How to think like a CEO in a not-for-profit setting

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One of the typical characteristics of not-for-profit boards or committees is that they attract people with differing levels of skills, expertise, education, maturity and intentions. They attract doers, leaders, followers, and sometimes even “devil’s advocates”. In most organizations, these individuals are left to struggle along with each others’ different styles, which sometimes adds needless frustration and even, at the worst of times, disenchanted individuals.

A key tool to harnessing the energy of an eclectic group is an effective leader (e.g. chair) and this has been written about extensively, including by the author.

A different approach to helping volunteers and staff perform effectively is to help them learn how to “think like a CEO”. This can enhance their understanding of the elements of sound decision-making. This article offers some tips on how volunteers and staff can think like a CEO when they are participating on committees, boards, councils and the like. For the purposes of this article, we are presuming our CEO “model” is an effective leader.

1. CEOs look at things with the “big picture” in mind

CEOs understand the strategic direction of their organization and can evaluate each opportunity that presents itself at a discussion table against that direction. How does the idea impact our vision, mission and goals? How does it impact our resources? How does it fit into the topic we are discussing?

If we, as volunteers and/or staff, apply this approach, we may avoid getting off-track and at the same time be more effective in persuading others to support our idea because we’ve made a strong case for it. Usually, the details are left to a work group to deal with, which allows the decision-making body to think about the far-ranging impacts of a particular topic - focusing on the big picture.

2. CEOs set the tone at the top

CEOs establish the tone of senior management. They communicate their values and their priorities to those serving their organization and, increasingly, to their organization’s stakeholders.

In our not-for-profit world, we too should expect our senior management (volunteer and paid) to clarify what our priorities and values are and then hold everyone accountable to serving them via their individual actions and programs.

3. CEOs focus on the bottom line, determining what is important and what is nice to have

CEOs understand that financial targets are important for the security of an organization. They keep budget projections uppermost in their minds as they entertain new or different ideas than the ones behind the budget figures. They understand and practice risk management to evaluate the peril and/or opportunity cost of new ideas as well as existing practices. At times this will mean that some activities will need to be set aside; everyone needs to support this decision.

In our volunteer capacity, we will be making a valuable contribution when we get agreement from the promoters of new and different ways to present their financial and risk management considerations along with their detailed, written proposal to the decision-making body. This requires proponents to think through the topic and put it in writing. Such information should be shared in advance of the meeting where the issue will be discussed.

4. CEOs delegate to, and work with, the right people

CEOs rely on the people they delegate to and they ensure that those people have the aptitude and resources to get the job done.

In a not-for-profit scenario, it is important to know that the people being assigned tasks have what is needed to get the job done, and done well. That means the right skills, resources, time and much more. Just because a volunteer wants to take on a project does not necessarily mean they can. It is advisable to document the skill sets required on your committees and board and then ensure new recruits match those requirements.

5. CEOs understand and follow process

CEOs work with their team leaders to establish processes that support a reliable work and information flow. This is an integral part of managing a wide variety of risks.

Volunteer organizations are well served by processes and should be vigilant about ensuring that well-intentioned persons with different ideas are loyal to those processes.

6. CEOs use feedback

CEOs value their key stakeholders’ feedback, thus, the notorious business luncheons.

Not-for-profit organizations also need to check in for feedback with their various constituents and then analyze that feedback. Just because one or two people hold an opinion does not make that reliable feedback.

7. CEOs are usually positive, confident and good listeners

CEOs inspire people and hear what those people have to say. If what they are saying is “off the mark” then the CEO helps them get “back in our groove”. The best CEOs are very concise with their words.

Volunteers (and sometimes staff) are often very busy talking and do not spend enough time actively listening. In fact, some volunteers and staff just talk too much and easily get off topic. By focusing on the big picture (tip #1) we can help ourselves avoid getting into the minutia when it isn’t warranted.

In our age of e-mail, many of us do not make the time to thoughtfully analyze suggestions or opinions. The overnight rule to give tired minds time to think about choices in the light of night and then day is a wise one in many cases.

So how should a non-CEO use these tips?

A first step is to evaluate your own behaviour during, after and between meetings. We suggest that you begin by selecting a mentor or several mentors to observe. Watch how they manage people and ideas at meetings and learn from their behaviour. When you are contemplating a decision or point of view, ask yourself, How would “so and so” approach this?

You can parrot a hard-nosed CEO or a people-person one; what image do you want to project?

One final tip: If someone tells you they are too busy doing their job to work on something better or new or different, don’t buy it. CEOs know that it is a competitive marketplace, and almost every not-for-profit organization has to compete for its volunteers’ and members’ time and investment. Such commitment can only be sustained by continuous improvement. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck on the treadmill of work.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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