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Six Best Practices to Develop Your Leadership Skills in the Nonprofit Sector

Monday, February 26, 2018
The Standards
Human Resources
Denise Baker
Hand holding a compass, pointed over river towards sunset

Becoming a great leader takes time, mentoring, and professional development opportunities. But are we making the time? Or the investment?

We are at a turning point in the nonprofit sector. Executive directors will be retiring at an increasing rate. The sector is competing with the private sector to hire talented young professionals. Significant changes to giving and funding trends, and the pressure to collaborate and innovate, will change how we achieve our missions. It is a critical time to foster strong leadership in our sector.  So how are we to build strong, sustained leadership that will lead into the future?

It starts with investing in our teams and ourselves. Leadership development - at all levels -  is a journey of many lessons and activities. Here are six professional development activities that lift the capacity of new and seasoned leaders. 

1. Build self-awareness

Successful leadership starts with self-awareness – to have a concrete knowledge of your own character, strengths, motivations, values, and the effect that you have on others. Self-awareness allows you to focus your time and energies on what you do best and thus improve your performance.

When you have a deep understanding of what motivates you and what your unique abilities are, you can be more intentional about where you can add the most value to your organization, or what next role you might want to explore.

Conversely, being aware of what you are not great at enables you to bring people onto your team who excel in those areas, which not only supports you, but also gives them the opportunity to engage their strengths. 

Raising your level of self-awareness will make a dramatic difference to the results you achieve. So, what’s your first step? There are many good self-assessments available; one I particularly like is StrengthsFinder. Another, which Imagine Canada uses, is the Predictive Index. Ask for specific feedback from people on your team, your manager, your board, and people in your network. You can also evaluate which activities you are the most enthusiastic about – these are likely your strengths. Where possible be intentional about incorporating them into your day.

2. Peer support and grow your network

Personally, I believe that one of the most important professional development tools is a healthy and diverse network. I know that the concept of networking can have a negative connotation, but having a community of people who care about your success brings many benefits, not just to you, but to everyone in your network.  

Networking is about building relationships – sharing your knowledge, time, energy, and connections. A diverse network allows you to learn from and about other people. Looking for some support on a thorny issue? Your network can help. Looking for a hiring recommendation? Again, your network can help. And be generous when it comes to your network - give more than you get.

Be proactive about meeting people from different sub-sectors and corporate organizations. Ask for coffee dates and learn more about a person’s career, leadership journey, and how they tackle big projects. Be active on LinkedIn by reaching out and making connection requests (always include a note about why you are connecting!), posting a blog, or sharing an article.

3. Engage a mentor or a coach

Mentoring relationships have the most profound and lasting impact on leadership development; in fact, 97% of leaders attribute some of their success to a mentor.

A mentor can contribute to your professional and personal development and will help you improve:

  • Self-awareness: A mentor can help you uncover strengths and passions that you may not be able to see yourself. A mentor can see what you are missing and show you new ways to think.
  • Skills: A mentor can teach you new approaches and support you to increase your efficiency and ability.
  • Confidence: A mentor will provide support, advice, encouragement, and inspiration, which will contribute to your self-confidence.
  • Leadership: A mentor will share their experiences and knowledge about leadership and managing people.

To find a mentor, look for someone who has been where you want to go, or someone you already have a relationship with. Most people will be honoured to give back to the next generation of leaders and be grateful to be asked.

Engaging a coach can also accelerate your leadership journey. Coaching is different than mentoring in that the relationship is often shorter term, and more grounded in areas for development or specific, immediate goals. You can either hire a coach or find a volunteer coach.

4. Formal training

Formal classroom and online training is of course an obvious option. But don’t default by taking a course to improve a ‘weak’ area. Consider instead taking a course on something that you are already good at (think of your strengths) – the lift you get will be exponential. Or take a course that will give you a different insight or perspective into your work.

Leadership development is an iterative process, so continually learning new skills is crucial. Impactful topics include leading teams, giving and receiving feedback, having difficult conversations, leading change, employee engagement, and anything related to board governance.

5. Speaking and presentation opportunities

Honing your public speaking skills is a great leadership development practice. Successful leaders can impactfully communicate their ideas, their organization’s story, and be able influence and motivate others.  

You may have an upcoming public speaking engagement, be giving a presentation to your colleagues, or putting forward an idea in a meeting. Speaking up requires confidence and the ability to clearly communicate your message. These skills will help you inspire participation and action, enhancing your leadership impact.

Take advantage of every opportunity to speak in front of a group and take the time to prepare and practice. Toastmasters is a great organization to get involved in.

6. Special assignments and volunteering

Another way to develop your leadership potential is to take on stretch assignments or volunteer outside of your current role. By taking on new responsibilities, you will grow your skill base and make your talents visible. As well, volunteering offers incredible networking opportunities. Remember how important your network is to you and your career. Serving on a volunteer committee or board will expose you to group dynamics and teamwork. You will also learn about strategic planning, budgeting and finances, decision-making, and fund development. Managing a group of volunteers will give you supervisory skills that you may not get in your current job, a great asset for moving to another level in your career.

Leadership matters to the improved performance of our organizations and to the sustainability of the nonprofit sector - so it is critical that we take the time to invest in professional development for the people in our organizations and ourselves.

Learn about how Imagine Canada’s Standards Program can enhance your organization’s leadership and connect with Vantage Point for professional development opportunities.

 

About the Author

Denise Baker

Denise Baker is the Executive Director of Vantage Point, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit that delivers foundational, advanced and custom learning opportunities focused on governance, leadership, planning and people engagement. She has created high performance teams and organizations in a career that has spanned international for-profit, higher education, and not-for-profit. Denise is a skilled facilitator, leading discussions on topics related to board governance, leadership, women in leadership, strategic planning, and mentoring.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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