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Rockstars and Superstars: How Nonprofit Board Service is Meeting Their Talent Development Goals

HR and Talent teams at top companies are unlocking nonprofit board service as a primary way to meet the needs and goals of high-priority professionals.
byRob ActononSeptember 7, 2022

Top companies hire talented people – that’s the easy part. Keeping them as they excel is an entirely different story.

As talented professionals perform and grow in their role, great managers identify the cream of the crop on their team: Superstars and Rockstars. In Radical Candor, author Kim Scott describes both:

  • Superstars are high performers with rapid growth potential
  • Rockstars are high performers interested in more limited growth

Scott notes that superstars expect to ascend quickly in their career and are prepared to put the time and effort in to make it happen. Rockstars, on the other hand, don’t want rapid growth at all: they really like the job they perform each day and they do it very well. What rockstars do expect, however, is recognition.

Your superstars want to grow into leaders.

Your rockstars want to be recognized for their strong performance.

According to Scott, it’s that simple.

HR and Talent Development teams at top companies across the globe are leaning into innovation as they unlock nonprofit board service programming as a primary way to meet the needs of both groups of high-priority professionals.

I know because my company is working with them to make this happen, at scale.

Let’s start with your superstars.

Too often corporate leadership development programs have been focused on passive listening experiences: picture hyped-up crowds of people listening to a great-looking speaker who zip lined on to a colorfully hued stage, pumping up the rank and file with worn out leadership tropes and stories of guaranteed success. (Yes, I’m looking at you Tony Robbins). Or maybe the HR or Talent team has developed a first-rate curriculum for turning managers into leaders which is, in my view, a great start.

But I want to posit that leaders are best developed through experiential learning opportunities. To say it plainly, we learn to lead by leading.

Allow me to share a story from my youth.

I taught myself to drive at the age of 13, speeding a fire engine red 1982 VW Rabbit around Covenant Hills Camp in Otisville, Michigan. My Dad was Camp Director and during off-season — when the grounds didn’t have campers or guests — he would let me take his keys and race his Rabbit around Covenant Hills Camp’s winding dirt roads, birch trees and A-frame cabins. We made a pact that we wouldn’t let Mom know of this arrangement. Only once did I almost get into a wreck, narrowly missing a head-on collision with a sugar maple tree. In that moment, I learned that it was important to slow down when rounding a corner with loose gravel underneath the tires. I never had a close call like that again. I learned to drive as I drove.


A couple years later I spent my summer in the classroom, taking Driver’s Education at Davison High School. Mr. Yoder taught us the rules of the road. I learned what each sign meant – merge, yield, deer crossing ahead – but I didn’t need him to teach me how to operate a vehicle. I’d learned that through firsthand experience. During my first road test, Mr. Yoder — sitting in the passenger seat beside me — commented on my skills: “You’re doing a great job behind the wheel.” I didn’t tell him that I’d already been driving for two years.

Confucius described experiential learning in 450 BC:

Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.

Nonprofit board service meets the needs of your superstar by giving them the opportunity to lead. By serving on a board, a superstar builds leadership competencies that accelerate professional growth. The superstar learns new leaderships styles and approaches from business and community leaders serving as peers around the boardroom table. When organizational challenges develop – and I assure you, they will – the superstar must lean into agile leadership as the board weeds its way through a complex crisis.

But how does nonprofit board service meet the needs of your rockstars – those high performers who don’t want to grow into leaders?

By tapping your rockstar on the shoulder and saying, “We think you should consider this opportunity to serve on a nonprofit board,” a company is recognizing the rockstar’s strong performance in a tangible way. Further, serving on a board will give your rockstar the opportunity to leverage his or her well-honed professional skill set in a new operating environment and on a cause they care about. This, in turn, will result in recognition from an entirely new group of peers — namely the nonprofit’s staff and board – who will show appreciation for what your rockstar is doing to deliver impact on the organization and the community it serves.

Let me wrap up with an example for both categories.

My company, Cause Strategy Partners, works at the intersection of nonprofits and corporations in the United States and the United Kingdom by connecting diverse and talented professionals to nonprofit board service opportunities through our BoardLead online platform and curated matching and placement services. Our Concierge Board Placement service connects senior executives at top companies with Board of Director opportunities at high-profile nonprofits. Mimi found Battery Dance Company through BoardLead and we introduced Mohamed to CARE through our concierge service.

The Rockstar

Mimi is a Managing Director at a global financial services institution. We placed Mimi on the Board of Directors of a dance company through BoardLead. Mimi has leveraged her experience, skill set, network and resources and, in the words of the dance company’s Director, has been an “unparalleled game-changer on our board.” When I asked Mimi about her experience, she responded: “I worked at my company for almost ten years and didn’t think anyone was paying attention to my growth. It wasn’t until I was invited to participate in BoardLead that I realized they even knew who I was.” That sort of recognition spoke to Mimi and changed the way she viewed her employer and her understanding of how her employer viewed her. By the way, Mimi shared this with me when she was receiving an award for her board service. Recognition matters to a rockstar.


Rob Acton (left), Founder and CEO of Cause Strategy Partners, BoardLeader, Mimi Shih (center), and Battery Dance's Founder and Artistic Director, Jonathan Hollander (right) at Battery Dance's 2022 Capacity Builders Awards.

The Superstar

Mohamed is a global leader at one of the world’s largest international professional services firm. We placed Mohamed on the Board of Directors of an international development organization reaching more than 90 million people facing humanitarian crises across the globe. Mohamed has been promoted at least six times over the last 11 years, the definition of a superstar. Yet having reached the top echelon of leadership in his firm, Mohamed nonetheless wanted to dive into nonprofit board service to make a difference on a cause close to his heart, exercise new leadership muscles in a legislative-like environment, and continue to build his professional network. A superstar never stops growing.

So, to sum up:

  • A company must work hard for superstars and rockstars to keep feeling the love or run the risk of losing these high-priority professionals. But superstars and rockstars feel the love in differing ways.

  • Superstars want to grow into leaders, quickly. Rockstars need their talents to be recognized.

  • HR/Talent teams on the leading edge of innovation are leveraging nonprofit board service as a way to meet the needs of their superstars and rockstars.

In Part II of this blog series, we will look at Experiential Learning Theory and SHRM’s Leadership Competency model to see how nonprofit board service is a direct hit for HR/talent teams looking to expand how the company grows its leaders.

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