My Leadership Approach Was Failing. So I Changed It.
I was part of a leadership success story that Stephen Nill has invited me to share. I am sure he expected me to write about how I was able to help lead my organization to new and improved levels of community outreach, solidify relations with organizations such as the United Way, more successfully diversify funding, and develop new partnerships and increased capacity – resulting in millions in funding from federally recognized agencies including CDC and SAMHSA.
It’s true; I helped to accomplish all these things. But first, let me admit to him, and to you, something that was quite painful: I very nearly failed right from the start.
Several years ago, I stepped into the role of department director of a local community-based AIDS service organization.
I had previously worked for a major university and had become adept at creating community partnerships to attract and securing funding. As you can imagine, I found the transition from the university to the much smaller organization a challenge. There I was, not quite thirty years old, being asked to lead a department of people. Some had been working inside of the department for years before my arrival, had competed for my new job, had their own ideas regarding how the department should be run, and were older than me.
With some effort, I managed to suppress my initial feeling of intimidation and proceeded to do the work that I was hired to do.
My duties as department director required me to organize my department, manage and supervise my staff, build new and maintain old community partnerships, plan and implement programs to better serve our priority populations, and , oh… find the money to do it with!
My Big Mistake: Trying to Control Every Action and Activity
I started off on the wrong foot. Because I can sometimes be a perfectionist, and I subconsciously felt a need to prove to my staff that I was up to the challenge, I refused to delegate. I wanted complete control over every action and activity. I developed a vision — my vision — for the department and insisted that my way to approach the organization’s mission was the only “correct” way to grow a successful and sustainable department.
Fortunately for me, I was less than a month in before I started to understand that it was completely impossible for me to run the department as a “one-woman show.” I was overwhelmed and frustrated by trying to do it alone.
My Solution: Create a Power Team
At that point, I decided that instead of diving directly into the plan to serve our population, I needed to change course, and quickly. This time, I would create a power team. (I know the phrase “power team” is cliché , but that is exactly where I focused my attention.)
My staff was filled with very intelligent and creative people. I realized that the department was not performing at its fullest potential because the staff members’ creativity had been stifled, not just by me, but before I had come aboard. Continuing to cage their creativity was killing their growth and diminishing their enthusiasm for the mission of the organization.
The Key: I Gave the Staff a Sense of Ownership
I decided to start over. I wanted everyone to know that they brought value to the department and that their ideas mattered. Although I was department director, it was important to allow the staff to feel “ownership” of the department if I wanted them to commit to the work. Creating a sense of ownership for everyone was ultimately the first step in catapulting our department to more solid community partnerships, setting new records in funding success, and eventual twitter mentions by the US Surgeon General.
Let me share with you my approach to leadership that resulted in the success of the department:
I Got Everyone Involved
When staff members feel that their ideas are important, they are more likely to bring them to you. This not only gives them “ownership” of the idea but offers them a level of respect that is needed for them to operate in their creativity comfortably. When I shared individual ideas with the team, I helped to stimulate discussion and found it to be a great way to build communication skills.
I convened my team monthly. Team members were asked to bring in new insights or ideas regarding the program areas in which they worked.
I empowered them to take the lead in making sure tasks related to new insights or ideas were carried out.
Leaders have tons of obligations, some of which can be easily handed over to someone else who is equally or even more capable of doing the job.
Problems with delegating usually results from the fear of the other person “dropping the ball” or that you “I am the ONLY person on earth who can do this the right way.”
Delegating to the right person at the right time reduced my sense of being overwhelmed and allowed me, as a leader, to function more effectively.
Once I began to delegate, my department assistant and other staff members changed my life! Delegating tasks not because I did not want to do them but because they were more than capable of performing them strengthened their abilities and added to their professional portfolios. When realizing that delegating to them was not just passing them the “grunt work,” they readily agreed to assist.
I Took the Time to Know My Team’s Strengths and Weaknesses
I took the time to observe my staff. I would often simply watch and listen. Watch how they interacted with clients and other staff. Listen to the tones of their voices to identify what mission-related topics excited them and in which ones they were not overly interested.
I paid attention to those work-related things that seem to make them happy and those that seem to drain or frustrate them. Doing this allowed me to assign duties and create programs that supported my staff at their best. People tend to work better when they operate in their strengths and struggle when they are being forced to operate in their weaknesses. I saw that in doing so, they grew in confidence until they were open and ready to venture into new things and to be stretched.
I Trusted My Team
Although some of my team had been hired previously, I made a conscious decision to either trust them to do the jobs or, after observation, restructure their positions to more accurately represent their best performance. Trusting my team reduced my need to micromanage and allowed the team the freedom to create and serve peacefully within our mission.
I Created an Accountability System
It is not a good look to have the boss as the “Big Bad Wolf” all the time… Creating a system of accountability among staff members not only gave me more time to focus on managing the operation of the department and securing funding, but allowed staff members to grow together, trust each other , and feel more responsible for completing assignments.
Our accountability system was a “buddy approach” that paired team members from different programs within the department to periodically “check in” on their “accountability buddy,” offer assistance or support where needed, and to remind them of assignments and tasks ahead.
I Evaluated and Elevated
Evaluation was always tough, but I knew that it was the most important part. It allowed me to monitor my team’s performance, address weaknesses, praise strengths, and make suggestions for change and improvement. Evaluation also prompts promotions and simple incentives such as staff-appreciation gestures and departmental accolades.
Creating a work environment where everyone was free to create, and everyone was involved with driving the mission, worked wonders for the department.
My staff members became more proactive in sharing the mission of our organization and of our department. They became genuine advocates for the cause.
The level of excitement made its way through the organization, with staff members who worked in other departments happily giving up their free time to volunteer at our department’s events. We quickly became known around the office as the “fun” department. Jokes at senior staff and board meetings referred to us as the “fun and funded” department.
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