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The HPDL Advantage: Three EDs on the program that turned their aspirations into action

Every year, GCN’s Nonprofit University immerses a class of 25 to 35 nonprofit professionals in a leadership development program called High Potential Diverse Leaders (HPDL), a six-month experience that equips rising sector stars with the knowledge, tools, and network they need to thrive as an executive-level practitioner. Ahead of the 2017 HPDL program, beginning in April, I sat down to discuss the benefits of HPDL with three alumni who went on to head nonprofits: Girls Inc. of Columbus Executive Director Leann Malone, Everybody Wins! Atlanta ED Tiffany Tolbert, and J.D. McCrary, ED of International Rescue Committee’s Atlanta office.

Tell me about the leadership journey that got you to where you are today, and how HPDL played a role.

Tiffany Tolbert: Nonprofits have been a lifelong love. After running nonprofit programs in my hometown of Cleveland and earning my master’s in nonprofit management, I moved to Atlanta and began working for Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta. Over nine and a half years, I transitioned from program specialist to girl leadership manager, while also leading programs at the Ryan Cameron Foundation as a volunteer. Together, those two experiences allowed me to fine-tune my skills and grow as a professional, but I didn’t quite understand how to fulfill my desire to lead an organization: How do I operate in my current role to become viewed as a leader? How do I start the practice of leading? NU’s supervisor and management training program had already been transformative for my career, which led me to find out about HPDL. In turn, HPDL led to my current role as Everybody Wins! Executive Director.

“I didn’t quite understand how to fulfill my desire to lead an organization: How do I operate in my current role to become viewed as a leader? How do I start the practice of leading?”

Leann Malone: When I joined HPDL in 2013, I was the development director at Refugee Family Services (now New American Pathways). I continued in the role for nearly four more years before I became executive director of Girls Inc.. That time gave me the chance to sharpen my leadership skills and decide where to focus them – and to make sure I really wanted to be an ED. What attracted me to HPDL was my question, “Am I ready to take the next step, both personally and professionally?” I needed more in-depth information about what it truly means to be a leader – not just to have the title, but to fill the role.

J.D. McCrary: I finished my graduate degree in international development in 2006, after serving in the Peace Corps. I started working for Lutheran Services of Georgia in 2008, and was a program manager with them when I took HPDL in 2009. After that, I was promoted to associate director, then to director of refugee services. HPDL was an instrumental part of my next transition, becoming the ED of Atlanta’s International Rescue Committee office – a big leap in terms of both position and scope. As my first post-graduate nonprofit leadership training, it was also a great introduction to the kind of professional development you need to have a successful nonprofit career. 

What are some of the specific takeaways from HPDL that still guide you?

Malone: So much of what I learned in HPDL has become habit, it’s hard for me to say specifically – but the biggest lesson might be that what HPDL taught me is not a gift to keep to myself, but something I need to keep passing on and on and on.

McCrary: When you’re overseeing the work of other directors or managers, the work is not yours: You still have a to-do list, but your responsibility is to support your team. Those are the most important people in your organization: You can quickly come to the conclusion that you’re doing the real work, but the real work is done on the front lines, at the level of direct service.

“The biggest lesson might be that what HPDL taught me is not a gift to keep to myself, but something I need to keep passing on and on and on.”

Tolbert: You have to consider how every decision you make could benefit or hinder those you lead. I learned that from our 360-degree review, where you gather honest feedback from everyone who works with you – those you report to, those who report to you, and externally – about your work style and impact. What you learn is that, as a leader, you always have an impact on those you lead, negative or positive. I can’t do the work by myself, so I’ve got to make sure my impact empowers the team. HPDL made me more comfortable in saying, “You know what? I don’t know it all. But I’m willing to find and support the people who will make sure I get it right.”

Malone: Exactly. Leading is not showing people how much you know, but how much you care.

“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten was from my HPDL coach… who suggested I build a ‘personal board of directors’ to help me along my leadership journey.”

How has that principle of supporting others – those you lead, and your peers – helped you in your role as executive director?

Malone: The idea is to surround yourself with those who can do what they do better than you ever could, but also to go beyond superficial, office-hours interactions to understand and support them – so that they will then support you. It also works in the other direction: Remembering that the challenge I’m facing is something that other leaders in my network have experience with. I can reach out to them to ask what they did, or just to receive affirmation or comfort.

Tolbert: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten was from my HPDL coach, GCN Senior Consultant Chris Allers, who suggested I build a “personal board of directors” to help me along my leadership journey. I became ED in July 2015, and by December had co-established a resource group called the Influence Circle, made up of Atlanta women with different careers but similar backgrounds. Through our monthly meetings, we’ve connected on many levels and have become a great resource for each other. Everyone there is rooting for each other’s success.

In terms of fostering the next cohort of nonprofit leaders, who would you recommend this program to?

Malone: If you want to put some numbers behind it, I’d say anyone in the under-40 group of up-and-coming leaders, because there is a generational commonality that comes into play – though it isn’t just for a particular age group.

“As leaders, we need to understand that education never ends, and that many jobs will leave you behind if you’re not growing.”

McCrary: I would recommend HPDL to anyone who wants to progress in their career. As leaders, we need to understand that education never ends, and that many jobs will leave you behind if you’re not growing. I’d also recommend seeking out learning opportunities proactively: You can’t depend solely on your employer to provide for your career advancement. I, myself, have a personal goal of engaging in some kind of professional opportunity like HPDL at least every other year.

Tolbert: Anyone who wants to make better use of their passion, drive, or innate ability to lead. Also those accustomed to being in the background – even those who don’t want to be out front – because this program accounts for the full gamut of potential leaders. In providing you an understand of your impact, upper-level managers can fine-tune what they’re good at and improve areas where they’re struggling, while those who work behind-the-scenes will discover how they’re already practicing leadership, maybe without even knowing it.

A PREVIEW OF THE HPDL EXPERIENCE

Since 2008, HPDL has been an instrumental part of the personal and professional development plan for nearly 200 emerging leaders. Starting this April, our 2017 cohort of emerging leaders will expand peer networks, identify strengths and address weaknesses, connect with sector leaders, and take some big steps toward where they aspire to be. Be the change you want to see – apply today.

Session one: Finding the Leader in You

An overview of the program and what it means to be a leader.

Session two: Leadership as a Personal Journey

Making tough decisions, motivating a workforce, and identifying the kind of leader you want to be – as well as how you’ll get there.

Session three: Managing Others, Up and Down the Chain of Command

Getting people of diverse backgrounds, abilities, personalities, and skills to work together – both above and below you.

Session four: Leading With Emotional Intelligence

Increasing self-awareness and understanding the effect of emotions on behavior, goals, decision-making, and relationships.

Session five: Maximizing Your Personal Value

Managing, valuing, and promoting your own skills and talents.

Session six: Leadership 360: Examining Leadership Style from Multiple Views

Using detailed feedback from those you work with to learn about your individual strengths, weaknesses, and potential blind spots.

Kidra Coulter is interim director for GCN’s Nonprofit University.

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