How to Build Collaborative Leadership Skills at Your Growing Nonprofit

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Mission driven nonprofit leadership encourages collaboration amongst your team and helps you avoid the pitfalls of for-profit management. Here's the process for how to encourage a collaborative leadership culture.

Nonprofit leadership is struggling. More than 80 percent of nonprofits have management issues, and only 11 percent are prepared for growth. That’s why leadership development is so important.

The problem is an old, hierarchical approach to leadership—one adopted from the for-profit sector. This top-down leadership style is based on one person controlling direct reports, but it’s no longer effective.

It’s time to move to a mission-driven nonprofit leadership approach that creates engagement, encourages commitment, and isn’t based on control or even authority. This leadership style is collaborative and involves a role reversal between leaders and team members: teams make most of the decisions, and leaders facilitate those teams so they make the best decisions possible.

In this situation, teams take ownership of their outcomes: their goals and metrics. But to make this happen, leaders and nonleaders alike must know how to build high-performing teams. The result is more egalitarian, engaged teams that accomplish their goals.

Why Is Leadership Development Important for Nonprofits?

Nonprofits have an opportunity to offer a distinctly different work environment than their for-profit counterparts. For-profit cultures are often based on competition and power-based models, but nonprofit management and leadership don’t need to mimic that. Nonprofits can shift to a cooperative power model that offers a culture of success instead of one of failure.

Why is leadership development important? Culture is critical in nonprofits. In a culture of success, people are engaged and actively learning and experimenting. They are set up to succeed, but they feel challenged, motivated, and supported. And they produce—because being productive feels good, and working with others to achieve something that feels important is deeply satisfying. That’s the mark of a successful (and growing) nonprofit organization.

Employees don’t want to be motivated; they want nonprofit leaders to engage them in meaningful tasks while allowing them to experience growth. That doesn’t happen with the old directive-style leadership. When leaders have the skills to create high-performing teams regardless of the individual members, then they really have something.

In a collaborative environment, leadership needs to promote collaborative skills: facilitation, coaching, mentoring, influencing, negotiating, selling, etc. You’ll notice ideas such as delegating, budgeting, organizing, motivating, and evaluating are not on the list—that’s because those skills have value in the old hierarchical operating system. Leaders need to be able to get things done without authority or any attempts to control other people.

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How to Empower Others to Lead Through Collaboration

Shifting to a culture of success begins at the top, with managing directors and their direct reports. They need to shift out of the hierarchical way of leading and learn to lead collaboratively. These three strategies will help you move from directive to collaborative leadership.

1. Set a goal for creating a culture of success

What makes growing a nonprofit organization possible? A strong vision of the organization, a solid business plan (or strategic plan),  and a culture of success to fulfill that vision. This will require reflecting on your existing culture.

Culture is critical to the success of nonprofits, so be brutally honest about the gap between what is and what should be. Once you’ve taken stock of the situation, make sure your leadership development efforts support a culture of success rather than one of failure.

Do your employees feel that they’re set up to be successful, or do they feel defeated before they even start? Is it acceptable for team members to turn down additional work? Are most initiatives you start successes or failures?

Come up with a strategy for shifting the organization so you can reach your vision. Just as you create a strategy for achieving your mission through your strategic plan, you need a plan for how the team members are going to support each other in working toward these goals. It might help to complete a vision session that explores how you want the organization to operate, using the approach described in my next point.

2. Train leaders to practice collaborative leadership

Nonprofit management and leadership personnel are accountable for the organization and are key models for leadership behavior, so change must begin with them—it’s why leadership development is important.

To create a culture of success, leaders need to learn how to govern collaboratively. Many people think collaboration means collecting inputs, making a decision, and then sharing that decision with direct reports. In reality, collaboration is quite different. It’s about getting all stakeholders to make a decision together, transferring the decision-making responsibilities from the leader to the team.

To do this, teams need a methodology—a set of collaborative tools, such as running through a multistep process to reach the best solution. I once trained NASA employees who were working on the Mars Exploration Program on the art of collaborative decision-making. As part of the training, six different groups used the same framework to approach a complicated decision. By the end of the exercise, each of the groups had reached the same conclusion.

Provide training to your leadership on how to use these tools to solve problems. They need to engage with those tools on an ongoing basis until this new way of solving problems or creating plans becomes a habit. Once that happens, this approach will be embedded in “how we do things around here.”

Be transparent about your goals and how you’re progressing; make sure everyone on your team understands the problem to solve, and also has the space to apply their own expertise to the business of how to get the work done. 

If you don’t have a budget for in-person training on developing collaborative practices, combine self-guided programs with virtual coaching. Once your leadership team has put this into practice, you can move on to the next step.

3. Train your team members

Once your nonprofit management and leadership team members demonstrate competence in collaborative leadership skills, then it’s time to develop leadership skills in employees.

Your training should focus on the kind of skills that make people great team members: making collaborative decisions, communicating clearly, solving problems collaboratively, and creating project or initiative plans together. You’ll also want to devote time to the skills and behaviors associated with being a productive team member, such as being able to work with others in a collaborative environment.

Because team members will be making key decisions and coordinating plans for any initiatives you launch, they should also learn how to use the collaborative tools you’ve trained your leadership team members to facilitate.

Note that you can’t teach people to collaborate by having them complete modules on laptops, though. Your team members need to practice the art of collaboration with each other. You’ll want to find training tools and partners that support collaborative leadership styles. Continue using those tools to approach collaborative decision-making until it becomes routine.

Being able to answer “Why is leadership development important?” is key for nonprofits, but you also need to make efforts to move toward genuine collaborative leadership. Develop a sound strategy and take steps to conduct nonprofit leadership training. After your leaders are fully trained, you’ll be ready to develop leadership skills in employees. Once everyone is comfortable using those skills, you’ll be ready to benefit from a much more collaborative and productive culture.

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