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A Culture of Candor: Frightening or Fantastic? You Choose.

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Today I’m posing some questions I ask executive directors and nonprofit leaders in my coaching programs.

  • Are you comfortable sharing the important truths of your experience with your board and your team?

  • Are you comfortable sharing the realities of the organization you lead with your board and team?

  • Are you comfortable hearing the important truths of your influence on your board and your team?

  • Are you comfortable hearing the realities of the organization you lead from your board and your team?

If you answered these questions with 'yes', I can guess there is a relatively healthy level of honest and open communication at your organization, and you have a high level of self-awareness. You can express your challenges, thoughts and opinions in a professional, productive capacity. You can hear others when they express their thoughts and opinions. And you have created an environment where self-reflection and professional growth are valued.

If you answered these questions with 'no', the relationships in your organization are most likely strained. You don’t feel comfortable sharing your challenges, thoughts and opinions in most situations. You may fear a lack of acceptance or professionalism from your coworkers. You might also think that open communication could cost you your job, or derail the organization completely. This type of answer also makes me curious about how leading from a place of uncomfortableness influences your organization.

You might be surprised at the number of nonprofit leaders who answer all 'no's' to these questions, indicating a significant lack of openness within their organizations.

Why aren’t more nonprofits practicing clarity and transparency in the workplace And what impacts does this have on nonprofit leaders?

What Does It Mean to Lead With Candor?

I advocate that there are four leadership postures that guide successful nonprofit executive director's relationships: generosity, candor, support and safety. This article is one in a series that breaks down how each posture looks in action. The beauty of these postures is that no matter the situation or skill level of the individuals involved, they are accessible and achievable for anyone willing to do the emotional work of being in a productive, authentic relationship. Today, we are focusing on candor as a posture.

Candor is the state of being open and sincere in speech or expression. Leaders who commit to candor know that hiding, dismissing or ignoring realities doesn’t help the leader, their professional relationships or the organization. They tend to:

  • Share the important truths around their professional challenges and experiences,

  • Openly discuss positive and negative elements of the organization’s journey that are essential to long-term sustainability,

  • Listen closely to their partners and team, and

  • Receive feedback and opinions with curiosity.

Approaching conversations with openness and curiosity, both about your abilities and your interpretation of the situation at hand, allows you to build strong and trusting relationships. The impact of trust cannot be understated.

In fact, Forbes reports that 55% of business leaders believe a lack of trust in the workplace constitutes a foundational threat to their company. Honest communication is essential for leaders who want to retain a team who trust in them and the structure of their organization. And it is essential for their relationship with the board of directors.

3 Ways Candor Shows Up for Nonprofit Leaders

When starting on your own journey to implement candor in your work life, you might wonder how it can be realistically implemented at your organization. This can be difficult to imagine, especially if you answered the questions above with 'no'. Let's explore three ways that candor shows up in nonprofit leadership and what they look like in action.

1. Through intentional and consistent conversations

  • An executive director and board chair filling each other in on pertinent conversations with key constituents

  • The executive director and board chair having a cohesion on agendas, talking points and public materials when stepping into something together

  • A board chair clarifying the best process and avenue for for the board to address gossip, and share information heard ‘off-line’ so nothing festers

2. Through transparency

  • A board hiring with clarity and not keeping information from the prospective leader of the organization

  • An executive director being honest with their feedback and committed to not talking around challenging topics

  • A board chair ensuring that board work is done with visibility, through committees and board meetings, not through back channels

3. Through creating a learning environment

  • An executive director and board chair creating and agreeing on clear goals, clarifying expectations and understanding the review process from day one

  • An executive director or board chair asking for help when it is needed

  • An executive director noticing gaps in their team’s experience and finding ways to develop necessary

Why Move Past Your Fear of Being Candid?

Being a candid leader has many benefits, but often leaders experience anxiety when it comes to speaking the truth about themselves and the situations they find themselves experiencing. Many leaders feel that they cannot practice full honesty when they make mistakes. But practicing candor doesn’t mean that you have answers to every leadership challenge that you face. Instead, it means a willingness to share where you are and keep others informed. And it goes hand-in-hand with forgiving yourself for not being perfect.

As one Storied Awareness survey respondent shared:

“I was in over my head a lot and having to figure things out. So just being vulnerable and open to recognizing that you don't know it all… you've got to learn how to do this and you've got to do it in collaboration was important.”

Oftentimes, young nonprofit leaders are highly driven individuals. They are excellent at setting goals, diving in deep with new projects, and thinking about the big picture. These individuals may have attained significant successes at an early age by relying on their own sense of motivation and skill. However, this can make building a trusting partnership with a fellow leader challenging to approach with an attitude of openness and honesty.

Leaders should remember that being honest about their situation and forming dependent relationships doesn’t slow down the mission of an organization. In fact, a nonprofit’s success hinges on close working relationships between many individuals to succeed.

What Can Candor Do For You as a Leader?

There are many benefits to leading with candor. First, it is the only way to build a culture of continuous improvement. In a candid culture, you and your team are clear on the tensions and challenges facing the organization and yourselves. When people are open about what they don’t know, they are able to find the support, lessons and practice time to get better. When organizations are open about where they need support and improvement it allows for better informed decisions on how to improve and increase impact.

Second, candor allows leaders to lead with intention, rather than uneasiness. Taking down barriers of anxiety around having to know everything and keep challenges to oneself is exhausting and isolating for leaders. Creating the space to take ownership of these barriers and building the means to knock them down is invigorating and inspiring to most in leadership roles.

When leaders worry that building a candid culture will lead to conflict, I remind them that tension is not necessarily negative. A leader who embraces a candid culture can shift the narrative of conflict from negative to an opportunity to grow themselves, their team or their organization. This third benefit is candor is a means to create creative friction, not creative destruction. This strengthens the work and opportunities for both the team and the organization.

Finally, leading with candor can significantly improve your relationships at work. Interpersonal conflict, which is a primary stressor for most American professionals, can directly result from a lack of understanding between you and your team. A leader who speaks openly and honestly, and receives information and feedback with generosity, provides their organization with a strong culture that builds trust across leadership relationships. Deepening trust opens up the ability to more deeply connect with your teammates and the work of the organization.

How Candor Can Improve the Executive Director / Board Chair Relationship

No one likes to be caught off-guard, especially when they are carrying the mantle of leadership. Surprise information from your leadership partner in a meeting or other external situation can breed confusion and distrust. It can also leave a leader feeling embarrassed, or that their partner doesn’t have full confidence in them. For the board chair and executive director, who rely on one another constantly to make decisions and lead the organization as a whole, implementing a culture of honest communication is essential.

Basing the relationship on candor allows the pair to lead with courage, rather than anxiety. It can help to ensure that both parties can do their jobs comfortably and make decisions as a productive team.

In most organizations, both the executive director and the board chair will be uncertain about parts of their role or decisions that need to be made. Being open about these uncertainties, getting the support you need, learning what is necessary, and continuing to practice is the path to success. As noted earlier, hiding, dismissing or ignoring doesn’t help the individual, the relationship or the organization. In an effective executive director / board chair partnership, both sides are able to help the other continuously improve.

What Steps Can You Take This Month?

Step 1: Make a verbal commitment

Oftentimes the first step in making any kind of long-lasting change to your life is to make a verbal commitment to those around you. For leaders who want to truly build a culture of candor at their organization, the first step is letting their leadership team and employees know of this new shift in direction. A verbal commitment to candor can be a powerful way to demonstrate your reliability, predictability and trustworthiness as a leader. It’s also an opportunity for you to set the expectations with others, and encourage candid behavior from them.

To most effectively engage in a verbal commitment, we recommend doing it face-to-face. For example, an executive director might have a meeting with their board chair and express their new commitment to candid communication, and ask that the board chair do the same. A leader might also hold an organization-wide meeting to announce that openness will be a priority in all future updates to employees, and follow that up with one honest commentary on the state of the organization at the moment.

Training may be needed to ensure that you start the work off on strong footing. An excellent book to consider reading is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Board-Executive Partnership Coaching is another training model to help build a culture around the pillars of candor, generosity, protection and support.

Step 2: Proactively ask for feedback

One of the most essential parts of practicing openness as a nonprofit leader is creating open channels for feedback. You cannot lead with candor if you aren’t informed of the real impacts of your leadership on others.

The first step is to compile a list of questions that you would like feedback on. Some examples include:

  • Do you feel that you can express your thoughts openly and honestly?

  • When you give your opinion, do you feel listened to?

  • Do you feel supported in your projects & initiatives?

  • Do you feel that your time is valued?

  • What am I / leadership doing well?

  • How can I / leadership improve in general?

  • Are there any items you would like to discuss that would make your work life more productive and sustainable?

If you’re in an executive director / board chair partnership, schedule a one-on-one meeting with the other person to go over their answers to these questions in a conversational manner. Send them the questions ahead of time so that they can provide thoughtful responses.

If you’re searching for feedback from your team and / or employees, send out a questionnaire. Consider whether you would like respondents to remain anonymous, which may encourage more honest feedback. Be sure to openly address what you learn through the survey so that people feel heard and understand what steps you will be taking as a result.

When processing the feedback that you receive, remember that feedback falls into three categories as identified by Stone and Heen in their book:

  1. Appreciation - this type expresses that you are valued

  2. Coaching - this type provides a framework of information to help you grow as a professional

  3. Evaluation - this type explains how you are doing as a leader

Before responding to any feedback you receive, understand which of these categories it falls into. An appreciative piece of feedback can be great, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have room to grow as a leader. Alternatively, an evaluative comment can clarify how you are leading in a certain situation, but might not be indicative of your performance as a whole.

Receiving feedback professionally and with humility takes practice. But it will ultimately lead you to a better understanding of who you are as a leader, where your strengths and weaknesses are, and how you can move forward as a candid leader in the future.

Step 3: Practice openness with peers

Many leaders may not feel comfortable jumping right into candid conversations with their coworkers, and instead choose to practice with their peers first. An excellent avenue for this is to join a Coaching Circle.

Coaching Circles are typically comprised of other individuals who share common traits, such as job titles, but are not part of your own workplace. These groups meet on a regular basis and offer facilitated meetings for professionals to receive support and feedback, grow professionally, build camaraderie and find accountability.

These groups offer a space for nonprofit leaders to practice sharing their genuine thoughts, opinions and emotions with other professionals, without the added stress of it potentially triggering existing tension with another person or impacting your work life. As a bonus, they also receive feedback and support to help improve the situation they are discussing. By practicing candid conversations in a safe environment, leaders will build up the skills and confidence to do so at work and make openness a consistent habit.

Worth the Work

Implementing candor in your work life is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. Nonprofit professionals who lead with candor will find it cultivates a greater culture of openness and belonging in their organization, improves their relationships with other leaders, and allows them to be better at their jobs.

So - what are your thoughts on candor? Do you feel comfortable practicing it at work? Can you imagine your organization having more candid conversations? Please feel free to send me an email with any thoughts you have, at

If you enjoyed this post, join my newsletter for more insights, stories and actions for ambitious nonprofit leaders. And in the meantime, keep up with me on LinkedIn!


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