Professional coaches help nonprofit leaders chart course for success

Editor’s Note: See the related article about how ACCES creates an off-site training opportunity that helps busy nonprofit leaders develop practical solutions for agency-based concerns.

By Jill Warren Lucas

Perry Ecton was starting to feel like one of those acrobats who amaze audiences by keeping multiple plates spinning overhead as they tumble from one challenge to the next.

The problem was, he wasn’t feeling especially confident about his performance. 

“With Habitat, you are running seven or eight businesses at once,” says Ecton, executive director of Habitat for Humanity International‘s affiliate in Broward County, Fla. “You are a construction company, a mortgage company, a retail operation, a social counselor and so much more. You do have to keep everything working simultaneously.”

The trick to balancing multiple operations simultaneously came as a bit of a surprise to Ecton. During his participation in ACCES, the do-it-all manager learned to place his trust in an executive coach.

“To have someone as a one-on-one sounding board – to vent, to say things out loud and get feedback – was so beneficial,” says Ecton, adding that coaching created opportunities to discuss matters he could not bring to his board or staff. “It was difficult at first to feel that level of trust to discuss confidential topics, but it was so constructive. I really believe that it is critical for the sanity of a good director.”

Ecton was part of the inaugural ACCES class in 2011/12. The leadership program was developed for Habitat executives by the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University with design input and support from Habitat for Humanity International. The program, which combines on-site and online learning, will be offered to a new cohort of executives beginning in September.

Leslie Merriam
Leslie Merriam

Leslie Merriman, executive director of the Newnan-Coweta Habitat affiliate in Georgia, described the experience of working with a professional coach though ACCES as “priceless.”

“We EDs have so much on our plate. It can be hard to sort through what is the priority and where we need to focus – while fighting the anxiety of being overwhelmed,” she says.  “Having a professional to discuss this with, who is removed from the day-to-day jobs, provides us with important feedback.”

Merriman found the experience so valuable that she continues to seek counsel from her same coach, Judith Holder-Cooper, director of Duke University’s Professional and Personal Development Programs and an assistant professor at Duke’s Medical Center.

“With the longevity of the relationship, she has gotten to know the players involved, which is very helpful,” Merriman says. “She is sensitive but direct – and, importantly, unbiased. She always looks for the value of the challenge and how we can improve on the knowledge that is right in front of us. We sometimes can’t see it because there is so much noise.”

While she never worked with a coach before ACCES, Merriman previously owned an executive development company for professional women and provided similar mentoring to clients. 

“It’s easier to be the teacher,” she says with a laugh. “It can be hard to change work habits, but I’ve learned ways to conserve my energy for the truly important things, to delegate efficiently and to convey urgent matters to our personnel without petrifying everyone. It was really about how do I change my mindset to save my energy so I can direct it to where it is most needed.”

Holder-Cooper says it’s not unusual for top executives to need external help to stay focused on mission critical goals. Many also need help balancing their work and home lives, particularly in establishing boundaries for personal and family time.

“A lot of executives, especially those who manage many roles, don’t have a lot of people they can talk to,” Holder-Cooper says. “It becomes a helpful way for them to talk about important things in a protected and secure environment. It helps them to think in a different way, even to ask questions in a different way.”

Being able and open to view challenges from different vantage points, and to articulate them, is essential to building buy-in for tough decisions.

“What might be creating a closed box instead of an open box is all about how you approach something,” Holder-Cooper says. “That is something the executive has control over. They don’t always have good control of their staff or their board, but ultimately, they are in charge of making the best decisions for the right reasons.”

Lou Raye Nichol of Business Coach Institute in Raleigh served as Perry Ecton’s ACCES coach.

“One piece of this, and it sounds so simple, is just taking the time to think about what you are doing,” Nichol says. “People are so involved in action that the thinking time often is left out. Clarity is a thing a coach really brings.”

Before creating the consulting business with her husband, Nichol directed a nonprofit in Great Britain and later ran Leadership Triangle. “I always say, if you can be successful in leading volunteers, with all their different motivations, you can lead anybody,” she says. “The whole piece about pulling in the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers, drawing on that, is a really important skill for people in the nonprofit world.”

Coaches are especially valuable in helping nonprofit executives in navigating the politics of their community. It is vital to develop an appreciation for who knows who and why some people have a say in your operation.

“You can’t necessarily change a climate, but you can adjust to it,” Nichol says. “It all goes back to helping people stay focused and on track. The work of Habitat is so diverse that it’s easy to get sidetracked. Keeping that focus on where they are going and what they want to accomplish at work also helps them to be personally centered.”

Getting centered can be a drain on a nonprofit’s budget. According to the International Coach Federation, which provides credentialing, fees vary greatly depending on the experience of the coach, the desired services and location. However, professional coaching fees for managers and executives typically range from $240 to $350 per hour.

“Professional coaching is not cheap. But for the value, I really felt like the return was there,” says Merriman. “Our budget is the tightest it’s ever been. I didn’t know if I could convince the board or justify spending this much money on me, because I want to give people raises. But the answer is, heck yeah. It’s saved me so many times.”

Perry Ecton is not currently working with a coach because he’s still making good use of the tools gained through ACCES. He is starting to feel the itch, though, and anticipates reconnecting within the next six months.

Perry Ecton confers with his ACCES coach Lou Raye Nichol during the inaugural program.

“The ability to have the conversation, once a week or once a month – to get things off my chest and get some feedback – is great,” he says. “I’ve got one of my team members using a coach right now. If you’re ready to be open to new ways of doing things, and willing to trust your coach enough to be really honest, you’ll be amazed at all the opportunities you have for real growth.”


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