Arts Leaders

Ten Lessons in Leadership I Learned the Hard Way

By March 3, 2017 No Comments

How can we, as nonprofit leaders, minimize organizational drama and maximize our impact? Read on to discover 10 lessons I learned the hard way while serving on various nonprofit leadership teams.

  1. Accept help. Rarely will you look back and wish that you’d done it all yourself. When you accept help, you’re not solely helping yourself. You’re also giving someone else the opportunity to create, to soar, and to save the day. It’s a win-win.
  1. Take time today to think about tomorrow. As a leader, it’s critical to poke your head out of the weeds every day to plan for what’s next tomorrow, next month, and next year.
  1. Do your homework. Be a boy or girl scout and always “be prepared.” Whether it’s a Board meeting, a donor solicitation, or a staff confab, always be the one who shows up on time, having read the minutes, performed the research, and so on.
  1. Let history be your guide. Once upon a time I took a class with a guy who had run the finance department of a world-class dance company. He admired that new hires came to their roles with enthusiasm and fresh ideas, but was frustrated that so many seemed reluctant to learn lessons from what and who came before them. In his experience, this often resulted in over-zealous budget projections both in the revenue and expense columns. Ouch.
  1. Set an example. Be generous with your time, your talent, and (to the extent that you can) your wallet.
  1. Take a genuine interest in donors at all levels. Their support and passion for your work can inspire you on the toughest of days. Make sure you’re in conversation with everyone, not just your major donors. You will not be able to put a dollar value on the lessons learned from each of them.
  1. Measure return on investment. “We have all the human and financial capital we need to meet our revenue targets,” said no Development or Marketing Director ever. There are many ways to measure ROI. Find one that works for you and your stakeholders.
  1. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, but needs to get done and be on time. Anyone who has worked with me will assume that I wrote the last sentence under the influence. This is a tough one because who doesn’t want an “A” all the time? I once worked with a CEO who said, “Jill, we can take a B+ on this one. But let’s get it done sooner rather than later.” I was horrified. But, he was right. We succeeded nevertheless. Hundreds of projects and tasks will cross your desk every week. Accept help from your colleagues (See #1) to make whatever it is as perfect as it needs to be before it leaves your office. Done, done, and done!
  1. Choose your battles with care. Be prepared to lose once in a while. Trust me. It’ll be just fine.
  1. Express gratitude. Don’t wait for Thanksgiving or National Personal-Assistant-Who-Works-Too-Hard-for-Too-Little-Pay Day to thank all the people who make you and your nonprofit a success. Give regular shout-outs to donors, Board members, co-workers, direct reports, and the barista down the street. Write a heartfelt note, leave an unexpected voicemail, throw a pizza party. Make your day by making someone else’s.
By Jill Garland