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Nonprofit EDs: We all need a Yoda

by Jennifer Hutchins

Are your goals all set for 2020? Wondering how you’ll stick to them? All too frequently, nonprofit leaders have very high expectations for personal productivity and performance, yet don’t consider asking (i.e. paying) for help due to the constant pressure to spend every, last dollar on direct impact.

Yet, we know from our peers in the corporate sector that investing in existing assets–leadership talent–regularly pays off in the long run. Gone are the days when executive coaches are brought in to fix a crisis or correct deficits. Executive coaching for nonprofit leaders can be an effective, targeted investment that leverages an organization’s talent toward greater good in the community. Here are some specific ways that Maine nonprofit leaders have benefited from coaching:

What would Luke do without Yoda?

The role of a nonprofit executive is unique and sometimes isolated. Discussing challenging issues or evaluating new opportunities with staff, board or peers is often complicated by competing roles and relationships. “A great executive leadership coach is equal parts mirror, sounding board, and thought partner. They challenge and support in ways that others can’t,” said Aimee Petrin, Artistic & Executive Director, Portland Ovations. Amidst a cacophony of competing demands, an executive coach can help a nonprofit leader, who is already very effective, further target their energy and talent on what’s most impactful.

…and Peter Pan without his Shadow?

We often forget about our own shadows in the nonprofit world where time for reflection is sometimes not just overlooked, but judged a waste of time. “Coaching has helped me to slow down and focus on presence over productivity and relationships over rushing around,” said one nonprofit coaching client. “With reflection, I have realized that some of my blind spots stem from overuse of signature strengths and that better balance is possible. Having a trusted relationship with a coach is time well spent prioritizing what matters most in both life and work.” Leadership burnout is a real risk that nonprofit boards need to consider as they support the executive director. Hiring an executive coach can be a way to demonstrate how much the board values their executive staff and wants them to be healthy and successful.

… and the Trees without the Forest?

With pressing day-to-day demands in nonprofit work, it’s often difficult to carve out enough time to take the 30,000-foot view of an organization’s role in the community. Time with an executive coach can ensure that leaders take a step back and view the organization from a new perspective, perhaps more objectively. “I’ve found coaching to be a great opportunity to discuss concepts, strategies, and leadership styles without any biases or prejudices that may otherwise exist and skew discussions, affording the ability to see the organization with a different view,” said Kristin Overton, Chief Operating Officer, Spectrum Generations.

I can attest to the value of executive coaching from personal experience as well:

  • MANP’s Leadership Institute for Executive Directors—of which I’ve been both a participant and a facilitator—includes follow-up coaching from lead facilitator Bob Wright on leadership development goals identified during the program. Participants also get tips on bringing a coaching philosophy to their own management. (Applications for our  2020 Leadership Institute in June will open later this month!)
  • More recently, I engaged the support of an executive coach from Starboard Leadership Consulting to help me stay focused on goals that were critical to the organization but were just outside my comfort zone in terms of skill and experience. A trusted, external advisor was invaluable in considering different strategies without getting bogged down, and keeping me accountable.

To Find a Coach

  • Reflect on your specific goals and timeframe. This will not only help you find the right coach, but make a compelling case to your board and measure your progress.
  • Visit MANP’s business and consultant directory and use the Advanced Search to find someone offering executive coaching in your area.
  • Ask your colleagues for references. More people than you realize have experience with an executive coach.
  • Interview potential coaches. There is no one person who is the right fit for every person or every situation! Trust your instincts on who will both challenge and champion you.

And, a final note to board members! Executive coaching can be a useful, effective strategy for advancing the organization’s mission by investing in the growth, health and well-being of your organization’s most valuable asset—your talent.

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