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.