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 partner with Ideas for Action, LLC at the time of this writing, 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.
The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence than in the power to draw forth the resources of others.~ Jean de la Bruyere
What I learned early on was the power of the conversation. Listening builds relationship. Reflective conversation builds connection in groups of new direct reports and with peers and colleagues. For a new leader’s first steps and actions: Each. Encounter. Equals. Opportunity. To. Connect.
This is the first of a three part series intended to 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 this series.
What are the first steps of CEO listening and communicating?
John Taylor, CEO of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) had this to say about the series as he transitioned into his new role:
“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 as he was transitioning from his previous role at the University of Michigan. 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.” It goes with a later article I shared in how “Slow is smooth, and smooth is Fast.”
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 incisive, even powerful 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.
2. Communicate in Multiple Ways
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. The reality of the Covid-era has made this even more clear.
Remember the communication clichés because they still hold true:
- Perception is reality.
- In the absence of information, people fill a vacuum with their assumptions. And…
- Communication builds trust.
What helps in the first few months:
- Staff are often quite interested in what leaders [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.
- Listen to learn
- Communicate, and communicate again.
- Set a leadership agenda.
- Establish a rhythm for building shared leadership with the board chair.
- Educate volunteers.
- Make allowances to take care of yourself.
- Maintain your health.
Photo: Jean Frankel (President), Jolene Knapp & Deb Nystrom, Senior Partners, Ideas for Action, LLC
Deb Nystrom was a senior partner at Ideas for Action, LLC at the time of writing this series, along with colleagues Alan Davis and Jolene Knapp, who wrote this series to help non-profit leaders. Deb also continues as President of Reveln Consulting, LLC. including ongoing work in organizational development; strategic planning; and executive coaching. This post was written originally in 2016 and checked, slightly updated in 2023.
Trends For Nonprofit Leaders To Watch In 2022, Thomas Bognanno, Forbes Nonprofit Council
First Time CEO? Here Are Some Tips to Help Make Your Transition Smooth, Chief Executive, 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
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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