What Nonprofit Leaders Should Say to Employees to Help Them Grow
It can feel trite to say, “Nonprofit leadership is hard.” The organizational structures of nonprofits require that leadership is done in a form of community: the board and the executive director. Where a business owner has all of the responsibility and all of the authority to make decisions, the nonprofit executive director has all of the responsibility of decision-making but lacks all of the authority. That is hard.
As if that organizational structure weren’t tough enough, there’s the personal growth needed for people to move from staff to leader.
As a staff member, you are an individual contributor. Your job is to get things done through your own work. You are expected to have the answers to the questions about your domain. In fact, having the answers is how you get good performance reviews and promotions.
But somewhere along the way, that all changes.
Problems Nonprofit Leaders Face
As you grow in leadership, you find that having the answers leads to one of two problems.
1. Your Employees Say You Micromanage Them
This can come from a well-meaning desire to help. Most of your career, helping was equated with having the answers — and being proactive in having answers. When you saw something, you would succeed by doing something about it. So now, as a leader, you feel you're helping when you provide answers for questions your staff has not asked yet. But they don’t seem to feel as grateful for your help as you have grown accustomed to expecting. They see you as getting in the way.
2. You Become Overwhelmed
The sheer number of questions your staff members bring to you is dizzying. And the minutiae of the details is numbing. You already have a full-time job as a leader of the nonprofit. Now though, it feels like you have to do their jobs in addition to your job. You simply do not have enough time to do all of that, so you become the bottleneck that slows the entire organization down.
The consequences of getting stuck being in a position of leadership but acting like an individual contributor are dire. Your team starts disengaging. Rather than a vibrant, motivated team, you have a bunch of people who seem to be mailing it in.
Or worse, they are happy to load you with all their questions and decisions. They love that they don’t have to take any responsibility, more than willing to pass the buck to you.
Magic Words to Help You Grow Into Your Leadership Position
Leadership gets easier as you plan for the critical conversations you have daily. Having some phrases and questions ready will help you and your team move forward.
Here are two phrases that nonprofit leaders should say every day. These go together as well as peanut butter and jelly.
1. ‘I Don’t Know.’
“I don’t know” is such a hard phrase for new leaders to say. It goes against everything you think you should be saying. As the leader, shouldn’t you have the answers? And if you admit you don’t know, will people think you’re not qualified for your leadership role?
For many leaders, saying “I don’t know” even feels like cheating — like they are somehow not doing their job if they say that to a direct report.
In reality, saying these words helps your team become more independent. You are signaling that you trust them enough to admit you do not know. You are helping to give them back ownership over their areas of responsibility.
In the beginning, you might want to practice saying this in private until it starts feeling more natural. In time, you will realize saying “I don’t know” does not discredit your authority as a leader.
2. ‘What Do You Think?’
If the first phrase starts giving your team back ownership of their area of responsibility, the second phrase allows them to share their brilliance.
“What do you think?” helps you as a leader stop doing the other person’s job. You are encouraging them to do their own thinking. And you are training them to come to you with ideas, not just questions.
“What do you think?” also shows them honor. It signals to them that you are confident they have insights that can impact the team or organization.
And the fact that you have already said you do not always know gives them the psychological safety to answer more freely. They know this is not a test where you are not trying to trip them up. You actually do want to know what they think.
Where Is Your Confidence Centered?
As a nonprofit leader, where is your confidence centered? For most of your career, you were supposed to have confidence in your ability to know how to do things. But as you grow in leadership, you need to make a conscious shift. You need to shift your confidence from your own individual ability to accomplish tasks to confidence in your team’s ability.
The phrases “I don’t know” and “What do you think?” will help you grow that confidence. And help you grow your team. Used together, these words will help your team shift from seeing you as a bottleneck in the nonprofit to seeing you as a leader committed to helping them grow.
Concord Leadership Group founder Marc A. Pitman, CSP, helps leaders lead their teams with more effectiveness and less stress. Whether it’s through one-on-one coaching of executives, conducting high-engagement trainings or growing leaders through his ICF-accredited coach certification program, his clients grow in stability and effectiveness.
He is the author of "The Surprising Gift of Doubt: Use Uncertainty to Become the Exceptional Leader You Are Meant to Be" He’s also the author of "Ask Without Fear!"— which has been translated into Dutch, Polish, Spanish and Mandarin. A FranklinCovey-certified coach and Exactly What To Say Certified Guide, Marc’s expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences around the world both in person and with online presentations.
He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing '80s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family!