Stepping up to leadership
Late last year, I made the decision to serve as a board chair for two different organizations at the same time. Your initial questions might be, “Why in the world would you do such a thing?” and, “Don’t you have a full-time job?” The answer to the second question is Yes, I’m gleefully, busily employed as Vice President of Communications for The Denver Foundation. The answer to the first question is a combination of timing and true love.
I am, in fact, deeply in love with both organizations. One is the Colorado Nonprofit Association, our state’s nonprofit trade association that works to lead, serve and strengthen the nonprofit sector. The other is the Communications Network, a national consortium of communications professionals that promotes the use of consistent, strategic communications as an integral part of effective philanthropy. I’m also enamored with my fellow board members in both cases–each board is a highly functioning group of professionals who work together ably and well. Finally, I respect and inherently trust the CEOs’ of these organizations, Renny Fagan’s and Bruce Trachtenberg’s, leadership and capabilities.
So it came down to timing. We don’t always get to choose the timing when leadership calls us. I’m writing here today hoping my experience this year and especially the learning opportunities it is bringing me will help you as you’re called to leadership in your own life.
There’s an old saying about how if you want something done, you should “ask a busy person.” Of course, like so many clichés, this carries a ring of truth. Busy people figure out how to accomplish their goals. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be called to action.
The challenge is that as leaders, we must be more than simply busy and productive–we must be highly effective. We must develop the skill to make decisions, delegate activities and parse out our time to serve the priorities that take precedence. My favorite tool on this front is the late Stephen Covey’s time management matrix: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MerrillCoveyMatrix.png . I spend a good deal of time considering how to spend the majority of my day in the “important, not urgent” quadrant.
For my two boards, I know I play key roles in governance and in support of the executive directors. At work, I am responsible for The Denver Foundation’s reputation in the community and for its proactive efforts to share its story with those who can help it take action. I should spend my time in ways that support these most important of priorities. When the constant barrage of everyday urgencies so easily pulls me from my focus, I take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to assess how I’ve been successful in sticking to my priorities. I find this focus helps me generally respond calmly and evenly in the midst of multiple demands on my time.
When I first came to work at The Denver Foundation, our president told me most things on his calendar were negotiable, but if something had to do with his kids, it was sacrosanct. I was delighted to hear this. The truth is that while I love the Association, the Network and the Foundation, I love my husband and son most of all. I also love to hike in the mountains, train for triathlons, write and spend time with my friends. When I’m not able to preserve the balance of exercise, social time, family and work, I become increasingly depleted.
So I balance my dedication to my professional life with the critical needs of my personal life. Our society gives kudos to the workaholic, but more often I find effective and dynamic leaders are those who have mastered the art of balance, and I strive to follow their example.
Priority-setting and balance are certainly important, but they are related to personal choices I make about my own time and activities. By far the most important lesson I’ve learned about leadership is that I’m never the most important person in the room. We all are. What does this mean? It means leadership has nothing to do with standing at the head of the class. It is entirely about understanding how the group around you is operating, how the people within that group interact and how to help each person do his/her very best work together. Often this means stepping back and out of the way.
This type of leadership requires the discipline of reflection and intuition: we have to pay attention to the people around us and key in to what motivates them. As hard as it is to do this in a large group, such as a board of directors, it is even more difficult to motivate people when you don’t spend the time to understand the needs of the individuals and what serves the group as a whole. At the same time, people are counting on you to make decisions, motivate consensus, call for votes when needed and move things along. The art of leadership includes balancing the need for action with a keen respect for the gifts of time every board member brings to the table or every colleague brings to the office.
I’m only six months into this experiment of leading multiple boards while juggling an active home life and a demanding job. While the practices I’ve shared here have kept me sane so far, I imagine I’ll have much more to share in February of 2014 when I hand the reins of the Nonprofit Association Board over to my successor. In the meantime, I’m always looking for ideas and suggestions that will help me do better…I hope you’ll share what works for you.