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Effective nonprofit leadership most critical

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By Thomas J. Tierney

Many factors can affect an organization’s ability to grow successfully, but leadership is the most critical.

To become truly effective at leading a growing organization, leaders have to master three elements of their role — the “who thing,” the “do thing,” and the “you thing.”

The ‘who thing’                                  

To deliver results, nothing is more important than having the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

Leaders can’t go it alone; they need a team to support them. Leaders must share responsibility, accountability, and rewards with those on the team.

To master the “who thing,” leaders must build the organization ahead of its future needs. This means:

* Investing significant time and resources in people. Check in regularly with team members and key constituents.

* Building the capabilities and processes to both develop and recruit future leaders. Implement effective human resource processes, from performance management activities to recruiting practices.

* Dealing with mistakes, especially when there’s a mismatch between a person and a job.

The ‘do thing’
Once the right senior team is in place, the organization and its managers must be aligned around shared goals.

How individuals perform — that is, what they “do” — will drive the overall performance of the organization.

A leader must work to shape the behavior of the leadership team by:

* Setting and reinforcing high standards of excellence across all essential activities.

* Insuring that both formal feedback loops, such as performance reviews, and informal feedback loops, such as on-the-job coaching, exist to help people learn and improve their performance.

* Leading by influence rather than control. Nurture relationships of mutual trust and respect that enable the leader to motivate and persuade others, including board members and donors.

* Acting as a “culture carrier” who continuously models desired behaviors throughout the organization.

The ‘you thing’
Leaders must take care of themselves.

To avoid burning out, losing focus on the mission and goals, or otherwise underperforming, leaders should:

* Strive for continuous personal improvement. Have a trusted advisor or mentor; learn through feedback, coaching and training.

* Make conscious and disciplined tradeoffs in choosing where to allocate time. Say “no” to low-priority distractions; say “yes” to vacations, personal interests, exercise and other elements of a balanced life.

* Block out periodic time for personal reflection, recovery, and renewal. * * Stay attuned to one’s personal aspirations.

* Nurture natural strengths; identify and address significant vulnerabilities.

Attention to building strong, sustained, well-led nonprofits is essential to our communities and our country.

The best nonprofit leaders are institution builders: They deal with today’s challenges while building for tomorrow’s opportunities.


Thomas J. Tierney is chair and co-founder of the Bridgespan Group and Bridgestar.

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