While executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Jan participated in the Women Executive Directors of Color network, conducted a study on nonprofit women executives of color, and experienced life through her lens as a Japanese American woman.
Here are some lessons I’ve drawn from listening, observing, and laughing with other executive director comrades over the years. Not all women EDs of color will agree with me of course . . .
1. Note to funders: Give us (unrestricted) money. Give us the chance to experiment, to make mistakes, to sleep at night, to take the time to nurture leaders within our organizations. At one meeting of about 30 women executive directors of color, we talked about what we might ask for as a group. Should we ask a foundation for a special speaker? For a weekend at a retreat center? For a facilitator? For tuitions to expensive leadership development programs? After a long pause, one woman spoke up: “Give us money.”
One of the biggest challenges that leaders face is responding to various constituencies, and nonprofit leaders work hard to manage funding to do so. Working with restricted grants and government contracts is like having 15 part-time jobs — with each employer designating which of your expenses your salary can be used to pay for.
To support leaders you believe in, invest in our organizations. The tool we lack for exercising our leadership skills is so often money: to give raises, to hire a COO or a development director, to spend time in community leadership roles, to investigate opportunities, to write, to meet with government officials . . . in short, to lead.
2. The strongest leaders have technical as well as soft skills, and have practiced them in the field. Women leaders frequently share a generosity of spirit and soft skills like facilitation and active listening. But in those I admire most, that generosity and those soft skills are informed by hard-won technical skills and by firsthand experience at the street level. They have handled kids who are out of control, then turned around and advocated for them. They have fired people for using drugs in a drug counseling center. They practiced law before working in a housing organization. Hard-won skills show, whether in social work, finance, science, community organizing or nursing.
“Try not to be a success,” said Albert Einstein; “try to be of value.” Two lessons for young people who want to be leaders: study biology or finance first (rather than leadership or ethics), and get field experience.
3. Leadership lingo is tolerated by real leaders, but less frequently embraced. Theories, models, and programs on leadership abound, but are often academic, paternalistic, corporate, pseudo-religious, or even out of pop psychology. Many days it seems like the language of yet another world to be navigated. One long-time woman executive director of color went to a leadership development conference and commented, “They were almost all young and white and I had no idea what they were talking about.” Women executives of color respond best when leadership language is direct, practical, applicable, and relevant.
4. Being a woman of color is both an asset and an obstacle to success, and leaders focus on the positive. The assumption is that being a woman of color is about facing obstacles. A study of women executive directors of color showed that women executive directors do face obstacles related to gender and race, but that there are advantages as well.
For organizations that serve people of color, an executive director from that same community is clearly an asset. Such executives quickly gain trust from staff and constituents, and they are well-positioned to represent their organizations to the broader community.
Especially for women of color who lead mainstream organizations, their rarity can be turned to advantage. “I work in the environmental field,” said one. “I tend to stand out.”
For me, the lesson is that race, gender, and age (like any attribute, for that matter) brings with it advantages and disadvantages. “Something offensive to me as an African American hits me every time I walk into the school district building,” comments one leader. But rather than focus on negatives, successful leaders figure out how to make every attribute work for them. This same leader adds, “Being African American, I know how to deal with them and get what I need for my families.”
5. When we observe leaders, there’s a lot we don’t know. At a meeting with a foundation, I remember another nonprofit executive — a white man with an MBA — who brought useful insights into the discussion that he had gained from his dinner the night before with his wife and her co-workers at a think tank. At the end of the meeting, I chatted with a woman executive director of color. She was struggling to take care of her nephew who she had recently taken in because her sister was on drugs. The juxtaposition reminded me of two realities: that we never know what personal lives lie behind the professionals we know, and that people from low income families often bear responsibilities unseen to their professional colleagues.
We want to value both theoretical insights and life experience — each more easily accessed by some people than others. How do we bring both into our work?
6. Over-hiring is a danger both to organizations and to leaders. But it’s not always easy to tell when that’s happening.
Among the women executive directors of color we’ve encountered are some who have been hired into jobs beyond their capabilities. Perhaps the board, in a hurry to hire, let hopeful thinking about a young, inexperienced candidate cloud their judgment. Not only do such over-hired executives often disappoint their organizations, their careers and achievements can be hurt. One foundation executive — herself a woman of color — commented about a young woman of color who was looking for a job: “She was in over her head on her last job, but now she’s been spoiled into thinking she can move up from there.”
7. Under-estimating young talent is also a danger. At a very early get-together of women executive directors of color, one of the participants was 19-year-old Lateefah Simon, three weeks into her job as executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development. “You could be getting set up to fail,” we older executives told her. One even suggested she quit right now. Seven years later, still on the job, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for her work.
On the Rise, CompassPoint’s study of women executive directors of color, showed that a remarkable 43% were hired from within the organization — compared to 36% of executive directors in general. One possible reason: when board members have had time to become comfortable with a woman of color, they are more likely to hire her than they would be to consider someone of comparable experience they don’t know.
8. Listen to all the advice, and keep your own counsel. Leaders get a lot of advice. From everybody. One of the benefits of working in a nonprofit is “continuous access to free (and unsolicited) advice from management experts in business and government.”
We might add: “And from people in foundations, government, and leadership development programs.” And a lot of this advice is so abstracted it is inadvertently patronizing. “Be bold.” “Take risks.” “Focus on outcomes.” “Trust yourself.” One executive commented, “Back when I was a journalist and sitting on boards I used to give advice to the executive director. Then I became one, and people started giving me advice like, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’ I realized how obnoxious I had been before.”
Learning from my colleagues, I try to accept every piece of advice into my heart as a message, no matter how trite and no matter who it comes from, as a truth for the moment.
9. Cultural competency includes working successfully with obnoxious people from privileged backgrounds and positions. Not all people with such backgrounds — whether donors, foundation program officers, or others — are obnoxious, but some percentage are. It’s hard to be patronized by a young program officer whose life experience is limited to graduate school and volunteering in the arts if you’ve been working with tough kids for 20 years. I learned from women executives of color (and my father) that getting what you want demands the ability to work with many different kinds of people, as well as the ability to keep from aspiring to be like those people.
10. Leaders — and everyone — appreciate articles that are brief. 🙂
Jan Masaoka is former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, a California-based nonprofit consulting, education, and leadership services organization. In that position she was named Nonprofit Executive of the Year by Nonprofit Times. She is now editor of Blue Avocado.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The Leader of the Future II, edited by Frances Hesselbein and Marshall Goldsmith, published by Jossey-Bass.