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How will I know if I’m ready to be a nonprofit Executive Director/President/CEO? (Skill-Building and Competency Development)

Part Two of a Two Part Series


Todd Owens

By Todd Owens, with contributions from Suzanne T. Allen, Ph.D., Joan L. Benso, Caroline Boyce, Paul D. Daugherty, Anna Hollis and Vivien Luk

Part I of this blog series engaged the same inspirational leaders who responded below and asked them to answer this question – When did you know you were ready to be an Executive Director/President/CEO?

In our talent and leadership work, we regularly hear frustration from hopeful sector-switchers and those in middle management looking to make a move up on an organizational ladder. This frustration derives from trying to find outlets to build their nonprofit management and leadership skills to make themselves more qualified to lead. Large corporations often have robust and well-developed HR departments with strategies and resources to deal with attraction, retention, growth through stretch assignments, and identification of high-potentials and high-performers. Large nonprofits such as The Ohio State University, The Cleveland Clinic, and The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have the luxury of budgets which include people development strategies, and career growth opportunities. However, the nonprofit sector is predominantly populated by smaller nonprofits (budgets < $1M) with little to no resources devoted to skill building, and few if any opportunities to have a career path within the organization. This is where the often-heard saying “I had to move out, to move up” originates from.

So we asked our esteemed panel of executives the following question, and hope that you and your career path benefit from their responses:

How did you address the developmental areas where you needed to grow, and where did you find these resources?

Suzanne T. Allen, Ph.D., President & CEO, Philanthropy Ohio, Columbus, OH
Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 11.40.25 AMThere’s an old expression, “when the student is ready, a teacher will appear.” And it is absolutely true. I have advanced degrees in leadership and strategic planning. I’ve attended programs, lectures and courses about organizational culture and being a “good” leader. I’ve read so many books and articles on topics related to leadership, but that what we tend to do.

However, when I was ready, my teacher, or teachers, did appear. Many were the same articles and books I’d read, and the thoughts from the same programs, courses and lectures. But they now had a new context for me. The four most meaningful books continue to be:
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, by Jim Collins Leading Change, by John P. Kotter The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, by Shawn Achor The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, by David Whyte

Teachers appeared in other forms, too. Other leaders, good friends, board members and absolute strangers have all offered valuable advice. Perhaps the most profound came from another leader and I didn’t understand it at first. She said, “This is going to be loneliest job you’ve ever had. Call me.” I didn’t call at first, I was too overwhelmed to sense the loneliness, but she was right and I called.

I continue to find areas I need to pay attention to and I continue to reflect on how I need to grow. As John Maxwell said, “Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not. When I see a person beginning to separate themselves from the pack, it’s almost always due to personal growth.”

Joan L. Benso, President & CEO, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, Harrisburg, PA
joanI have relied very heavily throughout my career on board members. I have been blessed with board members who have been very generous with their time and willingness to help me problem solve and secure the resources I need to successfully lead an organization. I have also benefited enormously from very supportive foundations who not only provide financial resources but have made technical assistance available to me in a range of areas such as executive coaching, financial and strategic planning. Unfortunately, I think some non-profit leaders are hesitant to share places they struggle with their board or foundations. I think this is a missed opportunity. Board members and foundations supporters are deeply committed to your organization’s success, not being candid and turning to them in challenging times is a missed opportunity.

I have served in my current role for about 20 years and leading a statewide child advocacy organization is a bit different than other non-profits that I have worked in that provide direct service or are community-based. It has been a little harder to engage in a peer support group as my colleagues are primarily in other states but a network of colleagues who run similar organizations has also been an invaluable resource to help me effectively lead my organization.

Caroline Boyce, Executive Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia,
Philadelphia, PA
carolieLooking forward has meant a lifelong commitment to learning and implementing best practices. I have looked for, and found, tremendous mentors. I have spent time in the private sector and learned how entrepreneurs conduct business. I have pursued professional credentials with mandatory continuing education. Most importantly, I know what I am not good at, and I surround myself with the best talent I can find.

Paul D. Daugherty, Executive Director, Philanthropy West Virginia, Morgantown, WV
paulI have always believed in continual learning, professional/personal growth, and mentorship are kept components to any person’s success. If you don’t continue learning and evolving you become a part of the past. I have always been honest with myself as to my areas for growth/weaknesses and then seeking out identified training opportunities/classes/coaching/ mentors that helped me evolve.

Three key developmental areas that I need to grow were; understanding an overall organization’s financial processes, management, and revenue generation (diversification) to ensure being strong and vibrant. I have enlisted the counsel of CPAs, board members, my Regional Association of Grantmakers’ CEO colleagues from across the country, and those who have been successful in this area to determine ways to enhance my skills.

I also use my annual evaluation from the Board of Directors to identify other areas for improvement and development for learning and growing in the philanthropic sector. The philanthropic sector is a very supportive, mentor based and supportive environment to have mentors, grow, and become an even more effective leader and professional.

Anna Hollis, Executive Director, Amachi Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
annaBecause my background was in the for-profit sector, I needed to get acclimated to the non-profit world but with an eye for integrating best practices from both into the culture at Amachi Pittsburgh. The way that I addressed the developmental areas in which I needed to grow was by immersing myself into the nonprofit community and aligning myself with experienced leaders.

I began by joining a cohort of 12 senior leaders from various fields in a year-long leadership development experience through Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, called The Leaders Collaborative, and it was truly transformational for me on both a personal and professional level. I also served on boards to learn more about nonprofit operations, and received training and/or resources through organizations such as The Forbes Funds, The Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management, PACE and Social Venture Partners Pittsburgh.

In addition to local affiliations, I joined regional and national networks that were in alignment with our mission. To support ongoing growth and development for me as well as my organization, I thought it made sense to establish collaborations with other social service agencies that were sound in key areas (financially, culturally, programmatically, etc.), had a track record of success, carried out work complementary to that of Amachi Pittsburgh, and whose leadership, board and staff kept their fingers on the pulse of communities where vulnerable populations, such as children of the incarcerated, reside.

Vivien Luk, Executive Director, Team Tassy, Los Angeles, CA
vivienI learn by doing. So I spent the first year at Team Tassy meeting with the families we serve in Haiti, talking with our volunteers who were there before me, and learning from our partners. I then met with leaders from similarly minded organizations and found mentors who were able to answer questions and provide advice. From there, I mapped out our gaps and found the experts to fill them in by way of volunteers, board members, partners, and consultants. Everywhere we turn, good people with strong passion for our work and all kinds of expertise want to help so we put their expertise to work and engage them in meaningful ways. Beautiful things happen when you ask for help. I wouldn’t have been able to grow our organization from the ground up if I didn’t ask for help every step of the way.

From the Author
The individual responses in this article illustrate the challenges nonprofits and their boards face in developing leaders and addressing skill deficits. As you can see, the leadership and management trajectory of each individual in this article is unique. How did you address a skills gap or competency deficiency that might have existed when you become an Executive Director? We’d love to hear your contributions to this conversation. Join us on our blog, or on social media.

Did you miss Part I of this series? It can be found here –

An earlier, helpful blog post by my colleague Michelle Heck addressed the topic of engaging employees in your mission, and can be found here –

Todd Owens, Principal, Nonprofit Talent, can be reached at 412.512.3879 or

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