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Preparing Yourself for a Leadership Role in a Nonprofit

Nonprofits struggle with succession and are fairly vulnerable, as they are often dependent on one or a handful of key leaders. That is often due to a lack of professional development opportunities and investment made in developing future leaders. Throughout the sector, there is a great need for improved management and leadership skills and opportunities for those who are able to demonstrate these skills.

If you want to be in a position to progress in your career from functional specialist or independent contributor to a senior manager or leader with cross functional leadership, you need to be proactive with your own development.

As described in a Harvard Business Review (HBS) special publication, "The Test of a Leader Becoming the Boss,” (Jan 2007), you will need to put yourself in a position of change and personal transformation in order to be successful in this process of changing roles. If you are accustomed to being a superstar in your current role where you have mastery of skills, you will have to be willing to rely less on your older, well-honed skills and more into actively developing new skills. You will need to focus on how you add value and what you contribute. You must be willing to shift your perspective beyond your comfort zone and focus on learning. The skills required for individual contributors or specialists are starkly different than those needed for success in a nonprofit management role. This shift will also require that you stop doing some of the things you enjoyed in your previous role. Some of the key skills needed for CEOs or executive directors include: general management, strategic partnership development and relationship building, future thinking and planning, risk management, external relations, leading change, coaching and people development, risk management and governance. You will also need to have a very strong grasp of your organization’s finances and be able to lead successfully in an environment of financial uncertainty.

You must be willing to shift your perspective beyond your comfort zone and focus on learning.

This move to leadership can frequently be discomforting, yet there is great reward in leadership. Instead of feeling free, you may feel constrained, especially if they were accustomed to the relative independence of a star performer. There are myths associated with CEOs and executive directors. Instead of having singular authority, good leaders have interdependency. And authority is not just a given, but has to be earned. Instead of seeking to control their staff, leaders must motivate and inspire commitment. And instead of just managing one-to-one, leaders must learn how to lead a team and learn how to make the team better.

Leaders must adapt to leading from the inside out. As the HBS article puts it, "as a manager moves into a leadership role, his or her network must reorient itself externally and toward the future."

Here are some of the ways in which you can prepare yourself for this transition and learning experience:

Seek out strategic projects while in your current role where you gain opportunities to work with the board or external stakeholders or on cross-functional teams; be conscientious in this opportunity to participate actively but also observe what is working and not working

Pursue professional learning opportunities whenever you can. Most nonprofit fields have organizations that provide field-specific training. This is good, but be sure to invest in management and leadership coursework and in coursework related to functional areas such as planning, leadership, nonprofit board development where an executive typically has to focus a lot of their attention. Our Nonprofit University has a full range of coursework as well as executive leadership programs. There are also professional leadership programs such as Leadership Atlanta, Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership and leadership programs in most counties.

Form a network of peers and of other stakeholders who can extend your learning and your reach and who are also seeking to advance themselves in their career. GCN has peer programs such as High Potential Diverse Leaders and certificate programs where you can learn and have opportunities for peer relationship development. Organizations such as the Rotary Club and Kiwanis are great places to extend your reach to other professionals who have valuable skills, resources and connections that can help you in the course of your career.

Seek out a mentor who you respect and would like to role model. Shadow them if you can and seek out their counsel as you pursue leadership opportunities.

Consider investing in a coach—coaching requires an investment of time and money but can have a great personal and professional payoff. GCN offers coaching to nonprofit leaders. Some foundations will pay for coaching for their grantees. Absent hiring a coach, there are great tools and resources available for professional development. You can take any number of assessment instruments online where you can get feedback to become more self-aware of your style, preferences and leadership profile.

Great leaders can truly make a great impact.

It is an exciting journey to leadership that will be a journey of learning, development and challenge. The journey will take courage but will also deliver great reward. Great leaders are in very high demand. They can truly make a huge impact in leading a nonprofit to excellence in achievement of their mission.

Cindy Cheatham is VP of Consulting Services for the Georgia Center for Nonprofits

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