Today, top executive leadership roles are often held by Baby Boomers, individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Many of these leaders are approaching retirement. It’s estimated that about 280,000 Baby Boomers will retire each month until 2030. Meanwhile, the number of registered nonprofits increased by more than 10% between 2005 and 2015.
These trends highlight an urgent need to prepare our next generation of nonprofit leaders with the skills required to help their organizations thrive. This is my passion and lately, I’ve noticed more professionals seeking to grow their leadership skills.
My typical coaching clients are executive directors of nonprofits. However, I’ve had several new clients contact me recently who have not yet transitioned into an executive director role. They aspire to level up their leadership skills so they’re ready to make the jump into an executive director position when the opportunity arises.
What Defines an Aspiring Leader?
Aspiring leaders share a few traits. They are highly motivated and self-driven individuals striving for growth in their careers. Some, but not all, hold a few years of managerial or executive decision-making experience. Importantly, they feel a strong sense of purpose, yet are redefining how they want to add value through their work and what they want to receive from their work.
Aspiring nonprofit leaders are also energized by common opportunities. They want to shape a mission and see its impact on the community. They want to guide a team of staff and volunteers toward a shared vision. Likewise, these individuals gravitate toward opportunities to sharpen their leadership skills and do not shy away from challenges. Instead, would-be leaders jump at the chance to identify and solve challenges.
If these traits sound familiar, you’re likely an excellent candidate for an executive director role and I can help you level up your leadership skills to get there.
When I work with clients, I focus on two types of skills: hard skills and real skills (sometimes referred to as soft skills, but more on that later). I also educate my clients on the most effective leadership postures and help them foster those behaviors in their own leadership style. Together, the right mix of skills combined with the right leadership postures is the foundation for success as a nonprofit leader.
Hone Your Hard Skills
Let’s start with the hard skills you’ll need as an executive director. There are six types of skills to focus on. To make it easier, I’ve created a Nonprofit Leadership Skills Assessment tool for my newsletter subscribers to help you plan for professional development and track your progress in each of these areas. It’s alright if you don’t have all of the skills - hard skills can be learned through books, online courses or on the job.
One: Staff Management
To be an effective leader, you’ll need to be adept at managing a team. This requires knowledge of the organization’s mission and how its talent needs will evolve over time. Other skills, such as recruiting, hiring, delegating, coaching and training will help build on your ability to manage staff.
Fundraising is essential for nonprofits, and raising the necessary funds requires a variety of practical skills. You’ll need the expertise to develop a solid fundraising plan, engage volunteers and board members in supporting the organization and establishing strong relationships with donors. Aspiring leaders should also understand how to most effectively tell the story of their organization to prospective supporters.
Three: Board Relations
Future nonprofit leaders should recognize their board as a powerful resource and understand how effective governance works. A strong executive director consistently nurtures their relationship with board members and builds trust with each one. To achieve this, executive directors should be ready to maximize interest, productivity and commitment from each board member, ensure effective and personal communications, and create communication channels to keep everyone informed of important matters.
Four: Planning & Evaluation
An executive director is responsible for cultivating a shared vision for the future of the organization across all constituents. From ensuring that actionable strategic and annual plans are in place, to making difficult decisions about which programs to start, stop and improve, executive directors need to make certain they are furthering the mission of the organization. Finally, staying on top of trends and developments in the field is critical.
Five: Financial Management & Legal Compliance
For an organization to maintain nonprofit status and steward resources effectively, leadership must ensure adequate oversight of the organization’s finances. This means operating under established financial policies that clearly outline the roles, authority, and responsibilities for essential financial management activities and decisions - all with legal compliance in mind. Be prepared to navigate budgets, financial statements, legal documents, contracts and risk management strategies.
An executive director must be an effective spokesperson for the organization; promoting and advocating for the mission and its work. Being able to represent the organization and build relationships with a diverse group of constituents, including clients, other nonprofit leaders, donors, staff and the general public, takes skill and finesse. Finally, developing and maximizing a variety of communication vehicles will help support the success of the organization.
Again, don’t worry if you are not an expert in all six skill areas. This list should serve as more of a guide to help you develop professionally and become a strong candidate for an executive director role.
You likely have some of these hard skills already, so focus your time and energy on the areas you have less experience in. Consider finding a mentor who can help coach you in the areas you need support. Or volunteer for a project in your current role that would give you an opportunity to practice some of these skills.
Finally, keep in mind that practice makes progress. And we should all strive to achieve progress over perfection. Rather than risk burnout from trying to achieve perfection, it’s better to commit yourself to making consistent progress over a period of time toward a specific goal. This gives you time to reflect on your learnings as you progress and that reflection is what cements your learnings as a new skill.
Real Skills Make Your Goals a Reality
Now that we’ve covered hard skills, let’s explore the real skills aspiring nonprofit leaders should focus on. Real skills are often referred to as “soft” skills, or interpersonal skills. But calling them soft skills detracts from their importance, which Seth Godin, founder of altMBA explains in this article.
Real skills cannot replace hard skills and vice versa. Think about it like this: an individual who has hard skills, such as budgeting, financial management and practical fundraising experience will add value to an organization. But, an individual who has all those hard skills, plus real skills such as negotiation and networking skills, and the ability to influence others has the potential to transform an organization.
Many real skills are core to an executive director’s success, but I’ve grouped them into three distinct categories.
It’s important to tend to your professional development across all of the categories. This will ensure you are equipped with a comprehensive set of leadership skills, which will help you navigate a variety of situations during your career.
One: A Collaborative Mindset
Executive directors are tasked with managing relationships with various stakeholders - from staff and the board of directors, to donors, volunteers and the broader community. Of course, this requires near constant collaboration.
Aspiring leaders should prepare for this by focusing on the following real skills, which are foundational for effective collaboration.
Know your strengths, weaknesses, emotions and intuition. Pay attention to how these attributes change over time. Being attuned to your own mindset will help you develop stronger relationships within your organization.
An individual with a highly developed sense of empathy will not only understand a peer’s perspective on a situation, they will use that knowledge to find ways to help. Empathetic and emotionally intelligent leaders have the power to enhance working relationships and ultimately, the performance of their team.
Guiding & Facilitating Conversations
It’s common for nonprofit leaders to have to negotiate, persuade others and find compromises to complex problems. This requires facilitating conversations where you are able to establish a rapport with others and tactfully seek a solution that benefits everyone involved.
Generous influence refers to a leader’s ability to show the impact of their team’s work, no matter how small the task at hand seems. This helps employees understand they play an integral role in their organization’s mission, which is why many chose a career at a nonprofit in the first place. To learn how you can infuse generosity into your working relationships, check out my blog post on the topic.
Two: A Bias for Action
Once you step into an executive director role, you’ll need to take ownership of your goals as an individual leader and those of the nonprofit. Here are four real skills you should develop to prepare.
Comfort with Ambiguity
The best path forward is rarely obvious and there are often several competing priorities at play. That’s why it’s crucial that executive directors can confidently make decisions even when the situation is unclear.
Assertive leaders are respectfully candid about their perspectives while still actively listening and considering the insights of others. This instills confidence in their leadership abilities and fosters effective teamwork and problem solving.
Highly effective leaders are action-oriented and make it a habit to take consistent and regular action to achieve their ambitions. Those who are action-oriented set clear goals and identify the steps required to accomplish those goals. From there, they practice intention and self-discipline to see it through.
Creativity in Complex Situations
Strong creative-thinking skills can help executive directors find solutions and drive alignment on complex projects or nagging problems. To apply creativity in complex situations, leaders must balance the need to resolve immediate concerns while keeping the big picture in mind.
Executive directors play a powerful role in the culture of their nonprofit, so maintaining an optimistic and inspiring attitude is important. Practice the following skills to develop your perseverance as a leader. These traits will help keep your team energized and motivated, despite the unexpected challenges that may pop up.
Persistent leaders view failure as a temporary obstacle. Leading a nonprofit can be stressful and complicated at times, so you’ll need to be able to confront challenges, seek solutions and continue driving toward the end goal.
Flexibility & Resilience
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that change is inevitable and we must be ready to adapt. As an aspiring leader, you’ll need to be ready to both respond to change and guide others and your organization through it. Be curious about change. You don’t have to view it as a threat; instead, ask questions to help you determine the best path forward.
Stress is a common experience for leaders and it can even be helpful at times, if it’s handled the right way. But, too much stress is harmful. For future executive directors, it’s a good idea to find ways to manage stress early and make it a habit to check in with yourself. Recognize what signals your body sends when it's under stress so you can take steps to manage it.
I covered a lot today but I hope this advice helps you on your professional journey. Developing a combination of these hard skills and real skills is one surefire way to level up your leadership and accelerate your career growth.