The Characteristics of Executive Leadership

By Jack Shand, Executive Partner. The Portage Group

Outstanding leaders in the not-for-profit sector have common characteristics. Certainly they must be aligned with their employer's mission and be a compelling advocate who engages others in that mandate. They must be effective communicators. Leaders engender confidence. What else are not-for-profit boards seeking in staff leaders?

I have been privileged in my work to study leadership, work with leaders, and evaluate thousands of managers seeking to lead organizations. Boards of directors have defined their leadership expectations and asked me to find people who match the criteria. From this experience, I have created a leadership checklist to help individuals hoping to become effective leaders in the not-for-profit sector assess their own leadership skills.

These attributes are sought by boards of directors because they distinguish leaders from average managers, and transform not-for-profit organizations from good to exceptional performance.

Leaders have all of these characteristics. They may have more, but never less.

1. Advocate and champion

Associations and charities share three universal advocacy goals: give us influence, put us on the map, and get us to the table. The focus of the advocacy effort may be government or some other audience. The most effective leaders are inspiring, respected, and credible spokespeople. They have the ability to synthesize and communicate complex issues with clarity. The not-for-profit leader welcomes the opportunity to draw upon the expertise and stature of others — notably members, clients, funders, and other stakeholders directly involved with an issue — to connect how the issue affects people.

2. Ego in check

Not-for-profit leaders demonstrate exceptional leadership skills but always share leadership with volunteers. Executives often must exercise leadership quietly and behind-the-scenes. Leaders best achieve results through an inclusive team approach involving members, staff, and all stakeholders, and fostering a collaborative working partnership with the board of directors.

An ego that signals to members and staff that the chief staff executive is better than others will inevitably lead to a breakdown in the employment relationship. In my work as a consultant and executive recruiter, boards of directors tell me that when they feel they no longer have a sense of ownership; when a chief staff executive resists new ideas with an "I know-what's-best attitude"; or when the staff leader is perceived as too aloof and disconnected from the organization's constituency, it is only a matter of time before the organization hires a new leader.

3. Future focus and vision

The leader identifies with the organization's vision and mission, but also offers personal vision on how to best capitalize on the opportunities before the organization. Staff leaders also must have the discipline to create time to think about the future needs of the organization and not be constantly immersed in routine work. Leadership guru Warren Bennis cautions executives that "routine work smothers all creative planning and fundamental change."

4. What gets measured, gets done

Leaders plan the work and work the plan. They understand that in the absence of purpose, all directions are valid, every effort is useful, and each activity is a success. Leaders are purposeful; they recognize the value of strategic planning and ensure expectations are defined, deliverables are prioritized, and outcomes are measurable. This is hard to do because surprisingly many volunteer directors do not understand how to set measurable outcomes. The effective leader patiently works with the board to entrench a discipline of planning and measuring.

5. Adaptable

The association leader is flexible and adaptable and has the capacity to change as the future unfolds. The leader has the insight to foresee trends, understand their implications, and explain to the members, board, and staff how to move effectively from the organization's present position to the future it has envisioned. The not-for-profit executive embraces risk management and has contingency plans for the unexpected.

6. Intelligence

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg of Tufts University says that good leadership requires intelligence. He defines intelligence to be "the cognitive ability to learn from experience, to reason well, to remember important information, and to cope with the demands of daily living."

Leading a not-for-profit organization is demanding. Organizations have growing expectations, difficult politics, and at times conflicting agendas. Governing bodies expect their CEO to develop well-reasoned options, and source the required information to enable the organization to make sound decisions. Fulfilling such a tall-order in an age of ever-expanding information requires intelligence.

Many executives finish the work day with a longer to-do list than when they started. Intelligence includes learning to balance the pressure of achieving expectations in all aspects of our lives within the limited number of hours available.

7. Learning commitment

Leaders have a personal commitment to continual learning. They are curious people — reading, exploring, studying, and making connections to new people and things.

Leaders also embrace the value of error. "It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure," wrote Joseph John Campbell. Leaders learn from failure and move on, averse to making the same mistake twice.

8. Management skills

Job effectiveness is dependent upon management skills to achieve specific outcomes, such as the ability to create and meet a budget, and appropriate leadership behaviours and values, such as acting with integrity, which enable success in the organization's culture.

The management skills required by boards may best be defined as internal and external. The internal skills include the staff leader's ability to plan, be strategic, manage staff, be a facilitator and consensus-builder, and financial aptitude. External skills include fostering relationships and alliances with governments, media, and other organizations.

Boards of directors expect their CEOs to have abilities across the spectrum of management disciplines. These skills are then applied to achieve two primary outcomes: (1) add value for our members/clients and advance our mandate in ways which people can measure, and (2) do the right things with the available resources.

9. Politically intuitive

The best leaders have incredible intuition. One executive refers to his B.S. meter — the ability to identify nonsense instantly. Not-for-profit leaders are people-savvy and politically adept; knowing who is friend or foe; when to fight and when to fold.

Leaders also are ahead of the curve and able to sense changes in direction, at times anticipating them before they occur.

The risk for some not-for-profit chief executives is being too far ahead of the membership and/or board. I experienced this first-hand with an organization that wanted to develop an export market and international trade capability for its members. The staff chief executive had the foresight to see what was necessary, and the right plan to achieve the goal, but he was rebuffed by the board. Several years later, the same idea was embraced by the board of directors. The wise leader knows the right time to introduce change.

10. Relationship management

Dr. Quinn Mills, formerly with the Harvard Business School, reaffirmed an important insight for association leaders about their relationships: "People really don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."*

There are four key relationships that the association leader must nurture to be successful.

The first is with the membership or, in the case of a charity, the constituency served (clients, affiliates/components, etc.). The leader is committed to communicating to constituents what has been done, what is being done, and what will be done. It is clear to members that the organization is improving. Members are engaged; the organization demonstrates that members are the owners because members drive the agenda.

The second key relationship is with the board. The board is legally responsible for the organization — is officially the leader's employer of record — and it is a leadership failure to not recognize the board's authority. This can be an especially significant leadership challenge because charity and association boards are too often disengaged or unclear about how they define success. As a result, the staff leader must be a non-authoritarian masterful servant who can concurrently be the coach and trainer of volunteers.

The third group is staff. The leader hires the best staff and then communicates with employees to ensure they understand how their contribution has meaning to the organization. Employees feel valued. This is a lesson I learned early in my career — a leader cannot sustain a record of success if there is disharmony in the office.

Finally, the fourth group comprises external stakeholders to whom the organization and its leadership rely to help accomplish results. The stakeholders may be government officials, suppliers, allied organizations, or sponsors. I recall some years ago, Professor emeritus Al Litvak of York University telling an audience of association leaders that their job is "to build bridges to other organizations."

11. Self-awareness

Organizations house a spectrum of experience, talent, and personality. Team leaders must understand their own strengths, as well as the assets needed from others, to deploy their team effectively to accomplish results. For example, one manager may have excellent aptitude to account for finances and another manager may have the ability to generate funds and increase revenues.

Years ago, as the staff president of a national association, the elected chairperson counselled me to be "open to how you are perceived." Personal style and behaviours have two sides to the same coin. For example, some may applaud the manager's initiative while others see it less favourably as aggressiveness. Confidence may be perceived as arrogance. Not-for-profit leaders are open to understanding how they are perceived. Leaders welcome feedback because they learn what they do well, where they must develop to become better, and how they need to rely upon others to get things done. In return, boards must be prepared to invest in the development of their staff leadership and help staff to close the gap between what they are and what they need to become.

The path to self-awareness requires the leader to be honest and realistic with him/her self. Self-awareness also leads to valuing the contributions of others, and recognizing that the richest organizations have — and embrace — a mix of skills and personalities.

12. Values and fit

Leaders bring relevant values and value to the organization.

Their values may include consensus-based decision-making and achieving results through people. Not-for-profit organizations may share certain values (e.g., be member-centred) or have values unique to their constituency and cause (e.g., concern for the disadvantaged in society).

It is important for the leader to ascribe to the values of the organization. The executive who does not have affinity and respect for the organization's purpose cannot lead it effectively.

The value the leader brings could include an understanding of the organization's members, an established network in government (where promoting the organization and its key messages to government is necessary), and a record of extraordinary accomplishment which relate to the future needs of the organization (e.g., fundraising).

Leaders must be the role model both within the organization and publicly.

Leaders are made, not born, and there are opportunities to be seized throughout life and career to develop one's leadership potential and hone leadership skills. Boards of directors who want to recruit and retain excellent executive leadership must recognize that effective leaders are in high demand. Extraordinary people who deliver extraordinary performance earn extraordinary compensation. For executives in the not-for-profit sector, creating an inventory of their leadership ability and gaps based on these characteristics of executive leadership is an excellent starting point to begin one's self-assessment and creating a plan to develop leadership skills in areas that may be less pronounced.

* Original quote attributed to former US President Theodore Roosevelt.

© Jack Shand and The Portage Group