Hero Fever: A Contagious Form of Unrealistic Expectations (best treated immediately)

My LinkedIn perked up this morning with a Sherlock Holmesian message: “This is a serious inquiry. I will hire you to help me talk to a board member about giving me the job as their Development Person.”

The challenge intrigued me. I wrote back, “Happy to help.”

A torrent of urgency next appeared in my email. The board member in charge of the hiring wanted the candidate to have a plan ready for how she would raise $5 million in a year from a steady state of a few hundred thousand a year and, as a side dish, develop staff to be better fundraisers. She, the candidate, was asked to provide the plan by lunch the next day. The candidate had completed a successful corporate career where she had enjoyed great success as a volunteer raising funds for different organizations. Her dream was to transition to a fully paid role at a non-profit whose mission she embraced.

While she sensed the board member’s request was atypical, she also wanted to prove to him that she could “play his game.” She quickly applied her business savvy and developed a plan that she sent me to review. It was breathtaking: well-organized, comprehensive and filled with detail. It was also unfeasible.

Managing expectations is perhaps the most important skill a development person needs to deploy from the outset of any assignment.

I asked her a few questions like, how many staff do they have, over what period of time is this plan, what is the board’s role in realizing this plan, none of which ultimately mattered. I had recognized the illness immediately: Hero Fever. The organization was hoping that a development person would come in and suddenly increase the annual take from $300,000 to $5 million.
Shall I scale back my plan?” she asked, adding, “but I don’t want them to think I know they can’t raise $5 million.”

Well, here’s the thing. Managing expectations is perhaps the most important skill a development person needs to deploy from the outset of any assignment. “We’re definitely in the expectation management business,” says Esther Rosenberg, co-owner of Howe-Lewis International, a prominent executive recruitment firm. “There are a lot of assumptions on the client’s side, often unarticulated, that we have to draw out.” Esther says she often finds herself in “remedial conversations about what Development really is.”

For experienced development staff, the alignment of expectations is an ever-present challenge. We don’t want to dampen enthusiasm and aspiration yet we know, we know, what it takes to raise money. For someone new to the field, the sand traps are everywhere. Not for nothing, newcomers can leave with a sour taste in their mouths about Development as a profession.

Be a different kind of hero who breaks their fever.

I advised my client to forego the breathtaking plan and put down three high-level goals she thought the organization could aspire to as a launching pad for conversation. She understood that this would help bring a level of reality to the table, but was too nervous not to comply with the board member’s request for a plan. And she wanted the job.

She went to the lunch and presented the plan. The board member had a number of questions. This led to more presentations and more questions, each session calling for the candidate to prove herself while skirting the issue of the organization’s accountability to set realistic expectations and define its responsibility for achieving goals. Finally, the board member told my client he had hired someone else.

What can we take away from this teachable moment?

Managing expectations begins at the interview stage, whether you’re the recruiter creating the job description, the hiring manager trying to fill a position, or the candidate looking to add value to an organization. Buying into an organization’s feverish dreams will backfire. Your career success depends on level-setting expectations about what’s really achievable. I have walked away from high-level opportunities because I did not believe the strategic plan was feasible, but not without first having a thoughtful, respectful conversation with the hiring managers.
Be a different kind of hero who breaks their fever. If the organization is prepared to learn and invest in you as their Development leader, they will thank you for putting them on the road to sustained success.

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