Challenge: Nine new executive directors came together to create a learning community for conservation movement leaders. The group aimed to learn about topics related to nonprofit management, governance, institutional advancement, and healthy partnerships. While the group could pursue organizing the learning program by themselves, they decided they would be better supported by a facilitator who would create the content and lead them, working collaboratively with the group to create a program that met the group’s needs.
Approach: After interviewing each of the participants about their hopes for the program as well as the challenges they were facing with their organization, I worked with a planning committee to plan the monthly learning sessions. Each participant completed a self-assessment of their executive director competencies and drafted a professional learning plan to define their learning goals for the program.
During each monthly session we used half the session to dive into a topic and the second half for the group to participate in peer coaching circles. Peer coaching circles can take a number of different forms. To keep it simple, I set two basic ground rules for the time. Each person would present their challenge briefly and then the rest of the group would ask questions for a set amount of time. This process helped each person think aloud about their challenge and the questions from the group helped them consider aspects that they might have missed. This also provided the ‘questioners’ practice with being in a coaching stance, rather than jumping in with a solution. This was a useful skill for them to develop as they supervise staff. In between meetings, pairs met as accountability partners.
Monthly topics included organizational culture, staff management, board development, strategic planning, mapping organizational impact, and creating a organizational dashboard. We culminated the program with a retreat that combined time with accountability partners, focus on a couple content areas as well as topics identified through an open space process.
Results: Participants reported that they:
Felt less alone. “It’s lonely at the top.” This sentiment was expressed early on as the peer-learning network was forming. Being able to compare notes, share wins and challenges and get feedback from peers was invaluable. It helped those in the network feel less lonely as they developed a group of trusted colleagues to whom they could reach out in times of doubt and challenge.
Thought bigger. Several participants came into the program feeling confident about their abilities in running programs. They were unsure, however, about shifting to a more strategic level of organizational leadership. Through feedback from participants and others, they were able to shift their perspective and see how they could take their program management skills and use them as the foundation for their strategic work as executive directors.
Built accountability. For new executive directors, this may be the first time they’ve worked without a direct supervisor. To help each participant achieve their goals, they paired up with an accountability partner and regularly met to discuss their progress. This practice is grounded in research that shows that if you write down your goals you are more likely to achieve them. If you share them with another person and then check in with that person on how you are doing on your goals, you are even more likely to follow through. These pairings not only helped participants advance their work, it strengthened their connections within the network.
Want similar results? Inquire about a coaching call.
Here are three books to consider adding to your list:
The Art of Community: Seven Principals for Belonging by Charles H. Vogl
I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle since I am someone who moved a number of times over the course of my growing up. I spent a lot of time chasing that illusive sense of belonging. With the traditional forms of community breaking down and loneliness on the rise, more people are in the business of trying to create community. It could be an online community, a community of practice or a co-working space. Vogl describes the essential elements to build community including creating a boundary, initiations, rituals, symbols. While a bit philosophical, I found the book very accessible, enriched by stories illuminating the principals.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
I heard about this book from an interview that I heard on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet. Jerry Colonna is Tippet’s executive coach. His insights on what people bring to their work and leadership from what they learned in childhood and their family of origin were fascinating. Colanna considers growing up part of being an authentic leader, especially identifying and letting go of those “ghosts in the machine” that we learned growing up, drive our behavior but no longer serve us as adults. Learning to sit in discomfort, letting go of our illusion of control, and peeling back the façade of “everything is awesome!” I appreciate his insights into the human condition. Yet I was struck by how like too many other business books the stories he included were from people represented a rarified stratosphere of our society of venture capital and start up CEOs.
The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker
This book was cited in the Art of Community and since a lot of what I do involves group meetings and gatherings, it caught my interest. What I didn't know is that Parker is a facilitator so the book had particular relevance to my work. Yet the book ranges beyond work focused gatherings and includes what makes a good party or ‘happening’ tick. Like I have advised and then forgotten to follow my own advice, a good gathering/meeting needs a clearly defined purpose. She encourages you ‘not to be a chill host’ and to take leadership of your event, why it is so important to pay attention to meaningful beginnings and endings and how to move the conversation beyond the merely polite to healthy controversy. Whether you would like to make your next get together more meaningful or have an big work gathering to facilitate, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to make that happen.
Apparently this summer I am studying the “art” of things – since this shows up in each of these titles.
What’s on your reading list?
Emerging from Crisis
Challenge: A small watershed organization had survived a tumultuous several years after the death of its founder and long-standing executive director. During the founder’s tenure, the board had been a following, governance board. The board led by a new board chair had navigated many challenges including an unsuccessful merger attempt, theft by a caretaker at one of the organization’s properties and other problems. The board decided the organization needed to take stock and reimagine itself, making the most of the legacy left by the founder and rebuilding an organization to meet both today’s realities and live into a new vision its future.
Approach: I interviewed the board members and supported board members as they interviewed external stakeholders. Through the interviews, it became clear that the organization while it wanted to engage in longer range strategic planning it was only in the position to do short range planning. Most board members had been involved with the organization for years and many were burned out. Yet some found it challenging to let go and allow new leadership to emerge. Many had come on during the founder’s tenure and were not prepared to engage in the hands on work that the organization now needed from its board and it now had no staff. I facilitated a one-day retreat to help the group uncover what they had learned from their experience and think about where the organization stood in terms of the phases of development that nonprofits typically go through and what it meant for what was required from the board at its present stage of development.
Results: Over the course of the organization’s several years of turn around, the board chair had essentially been working part time for the organization without compensation. During the retreat, the board decided to make her executive director and pay her for her work. A new board chair was named. Several board members announced their departure making way for new leadership to engage with the organization. The board also set several short-term goals for the year.
Building Shared Leadership
Challenge: A well-respected state level education nonprofit decided to celebrate its 30-year anniversary by engaging in strategic planning to envision its future and set goals for the next 3-5 years. The organization had emerged from a challenging period in its history during which long-standing but no longer financially sustainable programs were sun-setted. The executive director who had been with the organization since its founding hoped to strengthen the organization’s staff and board leadership by increasing shared leadership. The board was small and the majority of it members are relatively new to the organization. The executive director priorities included considering whether the organization’s name adequately represents its work; how to build capacity within the staff and board for greater shared leadership with the executive director as well as longer-term succession planning.
Approach: I interviewed all the board members, external stakeholders as well as the staff. I facilitated a session with board, staff and a few external stakeholders that encompassed a look back at the organization's accomplishments over its 30 year history, considered the trends in the wider environment impacting the organization and reviewed the themes that emerged from the interviews. The group then discussed what implications the trends and themes had for the organization as it considered its future direction.
Results: Through the interviews a number of issues emerged including the weakness of the board. Through the feedback and discernment process in the first session, the board decided to take a break from strategic planning and focus on its own development. Six months later the board had recruited new members and taken steps to create more a sense of shared leadership with the executive director.
Need similar results for your organization? Inquire about scheduling a coaching call.
Too many organizations think that succession planning means identifying and grooming who will take over when a staff leader moves on. This approach may appropriate in some cases, yet may put the organizational “eggs” in just one basket. At the same time, two thirds of new hires to replace exiting leaders come from outside the organization. This has remained consistent across 15 years of data and multiple studies.*
What am I doing today to replace myself?
How can you build your bench strength in your organization? How are you developing leadership through out the organization? Andy Robinson, a nonprofit consultant, urges leaders to ask themselves the following questions: “What am I doing today to replace myself?” and “How do I empower others to do the work rather than just do it myself?”
A good place to start with sharing leadership is to define the leadership competencies that are needed for the roles on your leadership team. Once you have defined these competencies, you can then assess who else on your staff has the competencies or could develop them.
Aligning with strengths
Are you aligning staff with their strengths? Are there new projects that could provide a staff member an opportunity to stretch and use their innate strengths? Have you talked to staff and asked about their aspirations? Unfortunately once someone is in a role, it is too easy to assume that that is the limit of his or her ambition and capacity.
How could you do some cross training? This can be challenging at nonprofit organizations that tend to have very lean staffing structures. Ask your staff to document their work first then spend a day or half a day having the person’s emergency back up shadow and get an orientation to their role. One of your most important tasks as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that you can take time off without anxiety.
A significant part of leading well is leaving well. What will be your legacy?
*Nonprofit Quarterly webinar: Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability: An Updated Approach that Changes the Landscape, March, 2017
When you suddenly learned that a key staff person just got a serious medical diagnosis and was going to be out for an extended period or that their spouse just got offered their dream job out of state, would you be ready? There are a variety of ways to get started with succession planning that prepare the organization. These include emergency back up planning, departure-defined planning, and shifting to a model of shared leadership.
Are you ready for an emergency?
Have you determined who will step in on a temporary basis if your leader is out suddenly? Include both board and staff roles in this planning, not just your CEO role. Do you have someone designated to step in for each of the roles on your leadership team?
Once you have the ‘who’ determined – will they know what to do? What documentation do you have on the projects and processes they manage? If the person has been in the role for a long time, asking them to write everything down rarely works. Have another staff person or volunteer interview that person and then write up what they heard. This gives the person something to react to and likely they will identify gaps to fill in.
Are there ways you can do cross training? Nonprofits are usually pretty lean and rarely have much duplication built in. How can you ensure that your staff knows what colleagues do and what key priorities are coming up? When you do have to ask a staff member to double up and do more than their job, how can you reward them for that extra effort?
Run a fire drill
I recently heard of an executive who decided they were going to run a fire drill to see whether their emergency succession planning was sufficient. She would call a person on her executive team and tell them not to come in, not to check email or respond to inquiries – could the designated staff manage on their own? What did they still need to learn? This real time exercise puts these questions to the test.
Planning for a departure
When your executive or someone on the leadership team know they are planning to leave in a defined amount of time, you can plan ahead. This is typically in the case of retirement and often the time frame is between 1 year to 4 years. Preparing for this process has multiple stages and I discuss each of these in these posts:
Should I stay or should I go?
Even though an executive may be planning to leave – they may be ambivalent about leaving. This may mean that they give mixed messages about their plans. As their feeling shift between excitement for new possibilities and fears about the future their timing may fluctuate. This is often especially true for leaders who are founders or have been in their role for a long time. Their identity may be caught up and entwined with the role. Thus they may have a hard time letting go even though on most days they feel they are ready. A coach can help a leader work through these feelings. This can help keep the organization’s anxiety at a minimum by getting clearer about their intentions.
Planning for succession can feel challenging with all the immediate demands of work. Yet it is just a matter of when a succession will make this more urgent. Emergency planning and documentation is a good place to get started.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.