Courage for New Leaders To Listen and Learn in the New Year

Campfire Courage Quote pic

It takes courage to listen. Whether it’s a first or fifth transition to a new leader role, these non-profit leadership lessons learned are timeless. Pause, reflect, choose (from horse-guided leadership & learning.) In your first months, resist the urgent and not important tasks and follow these practical steps to ensure your success.  

Many new leaders have found that the guidebook to adapting quickly to the unique culture and needs of a new organization has yet to be written. In my decades of working with new, on-boarding leaders in a large, complex, world-class non-profit, the University of Michigan, I know that navigating those first months on the job professionally and personally is essential to your success the first year and long term. In my continuing work for my own company, REVELN Consulting and as a senior parter with Ideas for Action, LLC with colleagues Alan Davis, former client and friend, Jolene Knapp, who are both talented, highly experienced non-profit CEO’s and leaders, we are sharing with you our Seven Lessons Learned.

It takes courage to listen & learn, as a new leader.

What I learned at the University of Michigan early on was the power of the conversation. Listening builds relationship. Listening well has impact as a leader with groups of new direct reports, and with peers and colleagues. ALL await a new leader’s first steps and actions. Each. Encounter. Equals. Opportunity. To. Connect.

So here, on this page I share the first of a three part series that my colleagues Alan, Jolene and I were inspired to write help new non-profit leaders. In the three posts we share first-year success factors. We drew on our own experience, as well as deep conversations with incoming and outgoing executives and favorite knowledge resources, to co-author  — “Seven Ways New Non-Profit Leaders Succeed the First Year on the Job“.

Below, we share  details & links to resources on recommended first steps of CEO listening and communicating.

CEO ~ Taylor,John1_2015_cmyk - smaller size

John Taylor, CEO of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) had this to say about the series:

“As a new CEO, the article’s main points to invest time in learning, building relationships, and establishing priorities have been key during my first six months on the job.”  

I interviewed John before he left his role at the University of Michigan. His view is a fresh insight to help this year’s new leaders.  Note that although we make reference to associations throughout the posts, these tips apply to any non-profit organization and are adaptable to the for-profit sector as well.

1. LISTEN to Learn

In many high-pressure environments, deep listening distinguishes the highly experienced from the amateurs. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”, said Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Stated more directly, one association executive advised his peers to “resist the temptation to prove how bright you are; do nothing when you first arrive—just learn.”

Your first months on the job are the perfect opportunity to take advantage of many learning opportunities that surround you. Think broadly. Develop a list for listening interviews including staff, board members, active volunteers, randomly selected members, dropped members, industry leaders, subject matter experts, external partners, and others. Everyone has something to say; they often will be flattered by your curiosity, as well as encouraged by your desire to learn. Ask open-ended questions. Prepare to be surprised. Though many relationships will deepen during your tenure, early conversations can provide unique opportunities for candid exchanges unencumbered by baggage, fears, or agendas.


It is almost impossible to over-communicate in an association or nonprofit community. There is a whirlwind of activity among and between members, volunteer leaders, external partners, staff, and others—few of whom are in the same room, many of whom aren’t in the same city or country.

Communicate with your staff. Communication is underrepresented by a factor of four.
Information for your staff is usually under-communicated by a factor of four.

Remember the communication clichés because they are true:

  1. Perception is reality,
  2. In the absence of information, people fill the vacuum with their assumptions, and
  3. Communication builds trust.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Staff members are vitally interested in what the boss [senior leadership team, executive committee, board] just talked about. Find a way to share it regularly.
  • The board should be vitally interested in progress toward strategic goals. Find a way to check on this.
  • Committees and other volunteer groups don’t know what other committees and groups are doing. Summarize, align, and share.
  • Members and constituents want to know “What’s in it for me?”  They will appreciate understanding the logic behind board decisions. Find a way to test, confirm and communicate this regularly.
  • When change happens, it is usually under-communicated by a factor of four. So, find four different ways and times to communicate your change message. Include two-way communication to assess progress.

The SEVEN Success Factors

Soft skills are as important as hard skills, industry-specific training and expertise. “Culture trumps everything” is a solid motto to guide new CEOs. Investing time in understanding history, processes, systems and personalities is critically important—no matter how strong the tidal wave of daily urgencies.

1. Listen to learn

2. Communicate, and communicate again

3. Set a leadership agenda

4. Establish a rhythm for building shared leadership with the board chair

5. Educate volunteers

6. Make allowances to take care of yourself

7. Maintain your health

To get notification when the next two posts in the series go up, please subscribe to the Ideas for Action newsletter.

Jean Frankel, Jolene Knapp and Deb Nystrom, Ideas for Action, LLC
Jean, Jolene and Deb – taken at the State Room restaurant on the campus of one of our clients, Michigan State University

Above is one of my favorite photos: Jean Frankel (President), Jolene Knapp & Deb Nystrom, Senior Partners, Ideas for Action, LLC

The authors of this blog series “Seven Ways New Non-Profit Leaders Succeed the First Year on the Job” are Alan DavisJolene Knapp, and Deb Nystrom, senior partners at Ideas for Action, LLC—a consulting practice that is driven by a passion to empower the potential of people and organizations. Their collective experience includes association, non-profit, and higher education leadership, governance, and management; organizational development; strategic planning; and executive coaching.  Deb also continues in her role as President of Reveln Consulting, LLC.

Deb welcomes an introductory conversation with you: Deborah Nystrom at 734-846-5631, or email Deb,

First Time CEO? Here Are Some Tips to Help Make Your Transition Smooth, blog post, July 21, 2014

Confessions of a New CEO: Lessons Learned in My First Year, Michael Fraser and Kevin Keller, Presentation at ASAE 2009 Annual Meeting

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile:

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