Today begins my last week as executive director of the Berrett-Koehler Foundation. This is the second time I’ve done this with an organization—served as executive director during the startup phase—and I’ve learned many lessons along the way.
My involvement began two years ago when Steve Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, asked me to help create a new organization that would further their mission of helping to create a world that works for all in a way that went beyond what Berrett-Koehler could do as a publisher.
I began by facilitating a design team. After research and serious consideration, we determined the focus would be to support the next generation of leaders in putting into practice the systems-changing ideas and tools that authors were writing about.
We named it the Berrett-Koehler Foundation, incorporated and applied for 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit.
At that point I agreed to serve as the executive director to support the startup period and to give the board time to find a permanent director. I was not interested in the permanent role because most executive directors spend the majority of their time fundraising, an area that is not my expertise or interest. My strength is in creating and implementing a shared vision and developing a strong leadership team.
We have successfully moved through the startup phase, have accomplished an impressive amount which is listed on our website, and the board has hired a talented permanent director.
Six Leadership Lessons
I’ve consulted with leaders and written about leadership for over 25 years, but you can learn some powerful lessons when you’re actually in a leadership role. Here are my top lessons:
1. Leadership is messy. You WILL make mistakes, even if you think you are an expert. Develop humility. Anyone who advises leaders should spend time in a leadership role. There are a lot of armchair advisors with strong opinions about what leaders should do. You will discover it’s not so easy to do it. The more important questions are what you will do about your mistakes and how you will learn from them.
2. Get a coach. Each time I have taken over leadership of an organization, the first thing I did was get an external coach. It doesn’t matter how good you are as a leader, you need someone you respect and trust to help you look objectively at the bigger picture.
3. Ultimately leadership comes down to who you are. Read books and articles about what great leaders do. It’s important to learn the models, tools and practices of great leadership. But there is no leadership cookbook. Under pressure, all the best techniques go out the window. Nothing is more important than authenticity.
4. Connect with the people in your organization. Be willing to be open, vulnerable and to listen. You will get feedback that is hard to hear because it doesn’t fit with your idealized self-image. It will be the greatest gift you get because you will grow as a person and will become a better leader. You can’t make mid-course corrections without feedback, and your people are the greatest source of feedback.
5. Take a strong stand AND let them make mistakes. There will be times you will see clearly what needs to be done and you will need to decide whether to intervene. This is often a hard call to make. Sometimes you will need to take a stand. Develop thick skin because your decisions will not be appreciated by everyone. But there are many paths to a destination. If you always intervene, you can keep things on track, but your team will remain dependent on you. It’s hard to watch them make a decision that is going to have negative repercussions, but these are the opportunities for them to learn, grow and coalesce as a team.
6. Look for and create opportunities to have discussions about the big picture – the purpose of the organization, where you’re going, and the values that guide your journey. The day-to-day issues are pressing, and it is human nature to want to focus on solving them. Never assume the vision is understood. You need to keep the conversation alive. Being the champion of the vision does not mean you continually explain it. For people to understand and embody it, they must struggle with it themselves.
At our last board meeting, we added a new member. To help her onboard, I asked each person to explain what was most important and exciting about our purpose from their own viewpoint. Each one explained it slightly differently and connected with a different piece, but there was a strong common thread. And at that point, I knew I had done my job. I am leaving the organization in good hands. They have coalesced as a leadership team and will be able to guide this wonderful new organization through its next phase.
You will be missed as a leader and as a colleague. The foundation you gave them these past two years will serve the Berrett-Kohler Foundation well through the life of their organization far into the future. Congratulations on bringing the team successfully through to graduation.
Thank you, Jane. I appreciate your thoughts and good wishes. It’s gratifying to help birth a new organization and support its moving to independence, and I’m pleased with the mission and great work they are doing. Although I’ll no longer be a leader, I’ll maintain my connections with colleagues and the Foundation. And I’ll stay on in a limited role as Director of Strategic Relationships through the rest of this year.
Jesse, having been in a leadership position myself, I found your “lessons” to be tried and true–great wisdom. I also know what an important coach you can be because at times you have been mine! I wish every leader could have a coach, or consultant, with the creativity and good sense that you have.
Thanks, Barbara. Glad these lessons rang true for you. As the former officer of a Fortune 500 company, you provide the litmus test.
Fascinating how–with humility and authenticity–comes profound lessons which you have graciously shared with us.
I think there’s one other lesson for all leaders: Have faith when the spirit says “move”. You had no certainty that all the pieces would fall in line. There was no guarantee that all your work would result in anything more than an experience on a resume. You operated from a personal belief in the worthiness of the Foundation. Without an intrinsic belief in the “worthiness”, staying the course, hearing feedback, getting a coach, etc. would not have worked.
Right now, Robert MacDonald, former head of P&G, has been tapped to lead the very trouble VA. Have had conversations with Bob and exchanged emails, I know that his decision to accept that challenge is predicated upon his deep belief in the worthiness of the endeavor.
Thank you Jesse for your leadership.
Excellent point, Eileen. Being passionate about the mission of the organization is probably the #1 success factor for a leader. Thanks for your explanation and great example of the challenge facing MacDonald.
Jesse — you’re the reason I joined the BK Foundation board, and I’m not alone. Your passion, enthusiasm and unwavering leadership has inspired us all. You are, indeed, a start-up master and you’ve been the glue for this group during its forming phase. I will miss you greatly — but I know how to find you:)
Thanks for your leadership and hard work. We’ll do our best to keep what you created alive and thriving!
Thanks so much, Sharon. I will miss you all greatly, but I have no doubt you will keep it alive and thriving.
What came through for me is that you were clear about the mission and what had to be done. What a difference you made. Every one of these Six Lessons is critically important and serve as a reminder to me in my role at the Hearing Loss Association of America’s New York City Chapter. I’ve read this blog more than once…and will read it again. Thanks for sharing your insights.
Thanks, Holly. I appreciate your stressing the importance a clear, worthwhile mission. Not only does that guide decisions around where to focus energies but it helps maintain commitment, as Eileen pointed out. Warm wishes for the important work you are doing!
Thank you so much for the excellent job you did getting the foundation started. We sooooooo appreciate your talents. It has been an amazing journey with much success and you’ve left it in great hands. Your skill sets were perfect for us. Julie
Thanks, Julie. Your support has been invaluable!
Jesse – All six of these are so important, but let me comment on one. When you are President of a large corporation, it’s hard to get feedback from the bottom of the organization. I did it by organizing committees that had people from all levels of organization. I was the chair of the Public Policy Committee because so much of what influenced our human service world came from the state or federal government. In the course of those meetings over many years, the group came to know and trust me. It was then that I heard what was important for me to hear. Without that structure, my information would have only come from senior management.
Good luck as you move on!
Joining a cross-functional, cross-level team, especially where you are not the leader of the team, is a great way to get information on what’s really happening and real feedback. It’s easy to be isolated when you’re a senior leader, and even when people do talk with you, they aren’t always as forthcoming with the whole picture for fear of reprisal. When you’re part of a committee, whether an important one or even just planning a celebration, conversations relax and you can learn a lot. You put a lot of thought into picking the right committee with a long-term commitment, which had an even greater payoff. Thanks for your wise counsel, Betsy.
Jesse- As a young leader, I found your point about authenticity especially important. Too often I believe young professionals are so concerned about discovering the perfect “recipe” for leadership that they fail to get involved. We need to inspire more people to step away from the how-to books and practice, make mistakes, and be themselves! Thank you for providing me, (and others!), with a 6 manageable tips to follow as we take our first leadership steps.
So glad you found this helpful, Megan. I couldn’t agree with you more. Well said!