Now I find myself four months away from having served nine years in the CEO position and I guess I’m in danger of becoming part of the woodwork myself. Consequently, I thought it would be a good time to consider what strategies the leader of any nonprofit organization can utilize to avoid becoming stale.
The challenge that we may face is that our organization might be humming along perfectly well. We might be steadily increasing service by whatever measure we use and so why would we mess with something if it isn’t broke?
Yet, leaders are like sharks. They stop moving and they can’t breathe and begin to suffocate. Leadership has to constantly evolve or else in a world that never stops changing it can do nothing else but start to stagnate. That is bad for the organization and bad for you as a person.
So, what are the strategies you can employ?
1. First you need to conduct a simple audit of where you are as a leader.
Do my staff feel challenged and stimulated by my leadership?
Do I have a cozy ‘identity’ in the community which has not changed significantly in years?
Am I enlarging the world that my organization is operating in?
Are we perceived as a forward looking organization prepared for the challenges of the next decade?
What are the real areas of challenge remaining for my organization?
What is the tangible legacy I want to leave behind me?
Hopefully thinking seriously about these questions will reveal an area for you to either concentrate or taken a new interest in.
2. Do the Opposite of what you are currently doing.
In my own situation, my focus as a leader has always been on the strategic and programmatic side of what a food bank can achieve in terms of shortening the line. I wanted to turn hunger into health. I’ve never been a trucks and facilities kind of guy.
What better way of forcing me out of my comfort zone than to move the organization into a capital campaign for a new facility? Sure I will already leave a legacy of a major pivot in the function and community perception of the organization – but the next CEO could screw that up in a year! A new facility will last. (Earthquakes, mudslides and forest fires permitting).
So, maybe this is a time for you to explore what is the yin to the yang of your current focus. If you are more interested in the mechanics of how the machine runs, then how can you unleash energy in the organization to enable that machine to take those you serve in a new direction.
3. Consider a new approach to your leadership
Yes there are plenty of seminars and conferences and billable by the hour consultants waiting to suggest to you the latest approach to leadership. It’s great to be open to this, it is also worth considering a more significant revamp of your leadership.
A few years back I took a year-long set of retreats called Courage to Lead, Run by Leading From Within and developed by Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D. and the Center for Courage & Renewal, the Courage to Lead retreat series model focuses neither on technique, nor on society’s needs, but on renewing the inner lives of leaders.It also helps provide you with a peer group of other nonprofit leaders. I found the series so rewarding that I invited all of our leadership team to attend, and they have been able to utilize the benefits.
This is just one example. You could find something else that would give you a new framework to operate within.
3. Take a Helicopter Perspective of the Issue your organization is engaged in.
We get so caught up in the day to day of our ‘mission’ and how to fund it that we often miss the bigger picture. Are we being truly effective? Are we caught up in competing with those who have similar missions? Are we doing what we are good at doing rather than what needs to be done? Presumably if you have been running your organization a while then maybe you can afford no to be so insecure about branching out and trying to convene discussions on a higher level where the day to day needs of your own organization become secondary. This will enable you to build new partnerships within the community and beyond, which will enable your organization to grow in the years to come. We did this with our leadership of the SB County Food Action Plan.
4. Take a Micro Perspective of the Issue you are Working On
Change the world by changing your understanding of it, and do this by connecting with those who you serve in a more intimate manner. Get to know the true situation of clients or those affected by your issue. Understand their needs, not your perception of them. I tried this in a small way with my yearly Food Security Challenge, when I live on food stamps for a month and meet clients and promote their situation. You could find some other way of getting into the same weeds you’ve been carefully avoiding these past few years. We all forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we need to be reminded.
5. Make a list of things that don’t work and systematically fix them
Every organization has programs or initiatives that seem to function despite themselves. They grind along and kind of get the job done, but you have the feeling that they could be done better with better results. One of our challenge areas has always been our Brown Bag senior nutrition program, providing groceries and produce to seniors in need. There are conflicting needs: for efficiency and standardization from operations, the need for long-term volunteers to do things their own way, the need for the USDA to ask for overbearing reporting! We actually brought in a knowledge philanthropist a few years back, a skilled project manager, who analyzed the problem and we implemented the recommendations. And yet the world refuses to stay fixed for long and here we are again. What are the thorny areas in your organization that you could take an interest in?
These are just some of the approaches you could take to reinvigorate your leadership and cast it in a new light. I will just say that all of this is secondary to the primary business of identifying and growing new leadership within the organization to replace yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Your energy and focus will ebb and flow. Sometimes we are giving 120% t the organization, and at other times it might be a less than dynamic 72%. As long as you think these are balancing out on a monthly basis, then you are probably in good shape.
Leadership is tiring in a way that people who do not have such a great responsibility do not always understand. You are just the person sitting behind the desk who other people have to be vaguely nice to and who smiles badly when a giant (sized) yet modest (monetary value) check is presented to the organization.
Good luck with whatever new changes to your leadership the new year brings.
Of course you can just let things go on and on as they are as regards your leadership, but remember how that turned out for Ned Stark!