My biggest leadership lesson ever
Four years ago, I became Chair of the Board of Directors of Candace House. The organization was in a shambles and needed a reset in order to make progress on its goal of creating a first-of-its-kind refuge for victims, survivors, and loved ones impacted by violent crime.
I took on the challenge much in the same way I had taken on growing The Inclusion System. One issue at a time and very hands on.
We needed some money to pay the new Executive Director, so I made a few calls. We needed to find a physical location, so I drove around and looked for one.
Progress was slow. In retrospect, progress was limited by me. On day-to-day matters, there was just me and the part-time Executive Director and we just picked away at things, one issue at a time. The small Board was happy to see some progress made after a few years of not much action.
In my first two years as Chair, it did not look like we were getting very far. We had set up a website and we had raised enough money to cover our expenses, but we were not building up enough funds to ultimately create our space and we had not identified a viable location.
In the next two years, the ball really started rolling. Fundraising took off in earnest and all the things started happening that would lead to Candace House opening.
First, the cumulative effect of recruiting people with the right skills and an interest in helping us reach the goal started to create results. One example: we asked Ann, who had skills as a bookkeeper, to join the Board early on. From that point forward, neither the Executive Director nor I ever had to spend time worrying about the books. We could focus elsewhere. Another example was asking Aaron to help with the capital fundraising. Whereas the private large donor asks had been coming mostly from me, now they were coming from a far better connected and far more professional and focused person. There were many more people in roles just as critical as Ann and Aaron who joined the team. The common thread was that they all shared the vision and wanted to use their personal gifts to help make it happen.
Second, Cecilly, our Executive Director, came into her own as a leader. With funds coming in, the job moved closer and closer to full-time right in step with this remarkable woman’s development as a leader. I was smart and humble enough to get out of her way and move to a more supportive role. I was mightily tempted not to call myself “smart and humble” here because it does not feel humble to call myself humble. But this is a key point in leadership that I now understand. To achieve big things, we need to surround ourselves with people smarter than us and we need to be able to let them do their thing. This means putting ego and ownership aside and encouraging people to do all they can, even if it highlights how much more capable than us they are.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins’s classic business book, one of the key concepts is the idea of the flywheel as a symbol of something that great businesses have going for them. Great companies, the ones that created consistently excellent results, had this flywheel effect going for them. They had a consistent vision in place and there were visible steps happening all the time consistent with that vision, steps that fed the next steps and energized everyone involved. Candace House started to benefit from this effect faster and faster as the depth of the team grew, Cecilly came into her own, and I had the good sense to back away from the day-to-day.
This experience with Candace House has allowed me to see leadership in a new light, whereas with the growth of our company over the past 20 years, it is harder to see the changes happening. The growth of Candace House over a much shorter time frame, has allowed me to see my mistakes and my successes much more clearly and I think has cemented the lessons for life.
Build a great team, set a compelling vision, support people in their roles, refine the vision when necessary and always remind people about it, coach through the mistakes, help out where you can, remind people how important what they are doing is, never be a jerk, celebrate the successes…this is how you get the flywheel rolling and keep it rolling.
It really helps when the vision is as powerful as the vision that Wilma and Cliff Derksen set for Candace House. Thank you to all the people who made Candace House a reality.
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