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Three Golden Principles for Next Generation NFP Leaders


Wednesday, 9th September 2015 at 10:30 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist
Young leaders may struggle to be taken seriously, but self-awareness, hard work and a level-head are key to becoming a future frontrunner in the NFP field, writes Ivan Brown, General Manager of NFP Success.

Wednesday, 9th September 2015
at 10:30 am
Ellie Cooper, Journalist


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Three Golden Principles for Next Generation NFP Leaders
Wednesday, 9th September 2015 at 10:30 am

Young leaders may struggle to be taken seriously, but self-awareness, hard work and a level-head are key to becoming a future frontrunner in the NFP field, writes Ivan Brown, General Manager of NFP Success.  

Ivan Brown

Over a decade ago, while studying part time I began my career as a residential youth worker after a friend of mine told me “the job is fun, all you need to do is take kids surfing and skateboarding”. Being a social science student and 19 at the time this proposition sounded perfect in that I was able to help people, get paid for my efforts and have fun all at the same time.

Unfortunately, after getting the job, my first shift replaced those high aspirations with a harsh reality. The truth was that my work days were usually spent dealing with violence, drug abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts and other not so pleasant experiences.

Although, there were good days and youth work was rewarding in many ways, I quickly learnt that my saviour like aspirations of helping people were in reality as unrealisable and personally unfulfilling as my pay rate! Eventually, after a few months of working in an all-round tough environment I realised that I had two options – either I quit, change profession and give up a slice of my social conscience or I step up and do something different to make a real impact in people’s lives.

I chose the latter. This new direction aside, I realised that to make an impactful change my energy was probably best spent working as a leader of staff and, to my surprise, not investing any more intensely in direct care. The reason I made this decision was that I continually witnessed high turnover of staff, staff conflict over the “right” way of doing things and stifling bureaucracy at all levels – all of  which I believed were compounding the crisis nature of an already tumultuous setting.

In my view, the young people didn’t need any more chaos in their lives, and, to be fair, there were youth workers way better than me at service delivery. Where I was stronger than others was anticipating future events, planning for others needs and not losing my cool under pressure. Although perhaps not thought of in those terms at the time, they were all fundamentally leadership related.

On that basis I embarked on a journey, and within three months I became a Team Leader of small team, within a year a Caseworker, then at 22-years-old I became the Operations Manager, leading almost 100 staff, and at 27 I was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

Being the youngest CEO in residential care, and perhaps one of the youngest in the broader NFP sector, was not easy, and along the way I encountered many obstacles and made mistakes, some common to young leaders in any sector and some unique to the NFP sector.

Although, each next generation of aspiring leader will need to find their own way and make their own mistakes, these three principals have assisted me and many new leaders, particularly those who are young in life or the NFP sector, to become successful leaders.

1. You must know why you want to lead

As an enthusiastic and energetic emerging leader in the NFP sector you most likely will want to “help” others, but here’s a news flash, so do the vast majority of the people working alongside you. Similar to a sports team, all the players love to play but they can’t all be, and nor should they be, captain. It’s not uncommon to hear NFP people recite their personal reason for working for an agency and wearing it as a badge of honour. Perhaps this helps remind us why we do such challenging work and somehow subsidises our efforts which are often undervalued, or maybe it is the way we justify our right to be NFP employees.

In any case, this narrative sharing no longer relevant or useful if you want to lead a NFP, the sooner you recognise that passion is a prerequisite to NFP participation and not the sole qualifier for leadership, the quicker you will become a productive leader. Being a NFP leader is not about being the most passionate about the cause, rather it is about being the most able to harness, cultivate and put to work other people’s passion. This requires a totally different mind and skill-set.

To develop this capability, you need to ask yourself why you want to lead, and explore your true motivations. For some of us less worthy folk, our motivations are not entirely altruistic, some of us are fuelled by the need for status, others the need for affiliation, attention and, dare I say, a need for power. These drives and their manifestations are taboo in some segments of the NFP sector as they can be seen as self-serving and non-benevolent. This may be justified in certain instances, however, it’s not anyone’s place to judge intrinsic values and motivators, as long as you are upright and always work for the organisational, community and client good. Self-knowledge and acceptance are the first and critical steps to making sure this happens.  If you don’t know who you are and what you stand for, and are not willing to improve then you simply have no right to guide the work life of others.

2. Be disciplined, be smart and sacrifice

Let’s face it, words like discipline and sacrifice are not exactly fashionable at the moment. However, if you are a younger or inexperienced NFP leader on your journey to senior leadership take a look around you at the management table and see if you can spot these traits in those already leading. More often than not those senior to you will possess these traits, particularly if they are baby boomers. Keep in mind it was this generation who forged the welfare state as we know it and moved it away from residual welfare. Many long-time NFP leaders had to fight for funding, reshape minds and win public hearts. This takes discipline and sacrifice. The challenge for the next generation of NFP leaders is to understand that they all earnt their place at the table. Perhaps through a more social activist route but they certainly did not come fresh out of university and become CEOs or senior leaders overnight. They worked long and hard and, like many community workers, gave up much of their free time to get projects off the ground.

With that in mind don’t be surprised if some of them are surprised to see you, after being hired into your role with 9-5 work conditions, a permanent contract and plush office, casually leading complex projects and people at age 25. I know when I began negotiating multi-million dollar contracts I certainly had to wear a few vaguely justifiable indirect cheap shots on my youth. The answer to those who may doubt your experience, age or time in the job, is not to sulk or to become combative. It is to respectfully earn your place at the table by being the most knowledgeable about the business and by getting real tangible outcomes for the business. Keep in mind personality, charisma and talent are easily questioned and replaced but your work results are infallible and impervious to assault.

Furthermore, to consistently achieve positive results you will need to stretch yourself. That means working to your strengths and harnessing their power and working on your weakness in order to become better-rounded. If you want to lead you will have to constantly be learning new things outside of your interest areas, attend meetings outside of work hours and take on additional work. Irrespective of whether you are youthful or just inexperienced you cannot afford to be a novice at anything in a NFP. If your weakness is finance then take a course, if you don’t have leadership experience volunteer in a role. Whatever the tactic may be you will have to work harder and be as smart as – or smarter – than everyone else to make up for your perceived inexperience. This extra effort and commitment you make will yield positive outcomes and establish you as an upcoming organisational leader.

3. Live and breathe equanimity

The NFP sector is rife with values-driven emotion. Emotional subject matter has a funny way of rousing up the best and worst in people. If you want to become a precocious leader in a values-charged workplace then you need to tap your own passion before asking others to do the same. People around you will be looking to you for strength when funding is precarious, leadership changes frequent and clients’ needs increase and go unmet. These factors combined mean that you will need to learn to walk a fine line between being passionate about the cause, relationally embedded in your organisational and stakeholder community, and being business minded and objectives driven. The most successful NFP leaders achieve this by not becoming personally opinionated or excitable when faced with such challenges, instead they consistently point toward and reflect on the organisation’s mission.

As some in the workplace clamour about asserting their views in times of stress, you need to remain composed and become the organisational mission evangelist, preaching on mission and never your personal values or agenda. The unflappable aplomb you demonstrate will be seen a ballast of support to those around you and will help others to trust that you are in leadership for the cause and not your own agenda. On the flip side as a new leader it is easy to fall into the natural human trap of operating according to your own emotions and in resonance with volatile environments, if left unchecked your leadership approach can snowball into a style of topsy-turvy emotional leadership. This erratic and fluctuating style perhaps scores you early runs from those who are in a like state but ultimately makes you difficult to follow and predict. As you become more emotionally charged, your followers will become less trusting of your objectiveness, impartiality and sense of organisational justice.

About the Author: Ivan Brown is currently the General Manager and Senior Consultant for NFP Success. NFP Success is a Not for Profit consulting firm that works with NFPs, Charities and Social Enterprises. Brown is a keen advocate of small to medium-size NFP empowerment through the development of business acumen, operational innovation and performance systems. He commenced his career in the NFP sector over a decade ago. Within 7 years of beginning his career he moved through the ranks holding several senior leadership roles until he was appointed as Chief Executive Officer at the Guardian Foundation. He then went on to become the General Manager for the School for Social Entrepreneurs.


Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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