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What Makes You a Leader

What makes you a leader may not be what you think. When I read the thoughts of people I admire when they are asked "What Would You Tell Your Younger Self", it reminds me of how much of my journey has been spent looking for an opportunity to work for great leaders.

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What Makes You a Leader May Not Be What You Think

When I read the thoughts of people I admire when they are asked “What Would You Tell Your Younger Self”, it reminds me how much of my journey has been spent looking for an opportunity to work for great leaders. They didn’t appear very often, if at all, and it has been a source of frustration until I had the revelation recently that I really have learned the most about leadership by being shown the qualities that are not desirable, and experienced what happens when true leadership is lacking.

That revelation also helped me define what qualities are essential in a good leader, and how important it is to help create that atmosphere as an unofficial leader when those in charge don’t.

I was recently asked by a friend who is in her Master’s program to answer a series of questions about leadership. It was an amazing process to write down my thoughts, realize how much I have refined my own values of what makes good leadership, and certainly a little cathartic too!

Describe a typical day at work. What do you do all day?

I like to arrive at work early, it gives me time to settle in and respond to any open-ended projects or email from the day before. I also like the opportunity it gives me to do a little “surprise and delight” every once in a while. I have always felt that the support staff and non-managerial team members never get enough recognition, so occasionally I like to drop a Starbucks card or little note for someone to come in to in the morning just thanking them and letting them know that their hard work and heavy lifting doesn’t go unnoticed.

I tend to have three types of days:

-         Ones filled with weekly standing meetings and team meetings that typically set up my game plan for the remainder of the week

-         Ones where I may be at coffee in the morning, out of the office for a visit with a colleague or donor at lunchtime, and then in for the afternoon

-         Ones where I cherish the time to do some long-overdue writing (case statements, marketing materials, campaigns, etc.)

I have typically worked in smaller teams where I end up doing a lot of the writing, which I actually love doing once I can get started. I tend to work better in quiet surroundings, so when things get rolling I usually put in earbuds and play music. To be honest, some days I just spend responding to what other team members (finance, advocacy, etc.) need.

What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?

I think keeping team members feeling fully optimized and willing to be creative is an ongoing challenge.  (I steer away from using the term “staff” because I truly believe we are a team.) I see more people leave jobs and workplaces because they are not fully challenged or made to feel like they can openly contribute. I haven’t had the opportunity in recent roles to support a team of more than a few people, and typically find that team members who have been at an organization for a relatively long time tend to feel less motivated. I have also had the unfortunate experience of inheriting staff who had an unpleasant relationship with their previous manager, so I spend a lot of time building trust and letting them know they are valued initially. Once that is established, I think we can go forward with a trusting and collaborative relationship.

What are the most critical skills needed to be a successful manager in your line of work?

Good time management, good networking skills, openness to allowing team members to contribute, willingness to stand behind your team and advocate for them with senior leadership, a commitment to honesty, reasonable expectations, the ability to be a coach and provide support and opportunities for growth, commitment to ensuring that team members have the resources necessary to do their jobs and the opportunity to get additional training if needed. Also, deep nonprofit experience, and best-case-scenario first-hand experience in each of the roles you oversee.

What are the major reasons managers fail in positions like yours?

Leadership is something you cannot ‘take’ it needs to be bestowed, earned or given by those you lead. So I have always felt it is important to come into a new management role with a desire to understand what’s important to the team, get a sense of history (what’s important to continue, and what’s important to help change), and get a sense of the individual team members’ own roles and expectations.  Too many times, perhaps due to time constraints or what the senior leadership has determined the ‘problem’ or ‘opportunity’ to be, managers don’t come in and get their own read or do their own assessment of the team and dynamic before implementing change. 

Think of other effective managers you know. What skills do they demonstrate that explain their success?

The most effective managers I know create a ‘team’ culture, and have clear, fair expectations and provide support for team members who need it. Participation is welcome, and decisions are shared in a spirit of transparency. I also believe that great leaders grow great people who want to lead, not people who just want to be boss. I think that translates to the culture they set for their teams, and brings out the best in everyone.

If you had to train someone to replace you in your current job, what key abilities would you focus on?

The ability to develop a high level of trust with team members, senior leadership, and board members, as well as the ability to form genuine relationships with partners, donors, and program officers at foundations and other nonprofits. The same goes for co-workers, clients, customers, and other colleagues.

How often do you set goals for your organization and how are these goals articulated to those who you manage? What is the goal setting process like? Is anyone else involved?

The organization I currently work for has a history of investing in fairly extensive strategic planning that spans up from six to twelve months, and rarely includes the broader community of stakeholders. The result is a strategic plan that lacks community buy in (and often employee buy in) and typically ends up on a shelf.  While planning for the implementation of a strategic plan, often goals are set forth that address the financial needs and are measured by benchmarks but not measured by sentiment or achievement of non-revenue goals.

Have you found any good methods for motivating employees around the goals you set?

For cross-team buy in, a process of socialization and discussion around the goals while they are being set is always an important ingredient in the ability to successfully achieve goals. In my experience, team members who feel they are a part of the entire group/organization’s success are motivated by their own role in the entire group achieving success.

Once goals are set how do you ensure that the goals are made into a reality? What processes are in place to delegate responsibilities and check-in with progress? 

By setting reasonable and achievable milestones along the path to the main goal, I believe that small wins add up to the BIG win.  When the team and individuals have a clear road map of the expectations, check points, and milestones, along with the support and tools to meet those milestones, the long game and big win (goal) is achievable.

At the end of the day, I believe something said a very long time ago really captures the essence of what it means to be a leader:

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."   - John Quincy Adams

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