Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and the Work of the Social Sector
Thoughts on Life, Leadership, and the Work of the Social Sector
Photo by Nita via Pexels
When I first became a CEO, I didn’t expect to miss having a boss. And, for the most part, I didn’t. I loved the leadership challenge, the ability to work in partnership with the board to set a new direction, the opportunity to lead the team, and the expanded feeling of autonomy and independence.
But I was surprised to discover that there was one way in which I missed having a direct supervisor: I missed having someone who could help me “let go” when something hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to.
It sounds like a small thing, but for many – if not most – nonprofit and foundation CEOs, it’s actually a very big thing. That’s because, as the top leader, there’s no one there to tell you that you’ve worked hard enough, done well enough, or learned enough from your mistakes or shortfalls. There’s no one there to help flag that it’s time to move on – for the sake of your work, your organization, and your own health and wellness.
No one, that is, except yourself.
But learning how to let go is something that many nonprofit CEOs haven’t been taught. That’s why “Letting Go” is the final in my series on Nonprofit CEO Survival Skills. In my experience, both as a CEO myself and as a coach and advisor to other Nonprofit CEOs, I know the damage this can cause.
Consider for a moment the CEO who:
In a workshop with nonprofit CEOs earlier this year, we talked about these dynamics and I shared a set of questions designed to help leaders find a way to let go when it’s time to do so.
Question #1: Was I the leader I needed to be?
As nonprofit and foundation CEOs, leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions or do things that may not be universally well-received. Because of that, external definitions of success such as “Is everybody happy with me?” or “Does everyone agree with the decision that was made?” are sometimes counterproductive. This question invites you to center on the leadership moment you’re in, and whether or not you rose to the moment, which is a more internalized – and useful – definition of “success”.
Question #2: Was I true to my values and intentions?
Building on the first question, this helps a leader think through if their leadership actions or choices were aligned with their personal – or organizational – values. If they were, you can take comfort in the fact that you are acting in a way that is consistent with those values. If not, this is an invitation to reflect on why that is, and what it means to you.
Question #3: Are there any ways in which I need to make amends?
After reflecting on the first two questions, a leader may decide that they did not operate in the way that they would have liked. And sometimes this means that there is a need to make amends to mend relationships and trust. If an apology or acknowledgment of harm is appropriate, that’s an important precursor to letting go.
Question #4: What do I want to learn from this experience?
Often, we learn the most from the situations that are the most difficult. Taking a moment to mine the experience for learning is a valuable next step. It’s important, however, not to use this as an invitation to stay mired in the past. Instead of “I should have…” or “I wish I would have…” statements, ask yourself “How do I want to incorporate these new insights and learnings into my leadership in the future?”
Question #5: What else might I need to do, say, or internalize before I let this go?
This is a catch-all. A metaphorical “last call” on living in regret. Ask yourself what else might be important, do that thing, take a deep breath, and then give yourself permission to let go.
As many leaders in the room named, this process of letting go is easy in theory but difficult in practice. And they’re right. But they also named that there was relief in knowing that their fellow CEOs were struggling with this, and a lot of value in naming that – to survive – CEOs must learn how to do this for themselves.
And, for many of us, acknowledging that letting go is necessary and useful is an important first step.
Photo by Pixabay via Pexcels
When I named “Saying No” as the second “CEO Survival Skill” in a workshop with a group of nonprofit CEOs earlier this year, there was a lively and immediate response:
“Oh wow, I really need this!”
“I think I might be a lost cause!”
I wasn’t surprised by the response. In my work as a leadership coach to nonprofit and foundation CEOs, I know that many leaders struggle with saying no – whether to the board, to their teams, to funders, to external stakeholders, or even to themselves.
There are lots of reasons for this:
What’s also surprisingly true is that it’s not uncommon for a leader to admit that part of what makes saying no so difficult for them is that they simply don’t have much experience saying no, because they’ve rarely – if ever – done it.
Consider that for a moment. When a leader is unwilling to say no, that means they are unable to:
These are essential ingredients to strategic organizational leadership. And all of them rely on the ability to say no effectively.
So I decided that in this workshop on CEO Survival Skills, we were going to practice saying no. I asked for a volunteer who genuinely wanted to be better at saying no – someone for whom saying no wasn’t already a practiced skill. A brave soul stepped forward, as did another member of the group who agreed to be her practice partner for the demonstration.
I asked our volunteer to give us an example of something to which it would be generally difficult for her to say no, but that she thinks would be useful from a leadership perspective to be able to decline or set a boundary around. She shared that she gets asked to lunch or coffee a lot, but never feels like she can say no, even when she has really important priorities or deadlines that would be disrupted. Notably, there were lots of nods and comments from the rest of the group, so it was clear that she wasn't the only one struggling with this issue.
I then shared the instructions with our volunteer and her practice partner: the practice partner would invite our volunteer to lunch and our volunteer would respond as she normally would. It went something like this:
I turned to Sue and asked her to tell us, if this scenario were to happen in real life in this very moment, what might that “yes” (to lunch) have disrupted? She shared that she was working on a huge grant proposal and it would make it tough to hit the deadline and likely that she’d have to work very long hours to do so.
“Great,” I said. “I want you to really internalize that. Think hard about what you’ll be saying no to (the grant proposal and getting it done in a reasonable manner) by saying “yes” to this lunch. “And now we’re going to do this again, but instead of responding as you normally would, you’re going to give a full-bodied, step forward and stomp, arms out and hands up, ‘NO!’ in response.” And I demo-ed what I was describing.
“I’m going to do what?” Sue said?! I said it again, “You’re going to give a full-bodied, step forward and stomp, arms out and hands up, ‘NO!’ in response.” Sue laughed nervously. “Ok,” she said. “I would never do that in real life, but I’ll do it.”
And she did. And we all laughed. And it was great. Because, as I explained to the group, of course she’d never do that in real life. But it was a big, overdone, and physical “No!” that – in some ways – matches what we feel like we’re saying and doing when we say no much more thoughtfully.
And that’s exactly what we did next.
I asked Sue to think again about why she needed to say no to this lunch (the grant proposal, her work-life balance, and leadership resilience). And then I invited her to think about the following intention: “I am going to say no to this lunch, but yes to this person.” And I asked her to tell me when she was ready to do it again.
Here’s what it sounded like:
It was a beautiful thing to behold. Sue was calm, confident, and kind. And, she beamed as she said, “I did it!”
As we reflected as a group on what we witnessed and observed, I shared a few tips for those who are struggling to set boundaries or say no:
Tip #1: Start Small(er)
For many of us, it’s not comfortable or natural to say no. And – as was raised in our discussion – some leaders (women and leaders of color especially) have learned that they sometimes pay a higher price for doing so. But that doesn’t change the fact that it's essential to our organization's success. If it helps, start with an incremental step, just like Sue did. She didn’t fully say no; she said “Not now.” And that was both 1) helpful to her specific circumstances with the grant proposal deadline and 2) a great first step in learning how to set boundaries. Start thinking about a place where you can practice setting a boundary and then push yourself to keep stretching and building from there.
Tip #2: Consider the Cost of Saying Yes
It’s worthwhile to take the time to think through what – by default – we will be "saying no to” if we say yes to a request that we shouldn’t. In Sue’s case, she would have been saying no to the grant proposal, or at least getting it done in a way that didn’t put a huge burden on herself. Pausing to think this through can give us clarity about why we need to say no and hold ourselves accountable for it.
Tip #3: Depersonalize the Request
Part of why it can be hard to say no is that it can feel like we are saying no to the person, instead of the request. It’s valuable to intentionally decouple those things in our mind so that we can focus on saying no to the request, but not the person. It not only makes it easier for us to say no, but it also makes it kinder and easier to receive for the other person.
Saying no is part of being a strategic leader. It’s essential to maintaining strategic focus, ensuring that we are spending our time on the most important things, and keeping a healthy balance that enables us to thrive over the long term.
What are you working to say no to? And what will setting that boundary make possible for you and your organization?
*Real names not used.