Future Leaders Initiative
BUILDING TOMORROW’S LEADERS TODAY
By Mary McDonald-Lewis
Call it the graying of the do-good generation: Oregon Baby Boomers working for non-profit organizations are getting older by the minute, and leaving a dearth of experienced leaders as they retire.
This was the generation of idealists: from rural communes to civic activism, they were going to change the world. That may explain in part the impressive rate of volunteerism among Boomers; one in three engage in non-profit work, about 4 points above the national average. Many of these volunteers moved into staff positions, while others, seeking satisfaction beyond corporate America, left it for lower pay and greater satisfaction in non-profit work. For twenty years, this generation has worked hard to, yes, try and change the world.
But Baby Boomers are ageing out of the workforce. That worried the Neighborhood Partnership Fund in Portland Oregon, a statewide nonprofit providing leadership and resources to help build affordable homes, healthy communities and economic opportunities for low-income Oregonians.
“Executive directors head up the community development corporations we partner with,” says Cynthia Winter, TNPF’s program director, “and we expect about sixty per cent to be retiring in the next few years. So we got busy on the problem.”The solution was Future Leaders Initiative, a training program to make sure that executive directors departing from CDCs don’t leave a vacuum of experience, wisdom and leadership skills when they go.
“Future Leaders was designed with three specific goals,” says Winter.”First, to grow incoming leaders to deepen institutional knowledge and increase stability in times of transition. Next, we also wanted a more diverse leader body — leaders from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, leaders of color, leaders with roots in our communities statewide.”Future Leaders final goal was to create a group of CDC professionals who would rely on each other for support throughout their careers.
Winter found a template for her program at NeighborWorks America, a national affordable housing organization. Based at Harvard University, Achieving Excellence trains new leaders via challenges specific to their individual organizations over a rigorous two-year program.
NeighborWorks was a willing supporter on TNPF’s project, providing a development grant for Future Leader’s leaner, local model.
REAL LIFE OPPORTUNITIES
Sally Diggs and Douglas K. Smith, designers of Achieving Excellence, also participated in developing Future Leaders. Digges says the folks behind Achieving Excellence recognized the national need for a similar, more affordable program.
Digges calls the changing non-profit workforce “a risk and a challenge.” She says that even though a large number of executive directors are getting close to retiring, “many of those executive directors grew up with the industry,” and that now sophisticated new systems and techniques must be acquired along with old-fashioned savvy. Participants in Future Leaders can take advantage of this shift because, “People actually apply what they learn to their own challenges. It’s an iterative process.”
Rosanne Marmor is the Resident Services Program Manager of REACH CDC and a program participant. Like many of her peers in the program, she credits the “active, experiential learning rather than passive learning” as one reason for her growth in the program.
Future Leaders is a year-long program with participants from backgrounds as varied as a coordinator for farmworker housing, to a Portland senior policy director, to a young leader from the inner city. A snapshot of the group would show eighteen emerging leaders from throughout the state and the CDC industry, with most from urban areas, one from a suburban county and five from rural Oregon. Seven are leaders of color. Ten are women, and three are from outside the industry, but with ties to community development.
The diversity of the group was important to Maxine Fitzpatrick, executive director of Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives. Her assessment is that, “By far, people of color tend to proportionally be in the greatest need of services provided by community development corporations. Yet, when opportunities are there — there are very few who qualify to fill them.”Fitzpatrick says the focus on minority participation is key, and “desperately needed.”
Each participant has an individualized performance challenge. Initially, the challenges are identified and a plan to accomplish them developed. Holly Hutton, Deputy Director with NeighborImpact, challenged herself to double private dollar donations to her organization. She says setting the goal and being held accountable for it helped her discover strategies she otherwise never would have considered. A positive side-effect for Hutton: “it pushed me to overcome any shyness I might have felt in trying to raise money.”
After the challenges are set, group training sessions and peer support are paired with intensive, one-on-one coaching that encourages, guides and oversees the participants’ progress. Over twelve months, the group meets four times. Each time new information and strategies are shared, along with mutual brainstorming on the challenges. Coaching is ongoing between the classroom sessions.
Rachel Post directs Supportive Housing and Employment for Central City Concern. Future Leaders’ coaches have played a key role in helping her meet her challenge to increase employment and placement into permanent housing by 20%.”I think I have become a more deliberate leader,” she says.”The check in with my coach has been very helpful in shaping my perspective of this process.”
So the end result of real-world training? Real progress and measurable outcomes.
That’s music to the ears of Charlie Baum. Principal and founder of the Pacific Northwest-based Starting Point, Baum is the “coaches’ coach” for Future Leaders.”Performance-driven change,” he says, is his abiding passion. Ask him why it’s taken the corporate and non-profit world so long to come around to the idea of results-based training, and he’ll tell you, “It hasn’t,” and offer studies that show how ineffective theory-based trainings are. After a weekend of stimulating ideas and interesting conversations, he says, “You come back to the same staff and the same customers, and a big pile of mail and emails.”There is no time and no mechanism in which to practice what was preached.
Peer support adds an important structural piece to the Future Leader design, Baum says, even though initially he was “skeptical” about how open and supportive leaders from similar corporations and organizations would be. But the process of identifying personal challenges, which can range from raising funds to lowering evictions, from improving staff performance to eliminating residents’ drug and alcohol-use, aligns the participants. They begin to bond around “the uncertainty of what they are about to go through,” he says. As the challenges are honed, tested, refined and applied, the individual narrative begins, and mutual support grows.
And as each story unfolds, the group “wants to know the outcome,” he says.”They care deeply about each other.”
Baum hopes these young leaders continue to support each other after they graduate from the program, and that they export the vocabulary and approach to organizational cultural change. The benefit of a common language, he says, can improve the way CDCs work together producing — his favorite words — real results.
That shared language is what impressed Roberto Jiménez, Executive Director of the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation. He says his employees may be involved in similar challenges, but situated in rural Oregon don’t normally have the chance to “interact with most of the people and organizations participating.”Jiménez appreciates that the program has been useful in exposing his employee to the community development network, “broadening his horizons, and building a peer network.”
Stan Biles, president of Management Solutions, is a Future Leaders coach with a twenty-five year track record in local and city government in Oregon and Washington, and is the former mayor of Olympia Washington. He says the program’s results-based model convinced him that Future Leaders was different than most leadership training programs. Biles says, “I’ve been a participant” in plenty of training programs, but “I’ve never seen one that moved past case studies and lectures.”He is one of two coaches working one-on-one with nine participants of the eighteen-member group.
In part, Biles credits the coaching and the length of the program for its success, but like Digges and Baum he believes the results-based model is what really sets it apart. Good leadership is an alchemy of process and results, he says; the job is balancing and blending the two. Biles hopes Future Leaders is expanded and offered to other kinds of non-profit organizations, and even single businesses, with department heads or individual divisions taking part in the program. As for himself, reflecting back on his time in city politics, he says “I would have paid a fortune out of my own pocket to be able to participate in a program such as this one.”
The participants’ executive directors agree. Sharon Miller of NeighborImpact says Future Leaders is “far more than a training program. It is truly developing future leaders for the CDC and non-profit community,” including, she says, “professional and personal development.”Martha McLennan heads up Northwest Housing Alternatives, and her wish is for a “mini Future Leaders” that she can apply to other aspects of her organization.
Sandye Brown, principal of The Spiritual Coach for Women Executives and Leaders, is Biles’ counterpart, also coaching nine participants. It is unusual for Brown to be involved with a program that she didn’t design and implement herself, but she believes strongly in Future Leaders’ mission.”The name itself is what it’s about,” she says. She calls the program “visionary,” a “holistic program of personal and professional leadership and growth.”
Future Leaders’ participants are at the halfway mark, and Brown sees exciting change already.”What I see are young people who have come to this program who are much more reflective about who they are and their capacity to cause change in their organizations.”Brown describes what she observes as “managerial courage,” the ability to expect others to rally around a vision, and to manage upwards, from a mid-point in an organization. Participants are taking risks “that they wouldn’t have done previously,” she says, and are coming to understand the power of relationships in potent and effective leadership.
“I can tell you this,” says Brown, “they will not be the same people coming out of this program as they were going into it.”
These new leaders are already having an effect on their organizations. EDs describe their employees as more mature, with increased confidence, greater insights, a broader perspective of the industry and the communities they serve, along with genuinely integrated leadership skills.
Kate Allen, Portland Director of Enterprise Community Partners says of her participant’s progress, “I see the benefits of her involvement in Future Leaders every single day.”Adds PCRI’s Fitzpatrick of her employee, “He represents our organization‘s next round of leadership.”Martha McLennan hopes the Northwest Housing Alternative’s emerging leader “will be here for many years.”
The Portland State Regional Research Institution is lending a hand to assess the effectiveness of the training, which Winter says “Will really let us know how we’re doing. We’re committed to this program, and the Research Institution will not only show us what’s working, but how we can improve.”In that sense, Winter says, “it’s almost a microcosm of what the program is all about — just like our participants, we set a goal and are leading a team to accomplish it, we’re accountable for the outcome, and we’re committed to measurable results.”
Speaking to Cynthia Winter, Sally Digges, Charlie Baum, Stan Biles and Sandye Brown, consistent themes emerge: the mission to create tomorrow’s leaders today — people of all walks of life and cultures; the dedication to results-based training; the focus on real-world challenges; the value of individual and peer support, and the inspiring changes taking place in the eighteen participants of the first Future Leaders program.
Looking back from the half-way point, one participant said she was surprised by her “ever-increasing need to actually achieve my goal.”Another said, “I have seen changes I couldn’t have imagined for myself.” And Maxine Fitzpatrick summed up her remarks with “our participant is going to be a great leader in this field one day ‘ thank you, thank you, thank you!”
All involved with this program believe that the Future Leaders Initiative is changing lives and improving community development corporations in the Pacific Northwest. Many spoke of the program’s portability: it could easily be applied to other non-profits committed to growing their leadership. Everyone hopes it continues, and that the CDC culture will recognize and support Future Leaders’ future.