Advice from the Field: 7 Strategies for New Nonprofit Leaders
Updated: Feb 1
Stepping into your first leadership role can be daunting. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and interview many executive directors of successful nonprofits and they shared candid advice on what it takes to succeed. In this blog, I’ll share some of their tips, along with other practical pieces of advice for new executive directors.
This is the third and final blog in a 3-part series on how to ensure a smooth leadership transition. My first blog explains what you should know before you take on the job of executive director and in the second blog, I shared ways to prepare for your new role before you start. This blog will outline the seven strategies you should implement when stepping into your executive director role.
Seven Bits of Advice for Stepping Into a New Role
One: Lead with Authenticity
As you start your job as an executive director, you’ll need to cultivate a leadership style that reflects your personality. Present yourself authentically so you can establish genuine relationships with others on your team. When you show confidence in your leadership style, you will inspire confidence from others, too. This helps you gently establish authority and build trust with your colleagues early on in your tenure.
“Being grounded in what's important to you, what you believe and what’s the endgame - being centered in your leadership - is most important. Because the challenge is the job changes.”
Two: Plan with Self-Awareness
Begin your tenure by developing a plan for what you want to accomplish as a leader in your first three months and your first year. Focus on listening and absorbing as much as you can to ensure you have the information you need to make good decisions and solidify your ideas. This will help you build a plan with clear goals and action steps.
As you’re building out the plan, consider your strengths, weaknesses and blindspots.
“Be clear about what your strengths are. What are your skills? How do you attack problems? And then what are your barriers? How are you going to navigate them?”
Your sense of self-awareness will also help you execute on your vision for the organization. You’ll need the right people on your team to fill any gaps that may prevent you from achieving your goals. Being self-aware can also help you find the right mentor if you don’t already have one. Ideally, you’ll form a relationship with a more experienced executive director or coach who can discuss strategy and offer advice for the challenges you might face.
Three: Seek Candid Feedback
Start a habit of soliciting ongoing feedback from others, including board members and your direct reports. By creating a forum for others to provide feedback, you can quickly pinpoint what’s working and what’s not. Getting candid feedback early allows you to fine-tune your strategy, as needed. For more advice on building a culture of candor within your organization, check out my tips in my previous blog.
Also, be sure to get feedback from a variety of sources. This will help you gain greater clarity of what and how to adjust your work. For instance, your direct reports can share their perspective on your leadership style, while a mentor or coach can be helpful for assessing ideas or new programs to implement within your organization.
“I think that there is something about feedback, honesty and transparency that needs to be in the discussions. Those are really hard things to pull off. They take a lot of managerial time, and they take a lot of mood setting and culture building.”
Four: Build Your Support Team
One of your first priorities should be getting to know your team members, clients, volunteers and other relevant stakeholders. Listen to their concerns and ideas. Consider their thoughts on how your organization can grow and change for the better. Strive to make them feel a part of the mission. Begin to understand the cross-functional dynamics between different teams, and how decisions on each team intersect with one another. Gaining perspective and context will help you make your first decisions with greater clarity. This will also help you solidify the organization’s top priorities and develop an appropriate way forward.
In addition, build a support group as you begin your journey as an executive director. Part of this involves fostering a supportive relationship with your board chair, which I explain how to do in an earlier blog post. Also, invest in your relationships with peers who can support you as you adjust to your new role. However, don’t let the opinions of others replace your intuition as a leader. It’s up to you to be creative and find new ways to carry out the mission of your organization.
“Follow your heart. Listen to your intuition. Allow it to guide you. But make wise decisions. Determine who you can truly trust. And assemble two or three supporters.”
Five: Embrace Uncertainty
Nearly every leader feels pressured to have it all figured out. But, that’s simply not realistic. It’s not possible for one person to have all the answers. As an executive director, it’s not your job to know everything. Instead, it’s your job to see the full picture and understand how to get the information you need to make informed decisions.
Fight the urge to immediately get things done without enough perspective and don't get pressured into making short-sighted decisions. Recognize that uncertainty is part of the job, but give yourself permission to be the kind of thoughtful leader your organization deserves.
“You don't have to have all the answers and you really shouldn't have all the answers. You're not the knower of everything just because you're in the leadership position.”
Six: Keep Imposter Syndrome in Check
Imposter syndrome refers to a persistent internal belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. Even if you have accomplished a great deal, you can still feel like a fraud and question your ability to rise to the challenges set before you.
Beginning a new role, especially a leadership position such as executive director, can trigger imposter syndrome.
“Accept that - no matter what you do - if you try to not make one mistake, you're going to make a whole bunch of compromised choices trying to avoid them, I promise you they're going to come anyway.”
Importantly, imposter syndrome doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be a sign that you are learning something new. I love my colleague Pete Shepherd’s take on it in this TedxTalk.
While imposter syndrome is fairly common, make sure it’s not causing worsened anxiety or holding you back from accomplishing your goals. If it becomes unmanageable, you should speak with a mental health professional.
Seven: Realize You Drive the Culture
At the end of the day culture drives outcomes, and as the executive director, you influence the culture. You should accept and be intentional about this power. If you can create an environment where people enjoy each other’s company, feel supported and challenged, and believe in the purpose and shared mission of the organization, then good things will happen.
Keep in mind that many staff members joined your organization to make a difference. Consider ways to help them feel empowered and provide them the opportunity to influence change. For example, rather than directly advise an employee on what to do, coach them and let them come to the conclusion on their own. This connects individuals more closely to the organization and enhances their engagement. Employees who feel valued and engaged are more productive, have better morale and are more likely to stay with the organization.
“When you're at the top of an organization, you can have a huge influence on the culture and the broad perception of the organization. You can change the energy. It's incredible the impact one person can have. It was shocking to me. And so as a CEO, you've got to take that very responsibly. You've got to recognize that people are watching you all the time, what you say and what you do, you're a role model. That's not something that I could take lightly.”
Time to Make a Difference
With these seven tips in mind, you’re ready to embark on your journey as executive director and make a lasting impact for your organization. There will be challenges on the road ahead, yet your success will change lives for the better and benefit entire communities.
We’ve learned a lot over the past three months about how to successfully transition into a new executive director role. From making sure the interview counts, to preparing before day one, to hearing critical advice from seasoned leaders, there are steps you can take to start off on the right foot.
Do you have other advice for new executive directors? I’d love to hear what you think.
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