The Dilemma For a Nonprofit Leader

As a nonprofit executive leader, you only have so much time to spend mentoring others. But it can be difficult to figure out who to invest in.

Wouldn’t you like to have a reliable way to identify someone with leadership potential? Someone you can invest your time and expertise in with the confidence that he or she will thrive?

Well, obviously there are no guarantees. People’s lives have a way of playing out in their own way. But there are some ways to increase the odds of making a good investment.

An  Unexpected Beginning

Recently, I was thinking back on my own leadership journey and the people who saw potential in me when I had no clue. I’d like to share a little of that story and then offer some thoughts about what qualities I look for. I hope it stimulates some reflection on your part.

My leadership journey began in an unexpected way. As a college student, I needed to earn some money. I took a job as a cocktail waitress in a place that could only be described as a dive. It wasn’t a great place to work and I was eager to find another job. I saw a flyer inviting students to apply as interns at a state institution for people with disabilities. I thought it would be a step up so I applied and was accepted.

My early experience working in that institution was a huge eye opener for me about the conditions of life for people who’d been sent there. At 20 years old, I was at the height of my passion for social justice, and I became committed to helping people get out of those kinds of places. As soon as I graduated from college, I began working with families of people with disabilities whose sons and daughters lived at home. That was the beginning of my leadership journey.

This was early in the deinstitutionalization movement for people with disabilities. The work had to do with helping people get out of institutions so they could live in their own homes and communities. It was exciting and motivating to be a part of an emerging social movement.

Not long after graduating from college, at 24 years old, I was approached by one of the local state agency leaders. He asked me if I wanted to start a residential agency that would serve four young women living at the institution where I’d interned. Since I knew what the conditions were like, I agreed to take on the challenge even though I didn’t know the first thing about leadership.

It’s still mindboggling when I think about it. The state helped me stand up a nonprofit, we were awarded a contract for $250K, and we created an agency from scratch. I still didn’t really know anything about leadership but I was willing to learn. And I had a lot of mentors.

People saw something in me that I was not aware of. They trusted me with resources and, more importantly, people’s lives. I never would have considered taking on that kind of responsibility if I hadn’t been encouraged. Being on the receiving end of someone who saw my potential made me very aware of how powerful that could be.

The Secret to Spotting Leadership Potential

I encourage you to spend some time thinking about what you look for. That’s my #1 secret to spotting leadership potential. What do you admire in your mentors? What caused you to invest in mentoring someone? What are the qualities you’re proud of in yourself? If you’re going to invest in another person’s development, you need to be clear about what reveals leadership potential to you.

While your list may not be identical to mine, these are some of the qualities I put a high value on:

Passion, enthusiasm and commitment to improving the lives of others.

Given that I’ve worked with leaders in a lot of industries, I’m not suggesting that a passion for social justice is the only way for this to play out. But I look for people with an open heart, who want to help others thrive.

Someone who can envision possibilities that don’t currently exist, and the courage and initiative to venture into uncharted territory

At times, this might translate into foolhardiness, sort of, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” But when it’s paired with the next quality, it can be a powerful combination for innovative leadership.

Willingness to learn and take guidance from others, humility

In my early years, this was a weak area for me. I wasn’t always receptive to the influence of my mentors. Maybe that goes with the territory for leaders early in their careers. Looking back, I can see what a brat I must have been and how patient my mentors were with me.

Conscientiousness, reliability, follow-through

Although these qualities don’t sound “sexy,” they are essential to getting results and becoming the kind of leader others have confidence in. All the vision in the world isn’t going to make a difference if the follow through isn’t there.

Desire and willingness to collaborate with others

I look for people with the inclination to work with others and the willingness to develop the skills that support their success. I subscribe to a description of leadership as, “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” put forward by Joseph Rost in his book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century.

What does your list look like?

P.s. If you’re interested in other perspectives, here’s a great list that overlaps with mine.

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Deborah Reidy
Deborah Reidy is founder and president of Reidy Associates, a coaching and consulting service established in 1996. Reidy Associates works with nonprofit, government and industry leaders to help them create cultures that encourage inspiration, accountability and results. She holds a MEd in Adult Education and a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation. In 2012, she published a book on leadership for families of people with disabilities entitled Why Not Lead?, based on her highly successful leadership development programs. She also blogs regularly on leadership topics. Deborah and her husband Jim live in Southampton and Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. She’s launching an online leadership development site called Grow to Lead in the fall of 2020. For more information, check out her website or find her on Linkedin.