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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!