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The youngest leader in the room

Advice for the new generation of leaders, and insight for those who work with them, in these highlights from a recent panel discussion put together exclusively for recipients of the Nonprofit Leaders 30 Under 30 Awards, featuring four young nonprofit directors—Lara Smith of Dad’s Garage, Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim of Future Foundation, Austin Dickson of Literacy Action, and Rebecca Serna of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition—with plenty to say.

With four panelists about to weigh in on the lessons they’ve learned while becoming some of the youngest nonprofit directors in the local sector, the merry hubbub in MailChimp’s meeting room quickly died down. The crowd included this year's Nonprofit Leaders 30 Under 30 Award winners, recently announced by Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Atlanta (YNPN-Atlanta) and GCN, there for a special Field Trip session being held exclusively for award recipients past and present.

Welcoming an audience of 50 nonprofit pro­fessionals, YNPN-Atlanta Board Chair Molly Friesenborg said, “The annual 30 Under 30 Awards were designed to recognize young people doing amazing work. This is not about becoming the next generation of leaders. We are already leading right now.”

The panelists, selected by moderator Mack­enzie Wood, included Lara Smith, managing director of Dad’s Garage Theatre; Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim, CEO of Future Foundation; Austin Dickson, president and ED of Literacy Action; and Rebecca Serna, ED of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “They’re not just folks in their 30s with impressive titles,” said Wood about her choice of panelists. “They head organizations that play an important role in the larger community, and they have a story to tell about how they got there.”

Below, some of the highlights from their hour-long discussion.

 

ON TAKING THE TOP ROLE AT A YOUNG AGE

Rebecca Serna: Replacing the founding director, I went through six months of shell­shock. It was a real dive into the deep end.

Lara Smith: If you wait until you’re ready to take on that top role, you’ll never take it— because you’re never really ready.

Austin Dickson: When I applied, I felt unpre­pared for the role. But they kept saying yes, and I kept saying yes. I was willing to take a risk and push forward—I don’t know if that was confidence or stupidity—and it turns out I had what the organization needed. They hired me because I was hungry, I wanted to prove myself, and because of that I was able to turn the organization around.

 

ON BEING THE YOUNGEST PERSON IN THE (BOARD) ROOM

Qaadirah Abdur-Rahim: Being able to clearly articulate our vision—the need, our out­comes, how it improves communities—has allowed me to recruit large stakeholders [de­spite any perceived age gap]. And being clear about responsibilities—“This is how I want you to hold yourselves accountable”—has really turned around the board, and, ultimate­ly, the organization too.

Smith: It took me a long time to realize that if you are weird about your age, other people will be too. Embrace your age! People are charmed to see confidence in a young leader. At the same time, dress and behave to prove you’re serious and you know your business.

Dickson: I’ve been weird about my age for a long time, but I’ve found that people take me seriously when I dress in a suit and tie.

Serna: Youth is an asset! But it’s a fleeting asset. Get okay with your age, and really capitalize on it. You may not realize it, but they think you have the magic.

 

ON THE VALUE OF FORMAL TRAINING

Abdur-Rahim: I became a CEO at 25, and because of that I wanted to formalize my business skills. Emory’s business program was life-changing and organization-changing.

Dickson: My masters in public policy has been really helpful in understanding how government is funded, how it works.

Serna: I went back to school at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, and took CEO training at GCN, where I made a valuable network of mid-career professionals I can reach out to.

Smith: Expanding your network is the best thing you can do if formal education isn’t for you. You don’t necessarily need formal edu­cation—there are ways to create the same kinds of opportunities.

 

ON FINDING YOUR NETWORK

Smith: Be a joiner! Show up for things. Ask­ing for advice is the best way to get someone interested in your career. And if you don’t see a network you think would be helpful, start it! I started one for development directors at theaters in Atlanta.

Abdur-Rahim: As a natural introvert, I had to be strategic. I asked myself, “How do I create a national network as well as a local network?” I joined everything I could: YNPN, Atlanta Leaders for Results, Lead Atlanta, the National Urban Fellows Network. Look for national alliances in your mission area. I use them for peer support, intros, sometimes for funding and PR.

Serna: Look at national associations finding success in your area. The Alliance for Biking and Walking has had such a large impact on my work—learning from their example, adapting their successful models—that I ended up joining their board.

 

ON THEIR GO-TO MANTRAS

Dickson: “Life’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Or, keep pushing the rock up that hill. They say you have to push for two years before anyone calls you back—and it’s true! But they will.

Abdur-Rahim: I’ve learned that I will fall but it is so important to get back up. There will be bad days, but you’ve got to keep going, push harder, and learn from mistakes.

Smith: Through lots of transitions, I’ve always said, “It’s going to be okay. Or it won’t. And that’ll be okay too.” (I can say that because I’m not saving lives.)

 

ON DEVELOPING MORE YOUNG LEADERS

Dickson: Succession planning is also about letting things go, allowing others to step up— delegation. I’ve been finding out from others what they want to take on, and what they think I have my hands too much on.

Smith: Part of getting your staff ready for a real absence is empowering them to take action.

Abdur-Rahim: Start examining your talent pipeline. Build a culture of awareness and collaborative leadership, in which everybody knows what their career path looks like.

 

TOP ADVICE FOR NONPROFIT LEADERS

Serna: It’s about people! Treat yourself well when you make mistakes. Treat the people around you well too.

Dickson: Good leadership isn’t about making an organization that will wither as soon as you leave it. You’ve got to build something that still stands when you walk away.

Abdur-Rahim: Your legacy must be sus­tainability—that’s why a business plan and data-collecting are so important. Work the business plan every day. There’s lots of com­petition, so you need to be able to differen­tiate yourself. Look for ways to consistently innovate, and always look for possibilities for reinvention. Also, focus on developing an authentic relationship with your staff and stakeholders—take the time to learn who they are.

Smith: Figure out what’s going to keep you sane and schedule it into your calendar. De­cide what’s a priority for you, and then treat it as a priority!

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