The Great Resignation Hits the C-Suite
The Great Resignation has hit the C-suite — maybe yours. This phenomenon had been slowly percolating for years. With less to lose financially, millennials, Gen X and Gen Z were more likely to quit even before the pandemic. They put “happy” at the top of their priority lists. And, let’s be frank, we made fun of them. We chided them in our executive leadership meetings about their work ethic and their propensity to be “me first” instead of “organization first.” They worked differently than older generations.
During the pandemic, these younger generations worked from home with their children in the background or with roommates; it was hard. Regardless, many resigned from their jobs when faced with returning to the office because life was just better working remotely. Some got better offers, sure. But if you’re happy, you are unlikely to be on the lookout for something better. So how big was this wave of quits? Per LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky, job changes in LinkedIn profiles were up 54% as of September 2021.
“When you look at Gen Z specifically, that number’s up 80% year over year,” Roslansky said. “When you look at millennials that number is up 50% year over year. When you look at Gen X, that number’s up 31% year over year. When you look at boomers, that number’s only up 5% year over year.”
Many C-suite and VP-level executives — most of them baby boomers — were also working from home, but their homes were, well, quieter. Their kids, by and large, were of driving age, off to college or living their own lives. Their pandemic experience was often easier, barring illness. But boomers also found themselves highly productive during the pandemic. They were living better lives. They weren’t on a train or plane a large portion of their days. They were sleeping in their own beds. They were having more meals with people they loved.
So, while younger generations and two particular industries (accommodation/food services and retail trade) have the most “quitters,” we believe the C-suite and vice president wave is coming.
We apply social psychology to nonprofit giving and fundraising, so we expect this trend to have an immediate, significant impact on nonprofit organizations. So what is behind the “happy” these people seek? Is it really just about working remotely? The money? Generally speaking, research on the relationship between happiness and salary has shown that after a certain income threshold is met, increasing pay doesn’t result in a significant increase in happiness.
The table for employee satisfaction — and dissatisfaction — has been set for decades. A 2021 study from Gallup, which has been tracking employee satisfaction worldwide for more than 25 years, found that only 36% of U.S. employees are engaged in their work.
About half of employees are not engaged. They are checked out, sleepwalking through their days, putting little energy into their work. And the remaining 14% are actively disengaged and hating their jobs. In other words, work is more often a source of frustration for the majority of U.S. workers. Think of the social, emotional and economic waste that this statistic implies. Two in three U.S. adults spend half of their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be.
COVID-19 shined a light on something that had a big impact on C-suite workers’ happiness — more autonomy. That should come as no surprise. According to a recent Future Forum survey (pdf), 76% of workers now want more flexibility about where they work, and 93% want greater flexibility in when they work.
It turns out that this bump in happiness from things like making more choices while working from home, what to wear (enter “dayjamas”), when to work, etc., came as a bit of a surprise to many who experienced it. That bump in happiness may have exposed just how dissatisfied they truly were in their jobs.
If people were so dissatisfied, why weren’t they leaving their jobs before COVID-19? The answer is a bit counterintuitive. Most people tend to devalue happiness as a goal of their work lives. Many people think happiness is too abstract, particularly when compared with money and status.
Research on what psychologists call the “fluency effect” shows that we tend to devalue abstract or ambiguous things. We often devalue happiness because we don’t have a clear and concrete idea of what happiness is. However, the increase in happiness that people have experienced by gaining autonomy as a by-product of COVID-19 work restrictions isn’t something they will easily surrender.
This will have a profound impact on nonprofit C-suite leadership. Here are the thoughts of a number of nonprofit executives describing how COVID-19 changed their perspectives on work both personally and for their organizations.
Kathy Kempff left her role of CEO at Charity Dynamics in late 2021. She discussed her experience after a larger entity purchased the company.
“I had been with my company for over 10 years and the last two-and-a-half years as CEO were challenging, leading the company through a financial turnaround, an acquisition and the pandemic," she said. "People don’t tell you how lonely being in that leadership role is; it can be taxing. In July 2020, we finalized the company’s acquisition, and I committed to staying on post transaction with the new owners.”
Last year, she faced challenges in her personal life as she lost a close uncle to COVID-19 as well as her cat and dog. Both of her parents having health issues also served as a wake-up call.
“I realized that I had not spent as much time with them over the last few years as I would have liked, and many times chose work over family,” she said. “… It was a year of reflection and assessment for what matters in life.”
But pressures from personal life weren’t all that contributed to Kathy’s ultimate resignation from her CEO role. Instead, the struggle to adjust to an operationalized management style and structured decision-making processes ultimately proved to be the final factor in her decision.
“I realize it’s not about a title, how many people you manage or compensation; it’s the whole package," she said. "I’ve cleared any preconceived notions of what I should do or how it’s perceived externally. I’m redefining what it means for me to be happy. I’m actively interviewing for very different job titles and responsibilities from individual contributor roles to management.”
Jason Menzo was recently promoted to president and chief operating officer at the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He plans to stay because it makes him happy.
“The most important thing for me is flexibility,” he said. “My family life is a kaleidoscope of different scenarios daily. Having the ability to flex to focus on the quality of work versus the place the work gets accomplished is important to me and my family.
“That said, I do think there is nothing that can rival the impact of being in person with a colleague. But our ability to flex has been a benefit in terms of production, collaboration and recruitment. Things that the old world in-office-only mentality missed, all while allowing the team to modify their day to allow them to be present with their family.”
Menzo added that staff health and well-being has been positively impacted by the organization going mortar-free during the pandemic.
“I come back to two words — flexibility and trust. I say to [my staff], ‘I don’t need to see you in the office to trust that you are getting your work done,’" he said. "It is treating our team as adults who are mature and empowered.”
Return to the Office
But what about those offices that are returning to the office ASAP? We all know those CEOs who thrive on interaction with other people face-to-face. They get energy that way. They don’t believe an organization can be led as well remotely. They like the trappings of power — the corner office, the entourage on the way to the big conference room, the parking lot attendant who knows who they are. So, they insist employees must be able to be face-to-face regularly, even every day.
Their people are fleeing, too. And not just in the lower ranks, but also at the top end of the organizational chart. An executive at an international nonprofit, which had its staff working remotely since 2020, noted the organization received ample feedback about how staff felt about a remote-first culture. The majority of staff was in favor of a flexible work arrangement continuing, citing high level of productivity, increased focus as well as overall satisfaction.
“That’s why it was a complete surprise when the organization announced that they are requiring staff to return to the office in the next quarter,” the executive, who is currently engaged in job search and thus did not wish to be identified, said. “The complete disregard of the overwhelming qualitative and quantitative feedback from employees that wanted to continue remote work was baffling. As I tried to get my mind wrapped around the ‘why’ behind this decision, I immediately went to how inequitable this was for people and how unfortunate this was for the planet. I believe this is one of the factors that has increased our turnover.”
Work From Anywhere
Patrick Reedy had set requirements for his most recent job search that landed him at Shatterproof as its chief development officer in January 2021.
“I approached my job search with three criteria in mind: a mission I could truly be passionate about, a role that allowed me to play to my strengths and a leadership team based on mutual respect I could contribute to," he said. "These three served as the north star for my search. My family and I had decided early on that we wanted to remain here in Chicago — even if it required significant travel.”
He knew his requirements might lengthen his job search, but he felt it would be worth the wait. And it may have helped that employers are becoming increasingly more flexible with their considerations.
“Originally, the organization tried to identify someone on the east coast," he said. "But I believe because leadership saw how well the organization functioned remotely during the pandemic, they loosened up geographic considerations. Their only concern was, ‘How close do you live to O’Hare [International Airport],’ indicating that the ability to travel was most important as opposed to home base. I am extremely gratified that my approach led me to such a fulfilling role with a great organization and leadership team.”
“We’ve been dealing with the pandemic for two years and, during this time, we have proven we can successfully work remotely in positions that are not essential and frontline,” Paula Schneider, president and CEO, Susan G. Komen, said. “Productivity has increased and it is important for employees to have autonomy to decide where they can live and work.”
Her embracement of remote work has allowed her to build a team stretching to almost every state and even into other countries, reducing operational costs while increasing mission impact and employee satisfaction. Not only does Schneider get the benefits of having a top-tier team dedicated to ending breast cancer, but she also gets to be close to her family.
“Taking away commuting to and from the office helps to reduce stress of getting to and from work," she said. "It decreases expenses associated with commuting, increases productivity, empowers staff to effectively manage their schedules, and takes away any limitations on where they want to call home.”
She believes the Great Resignation is the result of the pandemic allowing people to assess what's most important to them and what they they want in their careers.
“As a breast cancer survivor, I understand there is a moment when you determine what is important to you," she said. "The pandemic gave many individuals time to take a similar pause and assess what is important to their own lives.”
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.