Nonprofit Leadership Strategy Through a Time of Crisis, Part 1
The word “crisis” is being used freely these days, and yes, we are certainly in the midst of a full-blown, worldwide crisis. However, the definition of crisis today is probably very different than it was a month ago. On any given workday, depending on the management style of those in charge, there were any number of “crises” — a missed deadline, a computer crash, a bad presentation, a typo. How will leaders who treated these events as a crisis manage the crisis we are facing today — flying off the handle, yelling, demeaning, threatening? How can you ensure that you have an engaged workforce ready to jump into action? How you have acted as a leader up to this point will determine your success.
A fire drill is not a crisis. A missed deadline is not a crisis. A typo is not a crisis. COVID-19, and the shutdown of the country, is a crisis. How are you, as leader, going to manage through this? Now is not the time for pounding your fists. If that is how you handled things up until today, then you should adapt a new strategy quickly. Alternatively, if you have managed your staff based on the leadership traits below, then you and your organization are ahead of the game.
Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to lead very large and diverse teams. I have also had many different types of managers. I have seen what works and what doesn’t; what motivates and engages employees, and what shuts them down. I have managed through all sorts of crises — transit strikes, hurricanes, fires, financial, 9/11. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these experiences have taught me that being a good leader every day is what will give you the tools to manage when something really bad happens.
My leadership strategy for managing through a crisis is straightforward — manage the same way you would every day. Manage your teams in a way that keeps them motivated, strategically aligned, retained, loyal and dedicated. When a real crisis occurs, you know that team will jump.
Leadership Should Come Naturally
Despite all the books, coaches and webinars out there today, leadership cannot be learned in a classroom. If you must think back to your business school class on leadership to determine how to manage day-to-day, or how to make tough decisions, then you are not leading from within.
Being an organizational C-Suite leader means having to oversee many different groups. Each of these groups have different backgrounds, goals, skill sets and mindsets. As the leader, how do you manage all these different needs? The answer is the same way. Manage your senior staff the same way you would treat the most junior employee. Be personal, and get to know each staff person if you can. Understand their motivations, their goals, their needs, their qualities.
For example, if you are in the middle of a big meeting and the IT system goes on the blink, treat the IT staff member who is solving the problem with the same level of respect that you would the person giving the presentation. Because when you think about it, that IT person came in, fixed the problem and did their job. It may be a different job, but it was still performed well. This will keep the IT department engaged, feeling appreciated and motivated to continue to do good work.
Look where we are today. Organizations are now completely reliant on the performance of their IT departments. These employees have suddenly become the superstars — getting people set up remotely, fielding questions, ensuring that the organization can continue to operate. Think of where you would be if you did not have a highly motivated, appreciated and engaged IT department. This is true across the organization.
Departments that were once taken for granted now become critical links for continued success — HR, payroll, operations. We never know when a crisis is going to happen. So, it is important to show empathetic, personal leadership every day. Make sure that all employees are engaged, recognized, and personally supported. So when a crisis does happen, you have a team that is loyal and motivated.
Know Managers and Employees
Whether you manage a staff of five or a staff of 500, make an effort to know your employees. Understand the role that each of them plays and acknowledge that their role is as important as any other. Do you acknowledge and say “hello” to each employee you see in the hallway? Or do you keep your head down or on your phone? Understand that a brief encounter with the CEO or any other leadership member could be the most important encounter that employee had all day. Don’t miss these opportunities to connect. Say “hello” by name whenever possible.
Understand the diversity of your teams. Recognize that different departments have different backgrounds, different motivations and different needs. Don’t treat them differently but understand their differences. For example, should the legal department be managed any differently than, let’s say, the accounting department? Are they more valuable to the organization than any other department?
I would venture that the answer is no. Especially now. Each department performs a critical role. For example, the accounting department now must pivot to online financial management and transform the way they operate completely.
Don’t overlook the importance of each and every function that you oversee. Treat them all with the same level of respect and appreciation. If you have delegated the day-to-day management of a department to another leader, check in to make sure that there are no HR issues and that the managers are not displaying any bad management practices.
A bad manager can “manage up” well, but that manager may not be letting you know what is going on down on the ground. Take the time to find out. That is how your leadership style and priorities permeate down to every level. When you have an engaged workforce that understands their role in the success of the organization, then you have employees that are willing to go the extra mile in a time of crisis.
Kim Vaccari is president of NFP Advisors LLC, a consultant firm dedicated to advising nonprofit organizations and served as CFO at one of the largest nonprofits in New York City.