Nonprofit leadership traits

June 29, 2012

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — Tags: , , — jonathanpoisner @ 1:55 pm

In doing their hiring processes, most boards focus on what skills they want their Executive Director to have.

In my experience, it’s equally if not more important to identify the traits or personality characteristics you want.  Skills can be learned.  Personalities evolve infrequently.

So what traits/characteristics would I look for first?  Admittedly, this may vary based on the size and needs of the organization.  But this list is a pretty good starting place that any board could adapt to fit their own situation.

1. Self-Starter.  Good Executive Directors do not need somebody else to motivate them.  They are driven to be successful.

2. Passion for the mission.  Some people are highly professional, but it’s exceedingly rare that an Executive Director will excel if they do not feel a strong passion for the organization’s mission.  This will impact everything from their own motivation, to understanding the motivation of their board, donors, and volunteers.

3. Ability to motivate others.  No thriving organization relies upon the Executive Director to carry the load him or herself.  Rather, thriving organizations involve a team of staff, board, and other volunteers working together.  The key to all that is an Executive Director who values teamwork, is excited by watching their co-workers develop professionally, and who puts the team first.

4. See the forest and the trees.  An Executive Director must be able to view the world at two levels.  They must see the big picture (e.g. the forest) and think strategically about how to get the organization from here to there.  But they must also see the trees, being able to wade into the details of budgets, task lists, databases, and other nuts and bolts.   Very large organizations may be able to get by with a visionary Executive Director who has an assistant and is also paired with a Chief Operating Officer who handles the “trees.”  But for smaller or medium sized groups, having this dual personality is critical.

5. They have a service mentality.   They’ve probably volunteered for other nonprofits.  The questions they ask should suggest they are mostly concerned about how they can make a difference through the organization.  If a prospective Executive Director mostly asks about compensation or demands more than the organization can afford, this should be  a red flag.

6.  They are very comfortable and competent fundraisers, particularly with regard to individual major gifts.   Some may think this belongs in the list of “skills” instead of “traits.”  Perhaps it’s so important it belongs in both lists.  Regardless, the knack for being fearless in both forming relationships with prospective donors and a willingness to ask may be as much a personality trait as it is a skill.

7. Deal well with conflict.  All organizations have setbacks.  Thriving organizations handle them well, learn from them, and move on.  Since setbacks often involve conflict, Executive Directors need to be calm under fire, yet not be averse to conflict when it’s sometimes the right choice.

8. Doggedness.  They don’t let the little things get them down, but keep plugging away.  It is rare that a nonprofit thrives overnight.  Rather, it’s the accumulation of smaller victories over time that gets the boulder rolling downhill.  That means an Executive Director who works hard day in and out and not just at the obviously critical times.

What do you see as missing from this list?

Look for a future blog entry on how boards can use the hiring process to identify which candidates have these traits?

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