What is the best way to launch a new leadership role? Is there a “right way” to align your vision of the future with the organization's? In the nonprofit setting, is it really your vision?
I recently witnessed an unfortunate failure to align a new leader’s vision of the future with that of internal stakeholders who were already on board and actively working toward what they saw as the organization’s purpose in the community.
While the related events offered rich – if extremely difficult – lessons about leadership succession and group dynamics, I couldn’t help honing in on the vision- and mission-related aspects of what unfolded. The intersections and “lessons learned” from that case have clear applicability to the nonprofit setting.
Let me start by stating the obvious: there is no one, universal, perfect way to launch a new leadership role and the relationships that will facilitate or challenge its success. There is no one scenario facing all new executives; the challenges and opportunities are as varied as the number of organizations themselves. That said, I believe that some of the lessons I took away from this event may be of value (and, hopefully, obvious) to anyone beginning a new nonprofit leadership commitment.
One, listen. Your time to communicate, align, and advance your vision of the future will come. But don't start with a megaphone. Start with your ears. In the early days, people want reassurance that they share a common direction with their new leader and that their strengths and motivations will be valued as they move forward.
Ask stakeholders about their experiences, their motivations, their understandings of the organization's purpose. Then listen. Hear what they are saying. Seek understanding of the foundation upon which they are working, so you'll have a sense of where you're already aligned and where differences exist. Don't react immediately to those (perceived) differences. Rash decisions hurt, in sometimes devastating ways.
Two, understand that, in the end, your vision is not the vision - especially in a nonprofit setting. No, the vision of a better future ultimately belongs to the community (however your define "community"). Mobilizing all of the organization's resources in service to a better future for your community is your reason for being.
If you were hired, well, someone sees a good, basic fit - or a solid reason why a reboot is necessary. In an executive's ideal world, alignment is perfect and easy to accomplish. That's seldom how "real life" works. It's your job to work toward that perfect fit. But in the end, it's not "your" vision and mission. They belong to the organization and the community it serves.
Three, even if it's clear that a complete reboot is necessary, don't come charging in, demanding "my way or the highway." You will fail with such a scorched-earth approach to change. You can't do it alone. Your organization cannot do it alone. You cannot leave a trail of metaphorical bodies on entry without heavy and potentially lasting damage.
Always begin from a place of respect: Respect people's integrity, commitment, skills and knowledge. Communicate that respect, even/especially as you communicate the need to channel those gifts and commitments in new directions. If you convey, directly or indirectly, a lack of respect for their basic humanity and their contributions, you will lose them, their connections, expertise - and likely far more.
Four, recognize the critical importance of stakeholder ownership. If employees and other stakeholders can see common ground, if they can see a clear path for them to contribute to the future (even if there is a shift in direction), if you engage them in developing and owning that vision, they will help you succeed.
Most of us will not follow just 'cause. We need to see how the vision being promoted fits our own understanding of the organization's purpose. We need to see that we have a role in that vision. Resistance to change seldom is the problem itself. It's resistance to change for change's sake.
How does it fit?
How will it make things better, especially for those we serve?
How can I contribute effectively to this forward motion?
How will we know we're there - or moving there?
What does "success" look like?
How can we contribute to shaping this vision of the future? How can we own that vision? It's "Human Nature 101," folks.
Finally, keep it in perspective. Unless you're the founder, you're not the first to have a vision of the future for the organization. You probably won't be the last. You will succeed, and the organization will succeed, when you can create a common vision that benefits your community in the end when you spend your early days (and most of your time there) building that vision together.