Karen Beavor is president and CEO of Work for Good, and has spent her career empowering nonprofits through education, advocacy, research, consulting and business support services. Karen has served as a board member or advisory board member of a variety of civic and nonprofit organizations including the Unemployment Services Trust; National Nonprofit Risk Management Center; and The Foundation Center–Atlanta. Karen has received the Martin Luther King Leadership award and the Harvard Business School Club of Atlanta’s Community Leader Award.
As president and CEO of Work for Good, I’ve spent nearly 20 years working with nonprofit leaders who are recruiting the top talent they need to build their nonprofit organization. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with many young professionals and watch them grow in their careers from entry-level to a valued member of the leadership team. This career transition can be tricky — a promotion and a “manager” job title doesn’t automatically come with the skills to develop into a successful leader.
I'm lucky that part of my job means I get the opportunity to lead training sessions for organizations looking to build strong leaders within their teams. After working with these groups and my own team for nearly 20 years, here are 7 mental shifts I’ve identified over the years that will help you excel in a leadership position:
1) SPECIALIST TO GENERALIST
First, you must shift from leading a single job function to overseeing a full set of business functions. You’re now responsible for knowing enough about each of the functions involved in the work to run the entire division or organization.
WHY? This shift enables you to make decisions that are good for the organization as a whole, and to evaluate the talent on your teams.
HOW? Seek to understand the different ways professionals in each department—finance, HR, marketing, operations, etc.—approach business problems. Learn to speak the language of different disciplines well enough to ask the right questions and to translate for colleagues in other departments. Figure out the correct metrics by which to evaluate and recruit people, even in areas where you don’t have expertise.
2) ANALYST TO INTEGRATOR
Shift from small thinking to big thinking. Rather than managing people, you’re now managing and integrating the collective knowledge of your team to solve more important and complex organizational problems. It’s about seeing how each part works together, rather than viewing a single part at a time, and finding (or creating) the points where you can integrate the competing demands of different divisions or departments.
WHY? This shift helps you to balance multiple aspects of your job – the supply of operations with the demand of development and marketing; business results with investing for the future; and time spent on execution with time spent on innovation.
HOW? Know how and when to make trade-offs, and how to explain the rationale for those decisions. Understand enough about each organization function to anticipate the “domino effect” of decisions on all departments.
3) TACTICIAN TO STRATEGIST
Shift from focusing on concrete, day-to-day activities to focusing on higher-level matters of strategic importance. You are a conductor now, rather than a violinist—as you conduct, the tone of the organization will follow.
WHY? The difference here is between counting value and creating value: as strategist-in-chief of your area, you need to be able to push long-term projects forward and make important decisions amid the day-to-day flow of meetings, processes, and activities.
HOW? Learn when to focus on the details, when to focus on the big picture, and how the two relate. Understand cause and effect, and other significant patterns, within your organization. Learn how to separate signal from noise and how to anticipate the ways outside parties (competitors, regulators, media, community members) will respond to your actions, and deciding accordingly. (This comes from talking it through with your stakeholders.)
4) BRICKLAYER TO ARCHITECT
Shift from silo thinking to systems thinking. You’re now responsible for designing and altering the architecture of the organization or department—from strategy and structure to processes and skills.
WHY? It’s critical to understand how the key elements of your organization fit together, and the effects of your decision-making on the whole, rather than simply considering the functional effects.
HOW? Learn more about the principles of organizational change and change management, including the mechanics of organizational design, methods for improving business processes, and transition management practices. Take time to consider the interdependence of processes, people, and strategy.
5) PROBLEM SOLVER TO AGENDA SETTER
Shift from fixing problems to defining which problems the organization should be tackling.
WHY? So you are able to perceive the full range of opportunities and threats facing the organization, and focus the team’s attention on those that are most important. It’s time for you to chart your team’s course.
HOW? Learn to operate in uncertain and ambiguous environments. Identify the issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important to the organization. Communicate priorities in a way the organization can respond to.
6) WARRIOR TO DIPLOMAT
Shift from marshaling staff to influencing external stakeholders. Using the tools of diplomacy—negotiation, persuasion, conflict management, alliance building—to support strategic objectives in the external environment.
WHY? Because we’re increasingly called upon to collaborate with those we often compete against, you need the ability to address the concerns of external stakeholders in ways that mesh with the organization’s interests.
HOW? Looking for ways that outside parties’ interests align with your organization’s. Understand how decisions are made in different kinds of organizations. Develop effective strategies for influencing others. Understand that these types of collaborative initiatives have much longer result horizons than an annual plan.
7) SUPPORTING CAST MEMBER TO LEAD ROLE
Shift from playing a role to being a role model. Leading people by defining a compelling vision and sharing it in an inspiring way.
WHY? Because people look to leaders for vision, inspiration, and cues regarding the “correct” behaviors and attitudes—and because, like it or not, the quirks and behaviors of senior leaders are infectious.
HOW? Cultivate self-awareness and seek to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Take time to develop empathy with subordinates’ viewpoints. Create mechanisms to hear from staff at all levels.
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