Laughter and self-care have been an important part of my daily routine during this pandemic. And nothing lifts up my mood like 30-mins of Mr. Bean adventures. Mr. Bean is a legendary series of skits by British comic Rowan Atkins. In one episode, Mr. Bean goes to the local pool. He struts around to the diving board and confidently climbs to the very highest one. As he starts walking towards the end of it the height of it finally gets to him and he panics. He tries to go back but is confronted by two naughty children and so as not to show weakness he clumsily drops off the diving board in a most ungraceful flop.
You might wonder by now, what Mr. Bean has to do with leadership: Getting your first leadership role is a lot like his diving experience. We are often convinced we would make great leaders, and sometimes we can even be a bit overconfident. And once we get up there, the gravity of the role dawns on us, there is no easy way back and of course there are always detractors even if they only live in our heads. In my role as a talent recruiter in the nonprofit sector, my mission is to uncover emerging leaders. It is often not about specific experience on a resume (i.e. managed $5M budget or had 10 direct reports), but rather about self-awareness and the ability to reflect on these experiences.
So, here are some strategies and considerations for taking the plunge into your first leadership role.
Many would describe getting promoted into a leadership role as a jump, a step-up or a leap, but to me it really is a plunge or a dive. A dive can be exhilarating and also a little bit scary and requires firm belief that the pool is deep enough. When you move into a leadership role, you take a fair bit risk, it is a natural transition and shift of skill sets. Early in our career we are promoted for our expertise in a narrow, special field. Later we get promoted for our ability to manage those with expertise in the same narrow, special field. When it comes to senior leadership roles – we are promoted to lead entire teams, with expertise in fields we know little about. The skills needed to succeed are not about teaching and mentoring others. This new skill set is about empowering, and inspiring others. From a performance management perspective, up until this point, we are used to focusing on delivering for our bosses and are also used to having employees deliver for us. In senior leadership roles, the number of people to which we need to deliver grows tremendously to include boards, other senior leaders, and our staff. And naturally, this diverse group of stakeholders can have quite different ideas of what it takes to deliver for them.
Additionally, senior leadership roles can be very lonely. By the nature of the roles, there are not many inside the organization that serve as a sounding board, confidant, or a mentor. It also feels a little bit like you live in a fishbowl as your every move is observed and carefully analyzed by others.
So how does one prepare for a new set of skills, expanded amount of stakeholders, and a much smaller support network?
1. Know thyself: Do the heavy lifting of really understanding your strengths and your values.
We are often focused on professional development opportunities early in our career as we try to learn new skills and deepen our knowledge. Later in our career, a greater self-awareness is much more beneficial. Dedicating time and resources to better understand what drives you, what are your values and how they match with different organizations is critical. Some of this work can be done by working with a leadership coach, for example.
2. Become comfortable with ambiguity and lack of control.
It seems counter intuitive that the more senior the role the less control one has, and the more ambiguous things become. It is not that senior leaders do not possess power, it is just that it is split among million different things (and people). Beyond lack of control there’s also increased ambiguity and uncertainty. The global pandemic has been a great leadership experiment to see how different leaders cope with this unprecedented amount of uncertainty.
3. Build your own support network beyond your colleagues.
Easier set than done, yet so important! Take the time to build a network of peers who are walking down the same path. They do not necessarily need to be in the same industry, because leadership challenges transcend the nonprofit world, for example. Many professional organizations and leadership training programs also offer formal networking opportunities with peers.
4. Become an open book.
Integrity and transparency are some of the most important (and admired) leadership qualities. To master them, you must become comfortable with giving (and receiving) honest feedback, being vulnerable and admitting when you do not know it all. Our workplaces are becoming increasingly less hierarchical and staff are encouraged to speak up and challenge their leaders more so than previous generations.
5. Bring your whole self to work and accept others as full beings as well.
As much as we would like to think of ourselves as logical beings, the reality is that humans are very much guided by emotions. It is impossible to separate our feelings (conscious or subconscious) from our thoughts. This does not mean that it is a drawback, but we need to be aware and take it into consideration. The same goes for our staff and colleagues, emotions play a big role in who we are at work.
The nonprofit sector is experiencing a talent shortage for senior leadership roles. Moreover, the demands of these roles are greater than ever before, as our industry becomes increasingly more professionalized and complex. There will be great opportunities for career advancement in the near future. We need to put in the work now to prepare ourselves for them.
Mariya Yurukova, MBA, CFRE is the President and CEO of Charity Search Group, a talent recruiting firm exclusively dedicated to the nonprofit sector. With over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she has raised over $20 million for leading institutions. She’s always interested in connecting with current and emerging nonprofit leaders to discuss talent trends in the sector. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org