The telephone conversation with the young professional (YP) went something like this:
YP: Help! I’m working seventy hours a week trying to do the work of four people. What do I do?
Me: Why are you doing the work of four people? I thought you just got a promotion?
YP: I did, but two people left, so now I’m supposed to do my old job, my new job and their jobs, too.
Me: What did your supervisor say when you asked how you were supposed to allocate your time?
YP: She said I should just do the best I can.
Me (not out loud, but thinking to myself): That’s crazy. What leader would say that to an overworked employee?
My next two questions and the answers I got were very revealing about the leadership style (or, should I say, lack of leadership style) of her supervisor.
Me: What time did you get home last night from work?
YP: 9 p.m.
Me: What time did your supervisor leave work?
YP: 6 p.m.
That conversation got me to thinking about the realities of nonprofit workplace leadership.
How Good a Leader You Are?
If I asked you to rate yourself on how good a leader you are, your first thought might be to answer the question in relationship to the board of directors and within the community. You might rightly score yourself as a good or even a great leader. Fantastic.
But I wonder if your staff (and volunteers) would rate you the same? Don’t get me wrong. I know from experience the reality of the sometimes overwhelming day-to-day workloads of nonprofit employees and executive directors. Not only do you work long hours, but due to budget constraints I’m sure your organization is understaffed and the staff underpaid. Staff leadership a la Peter Drucker or any other leadership guru may not be the highest thing on your to-do list.
So, are you a staff leader, coach, mentor, or dictator? To answer that question myself, I took classes on leadership. I took classes on mentoring and coaching. I didn’t need to take classes on dictatorship since I’d already had several bosses like that (thank you very much) and I wasn’t going to go there. But the classes I took just didn’t cut it when it came to the practical, day-to-day work with employees. I had to figure it out myself by attending the School of Hard Knocks and giving myself a life-experience degree in mentor-coaching-leadership.
My Employees Responded Much Better to a Combination Approach: “ComeLead”
I eventually found that my employees responded much better to a combination coaching-mentoring-leadership type of supervision, or what I later coined as my ComeLead approach (Coaching, Mentoring, Leadership, which I’ll describe in some detail in Part 2), than any one of the touted models I studied. And I didn’t even come to call it that until several years after I left the nonprofit sector as a CEO and became a consultant and writer.
Let me explain how I eventually came to that conclusion. At least once a year I volunteer to do executive coaching for an up and coming young professional. When I first started doing this several years ago, I did some preparation research and found this definition from an earlier edition of The Executive Coaching Handbook:
Executive coaching is a leadership development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short- and long-term goals. It is conducted through one-on-one and/or group interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect. The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum impact.
I distinctly remember sitting back in my chair when I read that, thinking to myself, “Now this makes more sense than anything I’ve read anywhere on staff supervision.”
I started developing the concept, adapting principles from coaching, mentoring, and everything I’d studied on leadership. The result is a kind of hybrid one-year program that has proven effective in my work with young nonprofit professionals. It is basically the same approach I had started developing around staff supervision in my last nonprofit.
I’ll dive into my ComeLead approach in Part 2.