Nonprofits: 10 Lessons from “Ted Lasso” and “Succession”

Last week, we saw the series finales of two popular television shows that are now part of the zeitgeist: Ted Lasso and Succession. While we can enjoy both of these series as pure entertainment, I found it interesting to reflect back on them for what they may say about management and governance. Seen in the scope of these shows, the following concepts may seem simple, but that’s not how they always play out in the shows and in real life.

1. Organizational Values and Culture (Supportive Work Environment)

Nonprofits that are not only mission-driven but are also values-driven are better positioned to be impactful. Does your nonprofit have publicly stated values that truly guide the organization’s decision-making and culture? Are they embedded in your bylaws, code of conduct, or other key organizational documents? For AFC Richmond, the values of positivity (“Believe”), universal kindness, and resilience (“Be a goldfish”) helped create a culture allowing the team to thrive. See, e.g., The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Board Leadership (Stanford Social Innovation Review); Purpose-Driven Board Leadership, Legally Speaking.

2. Teamwork

Nonprofits that are championed by a team perform better than those that rely on a single hero. Making room to allow coworkers to excel can increase one’s personal impact even if at the expense of some public recognition. Despite being one of the most amazing players in the sport, Zava didn’t make AFC Richmond better, and Jamie only lived up to his potential when he shifted his focus from personal glory to team success. Teamwork is built on communication, collaboration, shared responsibility, accountability, and trust, all of which promote legal compliance when the team is on the same page with the applicable rules – external and internal. See, e.g., Strategies for Team Development in the Non-Profit Context (St. James Research Centre).

3. Delegation and Trust

Leaders must be able to delegate authority, trust in their coworkers, and allow for mistakes and growth without a culture of fear and reprimands. Team chemistry is a thing, and it relies on mutual trust and a common goal. Ted knew to rely on Beard. And the team built their chemistry following Ted’s lead by openly communicating with one another, embracing their differences, and supporting each other even outside of their work environment. By treating each team member, no matter their position, as individuals with the ability to contribute to the team’s success, Ted empowered them, which led to more delegation and more trust that paid off. Nate started as the kit man but had the knowledge to become a coach; Roy was an aging, angry player who became an understanding mentor with the temperament to become a coach. For those who haven’t seen Ted Lasso, Ted is the football (soccer) coach of AFC Richmond but, at the time of his hiring, knew almost nothing about soccer. The only way he and the team could succeed was through delegation and trust. See The Delegation Dilemma: How Nonprofit Leaders Can Learn to Let Go (Bridgespan Group).

4. Managing a Talented but Difficult Employee

Sometimes the staff member with the greatest skill or talent may be the most difficult to manage, particularly if they try to use their perceived leverage to be held to a different set of rules from their coworkers. Not only can this kill a team-oriented culture, it can also increase the risk of legal noncompliance by the difficult employee and the risk of employment discrimination based on unfair disparate treatment across employees. Leaders must get buy-in from their top performers so they are also held accountable like everybody else. Sometimes it works, sometimes those employees leave. But when leaders approach such circumstances on an individualized basis with sincere personal interest, kindness, and empathy, as Ted regularly did with Nate, Roy, Jamie, and others, the organization gets stronger. And, another lesson learned from Ted’s management and compassion is the importance of leading people to seek their own change. See, e.g., The Secret to Managing Nonprofit Staff (Joan Garry Consulting).

5. Succession Planning

Nonprofits should have a plan that can be implemented in the event of the departure of their executive, which is ultimately an inevitable event. Replacing an executive (and other key leadership positions) can be very challenging, especially in these times. And when the timing of the departure is unexpected or comes with short or even no notice, the instability, leadership vacuum, and resulting disputes may create heavy dysfunction. Often, this can be followed by more employee turnover, internal and external complaints, and a diminished reputation. A succession plan can help mitigate some of the risks of service interruptions, compliance failures, and internal conflict (hello, Roy family) that would severely harm the organization and its intended beneficiaries. See, e.g., Succession Planning for Nonprofits/Managing Leadership Transitions (National Council of Nonprofits).

6. Conflicts of Interest and Ethical Decision-Making (Independent Board Members)

Nonprofits are subject to laws regarding their transactions with their board members (or related persons or companies). In some cases, such transactions may be prohibited. In some other cases, they must be approved by independent board members after appropriate and advance disclosure by the interested board member. And for public charities, these transactions must not result in excessive benefits to insiders known as disqualified persons (excess benefit transactions). But even where the law does not prohibit insider transactions, the conflicts of interest may harm the reputations of the nonprofits involved and open them up to criticisms of being operated unethically for the benefit of insiders rather than for their charitable purposes. Personal interests that conflicted with professional interests plagued the Roy family’s leadership of Waystar Royco. And when those personal interests are not disclosed to the board, the lack of disclosure may be a violation of the interested board member’s fiduciary duties resulting in uninformed decision-making by the independent board members.

7. Wrongful Terminations

A wrongful termination claim can be very damaging to a nonprofit employer, and the risk of such claims should be mitigated through well-developed HR systems and policies. These would include clear job descriptions and employment contracts, regular trainings, careful communications, consistent and fair employment practices, documentation of performance and conduct issues, proper termination policies, and management accountability. When boards or managers impulsively terminate employees (e.g., Logan and Roman Roy), there will often be bad consequences, including expensive and burdensome lawsuits accompanied by damaging press. Whether a terminated employee will continue to have or observe any legal or ethical duties of confidentiality should also be considered. See, e.g., 5 Tips for Nonprofit Leaders to Avoid Claims of Wrongful Termination (NonProfit Pro).

8. Public Relations

Nonprofits rely heavily on their public reputations for donations, engagement, advocacy, and recruitment. Their public relations (PR) activities are connected to their reputation, credibility, and trust. Accordingly, it’s critical for leaders in all departments and programs to have an understanding of PR with respect to both internal and external stakeholders. Of course, there’s a legal side to nonprofit PR as well, since public communications must not infringe on the copyrights or privacy rights of others and must not contain material misrepresentations that could result in claims of unlawful solicitations or, at worst, fraud. The Waystar Royco leadership team showed viewers both the power and limitations of their PR efforts, particularly when the company was in crisis. Meanwhile, Ted exemplified the use of storytelling; Roy, the importance of authenticity; and Keeley, the value of personalized attention. See, e.g., Ethical & Legal Practices of Public Relations (Chron).

Ted Lasso serves more of an example of what leaders should do while Succession shows us the dangers of certain leadership actions and inactions. If you haven’t seen these series, check out Ted Lasso if you’re looking for more positivity and Succession if you love a great Shakespearean drama in a modern corporate media setting.

I originally intended to write 10 Lessons but ended up consolidating a couple. For those who like round numbers –

9. Be Compassionate to Yourself and to Others with Disabilities

10. Concentrated Power Deserves Scrutiny; Draw on the Power of the Community