for a grant writer. Not just any grant writer, but a grant writer who could also be the development officer, grants manager, special events coordinator, program designer, and volunteer supervisor. All this in a part-time contract position.

Besides being a HR nightmare (part-time contract with implied full-time work is problematic, if you’re currently doing this, please see a human resource professional immediately, you’re one disgruntled employee away from a significant problem) this approach to hiring does not work.

Multi-tasking is a fantasy. The vast majority of humans can only do one thing at a time. People juggle. When you give your staff too many balls to juggle, they drop them. They suffer. You suffer. And your organization suffers.

When I was an executive director I learned this the hard way. I use to write job descriptions that were really silver bullets, my dream staffer who would plug all the holes in my organization’s staffing structure, take us to the next level and everything would be wonderful when ”just the right person” came on board. But who did these job descriptions attract:

People that didn’t truly understand the job (if I was lucky I weeded these people out in the interview process, if I was unlucky I hired a well-meaning staffer that needed a lot of supervision, which presented another problem)

People that understood the job but wanted a lot more money (learned that “salary negotiable” generated many unproductive interviews)

People that took the job until something better and a lot more reasonable came along (a popular theme in exit interviews was “in my new job, I have to only do X.”)

While wearing many hats is a strength, it becomes a liability when it’s hard-wired into job descriptions. Wearing multiple hats works for short-term limited projects. It can build camaraderie, widen people’s skill sets and aid in cross-training across departments. But you will burn people out if it is the foundation of their job description.

I learned to offer people opportunities that while challenging, were manageable. That gave them the opportunity to master a job, that with extra effort they could become really good at their job. I began to limit the key responsibilities to only a handful of related tasks. This produced a staffer that took pride in their work, enthusiastically pitched in when necessary, and most importantly tended to stay and grow with our organization.

For example, with the job description in question, I would recommend separating out the grant writing responsibilities from the development officer/special events coordinator responsibilities. Usually these jobs attract different types of people, but that’s a topic for another blog.

In summary, over time I learned that occasional multiple hat wearing is fine, but to live that way is a lot more trouble than its worth, for everybody

by Janedra Sykes 

Posted on March 6, 2016 in Arboreta Group

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