Propelling nonprofit managers forward in their careers...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lessons from Public Speaking

Over the past six months, I have been so fortunate to participate in the Emerging Leaders Program. I've had the opportunity to learn from some of the most intelligent, hardworking, motivated, and passionate change-makers I've ever met. My fellow Emerging Leaders have challenged me, coached me, supported me, advised me, and inspired me. (And made me laugh!) I knew this was a special group of people, but this fact became even more apparent to me at our November session.

I came into this particular session less enthusiastic than I had been at other sessions. First of all, it involved getting up early on a Saturday morning and second of all, this session focused on public speaking. Not only would we have to present in front of the group, but we would also be videotaped – I was dreading this part specifically. As I prepared my three-minute presentation a few days ahead of time, I tried to remember what I had learned from a public speaking seminar in college. Things like, “project your voice” and “pick one person to make eye contact with” and “use large hand gestures.” It all felt a little forced and awkward to me, and I was nervous going into the presentation.

However, I didn't account for two important things: Jezra Kaye, our fantastic guest speaker and public speaking guru, and the supportive community of my fellow EL-ers. Jezra started our day off, and she was unlike any other public speaking coach I have encountered. She didn't tell us to take a power stance or gesticulate wildly or use impressive words – she told us to speak like ourselves. Her philosophy comes from a strengths-based perspective, that we are at our best when we are being authentic. Through her teachings, I was able to see how each person in the room could be a dazzling speaker as they let their personality shine through. Jezra had us up with our public speaking avatars, choosing three adjectives that we wanted to exude. Everyone chose something different – some people wanted to be perceived as confident, others as warm, others as innovative, and others as authoritative. This exercise spoke to the diverse personalities and values in our group.

Later that afternoon, we gave our speeches. Though I had been nervous going into the day, I hadn’t accounted for the encouraging, supportive, and nurturing community of EL-ers. In a previous Emerging Leaders session, our group leader Yael talked about the power of vulnerability,  and how vulnerability allows us to connect with people in an entirely different way. I saw this in action during our November session. We all were vulnerable when speaking in front of the group, but this shared experience also facilitated great generosity and learning. Watching others present taught me so much about public speaking. When it was my turn to present, I was struck by how open, attentive, and curious others were. The feedback I got was some of the most productive, generous, helpful, and thoughtful feedback I have ever received. I believe this exercise was so helpful because we all experienced this together, and we were able to learn from others’ strengths and vulnerability.

Needless to say, I left our session more energized than I ever expected (despite my early wake up!). I feel so lucky to be a part of such a meaningful and special community of peers, and I was so glad to gain public speaking skills is such a supportive environment. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Get Involved!

Inspired by the Emerging Leaders program, last month I had the opportunity to observe a board meeting for our organization. As this was my first board meeting experience, I was unsure what to expect.

Overall, the meeting was well-attended and board members were very engaged. Our Chief of Research (my direct supervisor) presented an excellent overview of our student and teacher data from the previous school year. I was especially impressed how board members interacted during this part of the meeting. Members had specific questions about measurement tools, national averages, etc. As a person who spends the majority of my time working with data and trying to find ways to communicate the data in concise, meaningful ways, it was helpful to observe what data were of interest to board members.

In days following the board meeting I had the chance to debrief the meeting with the president and CEO of our organization. Meeting with our president was an equally educational experience as he has years of experience serving on multiple nonprofit boards. Notably, during our meeting, it was mentioned that a recurring potential challenge for board members (not specific to our board, but members in a broader sense) is the diversity of roles within board members. This has the potential to lead to confusion and warrants discussion surrounding expectations and concrete responsibility setting.

While reflecting about my experiences with our governance procedures it occurred to me that many of the topics (if not all) covered by the Emerging Leaders Program are directly applicable to participating on a non-profit board. The power of networking, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, emotional intelligence and managements skills, trust-building, and presentation skills are all components that work together to create a successful board member.

In the coming months, I am looking forward to developing a more influential style of communication and fine tuning my leadership style. This summer I also plan to volunteer to serve on a nonprofit board with hopes of using my newly honed skills and experiences from the Emerging Leaders program to give back to the non-profit arena.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


T’is the season of Thanksgiving and year-end reflection, and my Alumnicorps Emerging Leaders (EL) experience is certainly an opportunity for both. When I think about memorable moments of these past five months with my fellow EL DC cohort members and our facilitator Hilary Joel, the prevailing sentiment seems an appropriate one: gratitude. It is the simple but satisfying emotion of feeling fortunate enough to have (and, indeed, take) the time to improve oneself and actively shape the paths ahead. It is also the common feeling that repeats, even if the EL experience prompts other (and sometimes more challenging) emotions.

There is fear…about sharing perceived weaknesses and being judged on them, until you learn that the EL community is a safe space for professional and personal growth. At our fourth session, I found myself in the proverbial hot seat, having volunteered to be coached by Hilary and then by my peers on a professional challenge (“Why did I raise my hand?” I remember thinking on the long walk to the front of the room). But as I observed Hilary’s and my peers’ thoughtful attention and heard their constructive feedback, I eased into my chair, grateful for their objective and sincere comments on how I might best approach a potential solution. Few of us in the world have the opportunity to talk through a challenge in such an forum, much less with a considerate audience that can help you walk away with actionable ideas. Whether in a hot seat or chatting with other participants during our breaks, EL has given (and continues to give) me useful knowledge and tools about how to assess my own professional strengths and weaknesses, and how to leverage both to improve myself as individual.

Then there is nervousness...about what you can’t do, until you actually do it. Few things unnerve me more than public speaking, and a recent EL session on that topic frankly gave me the heebies. In front of a small group of my fellow EL participants, I delivered a short three-minute presentation and mini-Q&A session that would be videotaped for our own assessment. Well, perhaps in my mind it wasn’t a “presentation” so much as a stumbling through of notes punctuated by shortness of breath and the burn of my face during the long 360 seconds of seeming torture. The feedback from my fellow EL participants, though? Constructive and supportive as always. And my presentation/stumble on camera? Surprisingly, it was not terrible on video (at least compared to the real-time experience as I remembered it). And, armed with my EL colleague’s feedback and our guest facilitator Mark House’s amazing guidance on presentation skills, I was thankful that I would have the knowledge and ability to improve my public speaking in the future.

And then, finally, there is amazement...of the many things that I have learned and will continue to learn about myself , and the ability to do the same with an impressive peer cohort whose professional and personal accomplishments never cease to amaze. Of all the emotions I have experienced with EL, amazement has creeped in slowly as I’ve seen my own professional progress as a future organizational leader. The ability to balance my weaknesses (which I always saw) with my strengths (which I rarely acknowledged) has been a breakthrough. I don’t know if I would have gotten there without a longer-term development program such as EL, and for that I am especially grateful.

When I listen to and speak with fellow participants, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve experienced the same arc of feelings that have stuck with me throughout the past few months. I suspect it’s difficult not to. But, regardless of whichever range of emotions we may have each experienced, for me it always returns to gratitude. I will always appreciate opportunity that EL has given me to continually improve myself as a professional and to embark on that journey with an amazing group of people. With spirit of today’s holiday upon us, it’s difficult not to be thankful for the EL experience.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Back to the Basics

During the six years I have spent working in nonprofits, I have been fortunate to be exposed to a number of different areas and functions. From program to development to budgeting, the exposure has made me a stronger team member and leader.

As thankful as I am for that exposure, I also recognize that dipping my toes into different areas and learning on the fly still leaves me with gaps in critical knowledge. In any organization, and specifically within lean nonprofits, having a solid understanding of every team's function is extremely important. While budgeting and fundraising may have not been included in any of my formal job descriptions, I have certainly been asked to do both in all of my different roles. More formal training in these areas will serve me in every role and in any nonprofit. For that reason, I was particularly pleased that we returned to the fundamentals in our most recent Emerging Leaders session.

In a very short period of time, our three guest speakers offered numerous useful tips on nonprofit finance and fundraising. In the morning, Ian Shuman, Partner at Gelman, Rosenbert & Freedman, gave us a refresher on nonprofit finance. Familiar terminology that had become cloudier for me over the years- such as assets and liabilities and cash verses accrual accounting-were made clear again. I walked away from the session feeling more financially literate and better equipped for budgeting and finance conversations.

In the afternoon we heard from Amy Nakamoto, Executive Director of DC Scores, and Dick Walker,  Managing Partner at Orr Associates. Amy and Dick spoke to us about fundraising basics and the importance of telling a compelling story. They outlined what to include in a strong "elevator pitch", including the need to appeal to both the heart and the head, and then modeled it for the group. We reviewed the reasons people give, strategies for building relationships with donors, creative ways to involve the entire board in fundraising, and more. This could not have been more timely, as I have recently transitioned into a role where I am responsible for a small component of development. I also left the session eager to try my hand at making asks, which I will get to do immediately as I reach out to others and seek financial support for the Emerging Leaders program!


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Personality Puzzle

As a cohort over the past several months, we've uncovered and peeled back so many layers of information, that I'm not sure where to begin.  The Emerging Leaders Program has made me truly self reflect both professionally and personally not only as a nonprofit manager, but as a leader.  With limited experience in the management world, this program has truly opened my eyes into the inner workings and intricacies of professional relationships and the importance of understanding supervisors, peers and direct reports.  I've always naturally stepped up as a leader, despite my slightly introverted self and I've never given it a second thought.  However, understanding individual working styles, communication techniques and personal interactions is a larger, more detailed and complicated puzzle than I could have imagined.

While I've always considered myself personable and easily amenable to challenging personalities, the management piece of nonprofit has reared its share of obstacles.  Before meeting this wonderful cohort of individuals and developing a new knowledge base through our classes, I took professional clashes and made them personal character flaws and poor management on my behalf. I spent many meetings, check-ins and trainings harping on small details and retracing my steps in attempt to "fix" working relationships with direct reports, supervisors and peers - all the while not paying attention to the fact that people are simply hardwired differently and all relationships cannot be approached in the same manner.

Having a better understanding of differing personalities through the Myers Briggs and class discussion has really given me a new approach not only to working with veteran staff, but in hiring and on-boarding new staff.  Over the past month we have been working tirelessly at my organization to hire a new manager and with the knowledge of this personality puzzle, we are truly trying to make a conscious effort to find the perfect puzzle piece.  While so many candidates would be a fine fit, the ideal applicant, with the exact cocktail of professional and personal traits has yet to burst through our doors.  With this new perspective, tackling the extra projects and meetings until we find this perfect addition to our ever growing team, seems like the smallest of sacrifices.  With the holiday season fast approaching it's only a matter of time before the season's new hire present comes into the fold - fingers crossed until that day and we'll continue puzzling away.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Give Yourself Room to Grow

Each month since June this year, my fellow Emerging Leaders and I have spent one full day away from our respective work spaces to focus on our own professional growth. As our facilitator (the wonderful Yael Sivi) starts off each session by having each person share a personal update, we shift our thinking from our daily work routine to reflecting on about how we approach our work as leaders. After all, how often do we have a chance to do this? How often are we able to have frank conversations about our personalities and work styles, the challenges of managing people above and below us, and our anxieties and habits when dealing with conflict?  How much time do YOU consciously spend each month to sit down with a peer and constructively talk through a personal leadership issue that’s been bothering you?

For those of us who have not yet built that time into our lives, I am finding the Emerging Leaders program to be a much-needed haven to help us create that safe space. I call it “safe space” because there is an intrinsic understanding among my fellow participants that the personal stories we share during our sessions are communicated with a sense of confidentiality and trust.  We may need to discuss a very sensitive topic but we know that our peers are willing to listen and give input without judgment.  While our professional work may not overlap, being able to hear from peers who may have experienced similar challenges or can give a fresh perspective sets a tone of genuine constructive feedback.

The Emerging Leaders sessions themselves are so thoughtfully designed and executed.  Each month’s session gives us vocabulary to define concepts we battle with but may not have explicitly called out (am I carrying too many monkeys? What personal obstacle is competing with my work commitment? What cognitive distortions am I allowing to twist my thinking?). We also have an impressive panel of seasoned executives who share their experiences and nuggets of wisdom about leadership and management. At our most recent session, we were excited to hear Della Britton Baeza, President & CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Shena Elrington, Director of the Health Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, talk about how they have turned professional challenges into opportunities to grow as leaders. Each of us in the program may come away from these panels with different lessons learned, but they all shape how we are thinking about our personal development.

We are at the mid-point of our Emerging Leaders program and I am already starting to think about how to ensure I make the time each month to continue this type of an exchange with my peers even after our program ends. I’ve already had an amazing opportunity to meet with an adviser through the Emerging Leaders program who gave me great ideas and contacts that I am following up on as my personal homework. But it’s equally important to have that ‘safe space’ with peers so that we continue to grow and learn from each other outside the confines of our offices.  I am grateful that the Emerging Leaders program is helping us to build such a community of peers right now and look forward to continuing it beyond the program.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Lesson To Live By

Leadership can be a very lonely world, particularly when functioning in a small, yet competitive, non-profit. While not ideal, this simple view of leadership was just a reality that I was slowly beginning to accept.

That is, until our first Emerging Leaders session back in June. I remember being nervous and excited for the first session, mainly because I had no idea what to expect from the experience. I had hoped to gain insight from knowledgable and experienced professionals who had been walking the walk much longer than me. Looking back on it, the thing I hadn't spent much time thinking about was the other participants in the program. Sure, I had been hopeful that the group would work well together and maybe even get comfortable enough throughout the year to have honest and productive conversations about the challenges and struggles we faced. But I guess I never thought about the limitless potential we truly had to grow from one another.

My mentality had totally shifted by lunch on our first day together. I was so blown away by the diversity of our professional backgrounds, yet how we could genuinely relate to one another immediately. It didn't matter if our path included multiple Ivy League degrees, corporate experience, or a global perspective; we all had common issues that we were grappling with and determined to learn more about. Leadership had become less lonely in a matter of hours.

At our most recent session in September, we had the opportunity to hear from a panel of amazing speakers. It was during this session that my heightened optimism about the possibility of a leadership community was solidified. Elizabeth Lindsey, Chief Operating Officer of Groundswell and Emerging Leaders alum, opened her discussion by emphasizing the importance of building relationships and creating opportunities to learn from those around you. I was both excited and apprehensive about asking others to take time out of their busy schedules to talk with me about leadership. As if she sensed what I was thinking, she followed up by saying we all needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

At that moment, I was hooked. Leadership is only lonely if you make it that way. In the past month, I have forced myself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I have reached out to others I have met along my journey and simply asked if we could talk. Some have not responded, but more have answered my request with an enthusiastic "yes". Ok, maybe I am interpreting the enthusiasm, but a yes is a yes.  

Tomorrow is our fourth session of Emerging Leaders and I have already learned so much about myself and what it means to be a leader. More importantly, I have started to develop a network of support for the first time in my career. I can't wait to see everyone and continue to learn from all of you!

Monday, October 7, 2013

No One Can Be Wise On An Empty Stomach!

Pizza & some of the most driven and innovative individuals the Tri-state has to offer is all it took for me to accept a lunch invitation from this years New York Emerging Leaders cohort to visit with the group as a program alum. It is crazy to think that just a few months ago I sat in this exact room, eating pizza and preparing to embark on what would be a professional awakening. From Lecioni and his “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” to Oncken & Wass’s “Who’s got the Monkey,” I would embark on a journey that would both inspire and challenge my thinking. Emerging Leaders cultivates entrepreneurial and innovative capacities in young leaders to equip them with the necessary tools to make a difference in the nonprofit sector. Also- not to be forgotten- it allows you to enjoy some of the best pizza New York City has to offer. With this in mind, I decided to pen this blog entry drawing on the parallel between the pizza I enjoyed with the New York cohort and the Emerging Leaders program as a whole.  

The Dough: This is the platform Emerging Leaders establishes. In the mixing of various backgrounds and world experiences, participants are coming together each session as a group sharing ideas, offering feedback (kneading) and challenging one another to rise!  

The Sauce: Our ever-increasing and changing world is led by hard workers, innovators and creative thinkers. No surprise here. The “Secret Sauce” of The Emerging Leaders is …. you guessed it, the participants! More importantly, the amazing ideas brought to the forefront and discussed during each session all contribute to this incredible mixture. Today, our interconnected and mobile world demands that we have a broad world-view and that we are in tune with the experiences of others. In doing this, we can travel beyond the basics of simply addressing pressing issues of the present and begin to put our minds together to discover sustainable solutions  

The Cheese: Pizza cheese encompasses several varieties and types of cheeses- obviously, too many to get into at this point and time. However, with this in mind, The Emerging Leaders cheese would most certainly be its many guest speakers. With less than just the transmitting of nonprofit theories and more of real life advice and examples, guest speakers serve as facilitators of knowledge, addressing key issues that are really going on in today’s world. Information is power and the Emerging Leaders program is providing learning experiences that challenge perspectives, broaden awareness, and encourage a deep understanding of constantly changing issues. With everything from finance to how to effectively lead your team, these learning experiences are aligned with the process of purpose.  

The Topping: The topping or add-on is the opportunity to create connections with other key people within the nonprofit sector. The sharing of ideas and mentorship has long been acknowledged as a cornerstone of developing an informed and active citizenry. However, in today’s society both a lack of time and lack of a significant platform has caused this very important component to become nonexistent. This is why I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be awarded the opportunity to be apart of this community that is helping to change the nonprofit world as we know it. Lastly, after you have gathered all your ingredients, all that remains is the oven! The oven ties everything together.  

The Oven: The oven is that forum provided by Emerging Leaders coupled with the well thought out and inspiring facilitators. Emerging Leaders serves as the perfect platform of learning experiences that foster the development of engaged and active global citizens. With cohorts created in cities such as New York and Washington, DC, we have the ability to address a plethora of issues that threaten our future as well as solutions to some of the most complex problems within the nonprofit sector. I guess it also doesn't hurt that you also get to enjoy some of the best pizza around in the process.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Acting like a leader

Strange to say, I don't think the most useful insights and lessons I've taken from the last few months in the Emerging Leaders Program have come from readings about monkeys and EQ, Meyer-Briggs assessments and 360 degree evaluations, or career counseling with experienced mentors.  I think all these tools have confirmed for me a lot of things I already suspected innately; at most, they've given me more systematic ways to think about interpersonal and professional relationships that I can use as a sort of double-check when I interact with top management or task others with assignments.

What seems most significant to me, on the other hand, is that the monthly check-ins and skills-building exercises remind me to act like a leader.  The tools we've been working on in the program have helped me to identify where I need to shore up my skills and experience, but I'm finding that the real key to establishing myself as an effective leader is taking the time to appreciate the ways in which my organization needs to adapt to developments in the funding world, the legal landscape, and other fundamental shifts in our operational context.  As Judith Sandalow, the ED of the Children's Law Center, explained to us, organizations can outgrow their current staff and management (just as staff and management can outgrow their organizations!).  I'd rather be a manager who can evolve and stay a few steps ahead, and then provide leadership by helping to guide the organization through these changes.

I'm trying to take a lesson from Judith's observation in a few ways, and I think it's working.  In the last few months, I've been more confident in taking on higher-level managerial work, seeking out opportunities to be more visible to external stakeholders, and involving myself in the long-term, bigger-picture strategy and direction of the organization where I work (including through my choice of stretch project, which involves policy setting for the entire organization and more direct contact with our Board than I've had previously).  I'll let you know how it all turns out!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Some Timely Professional Development

When I was first accepted to the Princeton Emerging Leaders program, I had never given much thought to management style or some of the personality or behavioral reasons behind why some people operate the way that they do in a professional environment. I operated the way that I did because of the way that I thought was best, but also modeled off previous managers whom I respected and valued. In a day where there are many things that need to get done – managerial technique or process was just something that I did not have the time to address or stop and think about. I knew that I wanted the opportunity to receive professional development and learn from others, given that I operated in an essentially one-person office, but it was something that I did not think I had the time for.

For this reason, the Emerging Leaders program has been a breath of fresh air in that it has forced me to take a day every month and remove myself from the bubble of my organization and our short-term goals and think both personally and professionally about my long-term goals. In a world where short-term results and goals are critical, the big picture and one’s long-term professional development can often get overlooked and I felt as though I was in that boat. Operating in a role where I did not have a direct supervisor as the head of our organization, but a nonprofit board as a ‘supervisor’, it was difficult to learn best practices. I had learned some very important and critical lessons from our Board Chair over my first two years at the organization, but never quite the rationale at a higher level.

When I read the article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”, it really opened my eyes to the rationale behind how managers should operate and why I kept feeling like I had a to-do list that was endless, I just thought it was because I was overly productive. I knew I needed to improve on my delegating skills – but I didn’t quite know how to effectively go about it and while this didn’t give a clear-cut solution, it more or less just pushed me in the right direction. 

Right away, I had a few of my colleagues who I manage read the article just to put them in my shoes, and I also re-read it to put myself in the shoes of my Board Chair, and I’ve been pleased with the results. It’s now mandatory reading on my staff, and I think that it has really helped my relationships both with those I manage and those that manage me. I can already see great strides of improvement in those I manage and I think it’s because of the way that I was able to put more responsibility on them in a way that made sense for both of us. For my professional career, this was one of the most helpful articles that I’ve ever read, and was really my ‘a-ha’ moment regarding professional development at this stage in my career. So, thank you for that opportunity!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Discovering Your Monkeys

A month or two ago, for the Princeton Emerging Leaders Program, we read an article from Harvard Business Review called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”  The gist of the article is that employees will often come to their bosses asking that they solve their problems. This puts a “monkey” on the bosses back. The more monkeys that a boss accumulates and the bigger they are, the less time that the boss will have to devote to his or her own responsibilities.

To be frank, I was fairly skeptical when I first read the article; it wasn’t that I disagreed with it, but rather that I felt that the points that it was making were fairly obvious. However, in the weeks after I read the article, I subconsciously mulled it over and realized that I had a situation in my own work where I was accumulating monkeys that shouldn’t have been on my back, and that this had been one of the bigger stress factors in my job recently.

For about two years, essentially by default, I had taken the lead on maintaining a database that forms the crux of almost all other activities on my team’s project. Since I had only minimal time to devote to this task, the project (and my sanity) suffered. Therefore, we eventually decided to bring on someone new whose primary responsibility would be to coordinate the upkeep of the database.

I was very happy with this opportunity to take some work off of my plate, and to have a better maintained database. However, I was frustrated that, months after this new person joined the team, I was still feeling the burden of the database weighing on me. I was struggling to figure out exactly why this was, and only after reading “Who’s Got the Monkey?” did I start to understand: I realized that, although the new employee was doing work on the database, at the end of the day, I still ultimately felt responsible for the quality of the database, and my team was continuing to treat me as the responsible person.

This seems like an obvious conclusion, but for some reason it had evaded me until the article laid out the ideas clearly in front of me. Once I identified this as the problem, the solution was fairly easy: as team members continued to come to me with questions about, or problems with, the database, I would direct them on to the new employee, rather than try to tackle the problem myself; I took a similar tactic for the problems that I identified with the database. Eventually, the team including the new employee, adapted to this new structure, and I now feel that the monkey for the database as a whole has be transferred to its proper owner. I continue to accept small database-related monkeys, but with this new format, I am less stressed, and the larger monkey that is the database itself, is finally getting the attention that it needs from our new employee.