Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

December 17, 2013

Creating a personal roadmap to leadership in the social sector

Kevin Donahue

The U.S. population is rapidly becoming more culturally and racially diverse. According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, racial and ethnic minorities make up 37% of the U.S. population and, in 2011, accounted for more than half of the babies born in the U.S. for the first time. Projections show that by 2042, minorities will collectively be the majority of the U.S. population.

Social sector leadership, however, does not reflect this trend. Despite making up slightly more than 60% of the total population, white individuals hold anywhere from 75% to more than 90% of leadership positions within the non-profit sector, according to various studies.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of diversity for organizations in decision making and innovation, but these demographic changes suggest larger challenges. Nonprofit organizations will face a growing disconnect as their leadership increasingly does not reflect the communities they serve. We will also face a serious leadership crisis in this country if we fail to develop and harness the leadership potential of a soon-to-be majority of our population.

Fortunately, a host of new ideas are under exploration and works in progress to address this problem, encompassing many facets of the issue. As we at MLT have worked on this issue, a number of factors have emerged that can help both individuals pursuing social sector leadership positions and the organizations who need them.  For the purposes of this post, let’s focus on the individual.

For individuals, a critical first step to reaching your leadership potential is developing a career roadmap. The process starts with reflecting on personal passions, strengths and potential obstacles. Many will say they are passionate about family or education, but it is important they dig several layers deep to understand what really motivates and energizes them, based on how they have lived their life and spent their time. It’s not enough to talk about being committed to social change; actions that demonstrate commitment are needed.

Similarly, a lot of individuals will tout great problem-solving skills. But how many of those individuals have the potential to develop those skills to join the top 5 percent in the world at problem solving? That’s a much different question that requires a deeper level of self-awareness. It’s not enough to be good at something; we need to identify the talents that truly make an individual unique if that person hopes to ascend the ranks to senior leadership.

Next, one needs to understand how one’s passions and unique gifts align with career opportunities. This can be difficult for anyone, but there are some unique challenges within the social sector.

Most individuals interact with the social sector via people in direct service roles (e.g., teaching). Young people are often unaware of the breadth of infrastructure and careers that exist outside direct service. Many of those with whom MLT with are passionate about improving their communities, often through education. While some could perform well in direct service roles, their unique gifts often do not align with the skills it takes to be great in these roles. Even individuals working in the sector often lack proper exposure to organizations and functional areas that might be the right next step in their career.

MLT solves this problem through a combination of one-on-one coaching and access to our network of alumni and partners. We develop case studies to give individuals hands-on experience working on the challenges that social sector organizations face. They help ensure that our fellows are equipped with the right questions and approach to get the information needed when we connect them with someone in our network.

A third critical component is understanding what the bar is for high performance at various stages on the path to senior leadership. What separates the high performers (those who get chosen for high profile projects or get promoted) from everyone else?

Although the hard skills required to be successful (e.g., analytics, problem solving) often are the ticket to entry, soft skills — the abilities to build relationships and tie daily activities to the organization’s larger strategic direction — are the separating factors. However, individuals aren’t told this when starting a new role, and chances are those qualities don’t appear as metrics on a performance review (if a person is lucky enough to work for an organization with a good performance review process).

Unless someone who has already successfully navigated the same path happens to pull these individuals aside early enough to provide the missing insight, too many high-potential individuals aren’t getting it. This results in individuals who keep their head down and perform well in their day-to-day tasks, often not understanding why they’re getting passed over and becoming frustrated.

The final step in this process is tying everything together into an actionable plan. We encourage individuals to complete this process at least once every two years. Individuals should start with a clear articulation of the bar they needs to hit to be considered a high performer in a two-year time period. Individuals should then realistically evaluate where they stand against that bar and develop an action plan to close the gaps. MLT provides its fellows with professional coaches who work with each individual one-on-one to develop their roadmap and, just as critically, guide them through executing their development plan.

This proven four-step process has outstanding results. Corey Blay, an MLT fellow pursuing a dual MBA/MPP degree at NYU, is just one example of an individual who has successfully applied this process. You can read about his story here. Denis Adesui came to MLT early in her career after a series of lateral non-profit career moves. Denise received a full scholarship to Columbia’s business school after working with MLT, has been graduated and recently opened Harlem’s first eco pre-school for low- and moderate-income families. MLT also had two Echoing Green Fellowship winners in 2013 — Harlyn Pacheco and Chelsey Roebuck — and have alums who are rising leaders at many organizations, including Teach For America, New Leaders, Omidyar Network, Achievement First and Year Up.

Kevin Donahue is the vice president of growth strategy at MLT, a non-profit organization that helps high potential minorities achieve their potential throughout their careers. MLT has worked with 4,000 individuals and over 100 corporate, non-profit and educational partners over the past 10 years. Kevin has spent most of the past 7 years helping MLT’s corporate and non-profit partners (including organizations like Teach For America, PepsiCo, Citigroup, Goodwill, Bridgespan Group, and Deloitte) grow their pipelines of diverse leadership talent.

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