New nonprofit managers: Leading the way to success

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Managers play a critical role in keeping nonprofits afloat. They perform many functions that allow their organizations to run smoothly: they plan, organize, delegate, and keep things on track. And, in best-case scenarios, they lead.

When it comes to building a strong team and a healthy work environment, leadership is key. It keeps people engaged and helps you get the most value out of your team. Though managing and leading should go hand-in-hand, it’s important to understand how they differ.

“A manager is someone who keeps the boat from tipping over, whereas a leader is someone who takes the boat forward,” explains Leadership Development Coach Kathy Archer. “You need to do both,” she adds, “that’s the key.”

In reality, many managers do only as their name suggests: they manage. They set goals and assign work, establish targets and assess performance, and keep a close eye on the bottom line. But to lead is to go beyond that, creating, for your staff, a real sense of teamwork, as well as providing motivation and development opportunities.

“The way I see it, managing is about the role and the responsibilities, and leadership is about the mindset,” says Team Effectiveness and Culture Change Coach Anne Comer. “The leadership mindset is taking a look at the bigger picture and really thinking of what’s best for the future of your team and your organization, and how you can support that."

As this article explores, nonprofit managers – and especially first-time managers – face some unique challenges, but they also have an incredible opportunity to lead their teams and develop the nonprofit leaders of tomorrow. Below we share insight and advice from experts on how to propel your team and your organization forward.

Understanding your new role

One of the biggest adjustments for new managers is the transition from individual contributor to manager. Early on, first-time managers need to understand what their new role entails and start developing their managerial identity.

Richard Paton, professor of nonprofit leadership at Carleton University, says part of the adjustment is realizing you’re no longer acting as a technical expert, even though your expertise can be helpful. The manager role will be very different.

“The major job or work of a manager is accomplished by creating a team,” he says, “and developing the key relationships with superiors and clients and the key directions that can provide a context for the team to work well.”

That’s not to say you won’t continue doing some of the work in your area of expertise. As Comer explains, if you’re a marketing manager you’re probably still doing a bit of marketing. “But that’s only part of the job,” she says. “The other part is the managing-the-people job, the leadership role.”

Neglecting the leadership job can lead to many problems, including disengagement and even cynicism among team members. You have to make time for both functions.

“If you don’t consciously make time for the leadership part, the day job just takes over because it’s always more urgent,” says Comer. “You have to be really intentional about that part because the clock won’t remind you.”

So how can you ensure you’re not only managing, but also leading your team?

First of all, find out what it takes to be a great leader and invest in developing your knowledge and skills in this area. “Always be learning in some way, shape, or form,” suggests Archer.

Read books and blog posts, take training, watch videos and TED Talks, and listen to audio books or podcasts, she suggests. Learn about leadership and productivity, but also learn about courage and confidence and mindset.

“Stretch what you would normally think of reading and you’ll start to learn different things that come back to leadership,” says Archer. “Read all of it, because that’s going to give you the edge.”

In particular, try to build your emotional intelligence. This is critical. Being able to identify and manage your emotions and the emotions of those within your team will help you better motivate your employees and be accepted as a leader.

To develop your emotional intelligence, be patient and pay close attention to what’s going on around you. You don’t have to over-analyze every tone or facial expression, but try to acknowledge what’s happening and why people are reacting the way they are.

One thing that can help with this is getting to know your people, because the better you know them, the more you’ll understand their motives and reactions. In fact, getting acquainted with your team is an important part of being a successful manager.

Developing strong relationships

As a new manager, whether you inherit an existing team or hire a new one, you should prioritize getting to know your direct reports. Make time for informal one-on-one discussions so that you can ask about their preferences and determine how to best support them.

“Everyone needs to be managed differently,” says Comer. “Some people need a lot of guidance; some people don’t. Some people love to work independently; some people, when left on their own, feel like they’re adrift at sea. There’s every possible mix.”

In a Fast Company article, Ximena Vengoechea shares 10 questions for that first one-on-one meeting that will help you get to know your team members faster. She suggests, for instance, asking them about their best and worst experiences with past managers, as this can tell you a lot about the kind of management support they prefer.

After having these initial conversations, keep the one-on-ones going. This is a vital part of the leadership role. Even if it’s only 30 minutes once a month, making this time will show your employees you care about them and will help keep them engaged and motivated.

It will also give you the chance to learn more about their skills and aspirations so you can help them grow. As Archer says, “A great leader is someone who is growing others to their full potential.” Whenever possible, encourage ownership among your staff and help develop their talents by giving them increasingly challenging work.

In addition to getting to know your team, keep in mind that it’s equally important to make sure your people get to know each other, Comer explains.

“A new manager might be tempted to build one-on-one relationships with each person on the team and then feel okay, but if the team members don’t have good relationships with each other, you’re missing a lot of potential,” she says.

The stronger the relationships among your team members, the better your team dynamics and performance will be. “Build a team approach where the team works together and makes everyone on the team better,” suggests Paton.

Managing former colleagues

Another common challenge for new managers is having to lead colleagues you previously worked with. This shift can be tricky and sometimes awkward, but luckily there’s a lot of advice out there on how to handle this transition.

One tip is to recognize that it is a shift, says Archer. “I think when we try to pretend that things are going to be the same, that’s when we often get into trouble. You cannot have the same relationships you had before.”

As a manager you must be impartial and treat everyone equally. This likely means you’ll have to recalibrate some of your relationships, especially if you’re close friends with certain people on the team.

“The most important part of working with former colleagues is to help them appreciate that you have a role to play which is different and that you’ll have to make decisions in the best interest of the organization – no favourites or the opposite,” says Paton.

“This doesn’t mean you have to be distant,” he adds, “but you have to be even-handed and always put the organization first and be perceived to do so.”

Bringing it back to the big picture

A great way to establish your credibility and authority with your new team is to meet with them and share your vision.

“Just be honest with people,” says Comer. Tell them what you’re working on and what you’re trying to do, and try to make it a collaborative environment, she suggests.

Part of being a great leader is staying focused on your vision and inspiring your team to work towards it with you. This is especially true in nonprofits.

“People don’t work in nonprofits because they make big bucks,” says Archer. “They work in nonprofits because they love the work. And so, when you’re focusing on teams, you have to come back to that shared purpose.”

As a manager, it can be easy to fixate on the day-to-day tasks that need to be done. But when your team loses sight of the overarching mission, things can easily fall apart.

“We need to talk about the reason we’re doing those tasks and reconnect to the vision,” says Archer. “As a leader, I think sometimes we have that vision, but we don’t communicate it with our people.”

“Rather than head-down in the moment,” she adds, “we have to lift our heads up, look at the broader picture and communicate that with everybody.”

Rachel is a freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Ontario. She is a graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and Carleton University’s journalism program. She has been a contributor to Charity Village since 2012.

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