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Leadership: What does it mean to be ‘different’?

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The AFP Daily in Canada presents a three-part series on leadership in the charitable sector by Gail Picco. Today, we feature Part Two – Leadership: What does it mean to be ‘different’? where Gail talks to sector leaders Roger Ali, MBA, C.Dir., CFRE, Kimberley Blease and Diane Lloyd, as well as emerging leader, Teresa Cheng, CFRE, for perspective..

The charitable sector is facing a reckoning in leadership.

The majority of the workforce described themselves as “stressed at work” according to Gallup’s global 2023 State of the Global Workplace report; 18% say they are angry. Forty seven percent say they are watching for or actively seeking a new job. Only 18% of workers in the United States and Canada define themselves as engaged, the study found.

Charitable sector leaders tell us poor management and a lack of investment in skills development is hollowing out the sector.

“A lot of people are retiring, and the pandemic sped that up,” says Kimberley Blease, EVP strategic solutions and consultancy at Blakely Fundraising. “But people from all age groups are choosing to step away from the sector for personal reasons.”

“One aspect of the cultural dynamics we are seeing is happening at the board level,” says Roger Ali, MBA, C.Dir., CFRE, former president and CEO of the Niagara Health Foundation, current consultant, and chair-elect of AFP Global. “Boards might be looking at someone with a traditional lens when looking at leadership or potential leadership. They are used to their idea of what a leader is and can skip over someone who is different from that tradition. I have personally experience this as a cis-gender brown male.”

“I see our future leaders as being about two to five years out. They are millennials and they are saying “No way. I don’t want that.” They are not going to work themselves into the ground for the job,” says Diane Lloyd, founder and CEO of Inspired Results Group (IRG), which specializes in creating engaging workplace environments and working with leaders across sectors.

“Re-setting expectations is necessary so we can model healthy boundaries,” she says. “There’s a lot of just surviving going on. It would be great if people felt seen and have the opportunity for development. Intentionally mentoring millennial managers and providing them with the learning and experience for leadership is the strategy we need to encourage at this critical juncture.”

“As a profession, our priority should be to establish a robust leadership pipeline that can effectively fill vacant leadership positions,” says Teresa Cheng, CFRE, a “NextGen” leader, who grew up volunteering and has participated in many AFP learning opportunities. She’s currently  a development officer for the annual fund and stewardship at Seneca Polytechnic, and recently participated in the first cohort of the AFP Leadership Institute.

“This involves investing in training for current leaders to nurture their leadership potential as part of a comprehensive succession planning strategy,” she says.

But many observers see a clash between work cultures that are based on the traditional models of leadership and the need for a move towards dynamic leadership that considers the reality of the moment.

“I acknowledge the privilege I come to the table with, but I am seeing people struggling with being labeled early in their tenure with an organization and then experiencing a lack of support,” says Blease. “They are often overlooked for leadership opportunities because they think differently or act differently from a set of narrowly defined parameters that comes from the top. You can't blame people for getting frustrated and leaving.”

Cheng says she’s experienced the chill.

“I have personally encountered situations where I felt unsupported by my managers, which was challenging since such behaviors tend to be deeply ingrained within the organization's culture,” she says. “On other occasions, I negotiated for a higher salary due to my exceptional performance and increasing workload, only to face that it was not being recognized. These experiences were demoralizing and did not foster motivation to excel.”

There is a call for systemic reform of how charities are managed.

“We have totally unrecognized leaders in our midst,  because people don’t fit a set of pre-conceived notions of what leadership looks like,” says Blease. “Fundamental change is needed at the leadership level, especially around the recognition of people from underrepresented groups. Good leaders make it their work to identify talent and they work to nurture it. They can perceive potential leadership qualities in themselves and in others.”

Individual learning and reflection can play a vital role in leadership training.

“We grow up in a colonial society, which has its impact on everyone, so we show up in organizations with that context. And unless we commit to looking inward at our most basic systemic biases, we won’t progress to becoming an inclusive leader,” says Lloyd.

“It’s an evolution to become an inclusive leader. We sometimes expect an immediate shift of consciousness, but it doesn’t happen like that,” she says. “It’s important for us to acknowledge we are on a path of learning, and we must be brave enough to look inward. To say to yourself I know all of this in theory and yet I’m uncomfortable. To be a good leader, you must get to the bottom of that discomfort. When someone has experienced some personal evolution, they can navigate the uncertainty with conversations about equity and inclusion.

“Be transparent. Be vulnerable,” she urges.

“We must ask ourselves what caring language looks like in the workplace,” says Blease. “Often, leadership roles are being filled with people who have very little track record of nurturing people. Too frequently, we have situations where leaders are keeping people at arm’s length, not prioritizing helping people to be better at their jobs, and not being empathetic. The sector is at a breaking point, and we must find ways in the system to work around poor leadership.”

“If we measure people on how they are managing and finding talent, we might see some change,” adds Blease. “Because if leaders do not spend this kind of time in introspection, it doesn’t matter if they are leading a team or leading at the top, staff will be constantly churning.”

The third installment of the three-part Leadership: Five ways you can be the leader of your dreams will be published November 2. Click here for Part One - Leadership: A Time of Reckoning?

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