Editors’ note: This article was adapted from Meeting the Job Challenges of Nonprofit Leaders: A Fieldbook on Strategies and Actions (Center for Creative Leadership, January 2015), and is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s spring 2016 edition, “Strategic Nonprofit Management: Frameworks and Scaffolding.” It was first published online on April 18, 2016.
There is nothing like understanding that your decisions and actions will be consequential to reinforcing learning. Therefore, learning on the job, with a lot of feedback and reflection, can be a very rich source of leadership and management development. Research reinforces over and over the value of learning through risk taking and reflection, but how exactly do we construct the cycles of consideration in our experiences to encourage continuous and humble but increasingly confident development?
This article addresses some just-in-time leadership development strategies that can provide nonprofit leaders with opportunities to shift their perspective and stretch their current repertoire of practices and competencies. It is a guide to self-coaching on leadership and management issues. The leadership issues revolve around driving change, aligning programs with mission, thinking generatively, creating a desired culture, developing strategic partnerships, and understanding one’s impact on others. The management issues revolve around getting to results, developing tactical solutions, supervising individuals and teams, and managing resources.
At Community Resource Exchange (CRE), our approach is based on the belief, borne of experience, that individuals can make significant changes on their own if equipped with the right tools, which include the following:
- The right questions to ask of themselves;
- Some turnkey practices and tactics; and
- Relevant application tools for specific issues.
Our aim is to provide nonprofit leaders with tools incorporating these elements, so they can self-coach and learn from actions they take while on the job. In that self-coaching they must engage in reframing and “1-2-3” steps.
Reframing. Reframing is a common coaching methodology. The ability to shift one’s perspective or paradigm can unlock a fresh approach to a daunting challenge. A nonprofit leader can learn to develop the art of reframing situations and problems so that new solutions emerge.
“1-2-3” Steps. The idea of “low-hanging fruit” led us to the notion of taking the first few relatively easy actions that one can take to address a given challenge. These steps move a leader from understanding to action and change, and are akin to “application assignments” that are used in coaching and action learning. Some of them contain self-training and self-learning components.
But these actions should be informed by what we call relevant application tools.
You will see this approach reflected in the examples provided over the next pages. The challenges portrayed in those examples are not simple or linear; as is true in the nonprofit leader’s world, they are multidimensional and complex. There is no one solution for these challenges, and certainly no magic bullet to address them. You will note, as well, that some of the strategies we propose dovetail one with the other—and, at times, a strategy can apply to several challenges.
Our hope is to create an avenue for the nonprofit leader to begin addressing those challenges on his or her own and in his or her workplace. There are “low-hanging” developmental opportunities one can find within oneself, within the workplace, and among one’s network of colleagues and friends.
Managing Individual Performance
Issue: Sustaining high performance standards, so that staff members achieve program and organizational goals, can be challenging in organizational cultures where there is a push and pull between getting to results and maintaining an environment where staff feel supported.
Why it matters: Holding staff accountable for results is key to sustaining organizational effectiveness and achieving outcomes. In addition, it would be a disservice to the staff’s professional growth if the leader failed to do so.
Although Sashi was challenged by the issues of managing individual performance, she made time to focus on applying the following approaches, which paid off for all concerned:
Managing Suboptimal Infrastructure
Issue: Nonprofits often lack resources to invest in systems that improve efficiency in the long run, such as finance, human resources, information technology, and knowledge management; they have to manage these functions on an ad hoc basis.
Why it matters: Nonprofits must get to results and manage program and operations even amid these gaps.
To address the challenge of suboptimal infrastructure, Hector stepped back from the day-to-day minutiae of infrastructure concerns and tried the following approaches, with good results:
Issue: Nonprofit leaders partner regularly with a complex mix of stakeholders mentioned earlier. Each of these stakeholder groups has its own goals, concerns, and agendas. Nonprofit leaders must be adept in working with individuals and groups who have diverse personalities and work styles, above and beyond differing agendas, interests, and persuasions.
Why it matters: Nonprofit agendas are often cross-sectoral, requiring collaboration with multiple partners for success. A focus on one set of stakeholder interests over others has the potential to distract leaders from mission-critical activities or from the fundamental goal of client impact. Although managing these personality and style differences may be a challenge, such diversity can also be a rich source of stimulating perspectives and creativity. If one can harness this wealth of diverse ideas and approaches, then so much the better for the sector.
After some discussions with her management team about the challenge of managing differences, Clara tried the following approaches, and was pleased with the results:
Managing Personal Impact and Effectiveness
Issue: Nonprofit leaders tend not to make the time to pause and reflect on their own leadership and management style and to consider how this impacts their relationships with clients, colleagues, partners, and other stakeholders.
Why it matters: Experience as well as research show that leaders who are more “behaviorally complex”—that is, those who have greater self-awareness of their own behavior and have built an adaptive style—are more effective in leading others to decisions, sustaining long-term relationships, and getting to results.
On further reflection, and after several discussions with the consultant and his board chair, Bill decided to address the challenge of personal impact and effectiveness. He tried the following approaches, with good results:
Issue: All the challenges that come with functioning in a high-demand, low-resource environment exacerbate the nonprofit leader’s level of stress. Additionally, lack of time for self-care impacts the ability to cope with stress.
Why it matters: Sustained high levels of stress have a direct impact on productivity, effectiveness, and the ability to “stay in the game” for the long haul—a combination of symptoms referred to as burnout.
Addressing the challenge of burnout was a real struggle for Brian, but after much reflection he gathered his energies toward the following approaches, which he later found rewarding.