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  • Pat Libby

Six Steps to Inclusive Leadership

I often see important decisions at nonprofits being made solely by like-minded stakeholders. For example, a senior leadership team or a group of board members assume they know what’s right for the organization without taking the time to verify that their version of reality is on target. While the team approach may seem like a more efficient way of gathering input, it often results in an echo chamber of the group’s thoughts and approaches. Sprinkling in an outsider or two, doesn’t do much to change the dynamic.

Navigating complexity – whether it’s leading an executive search, determining an optimal staff or governance structure, developing a strategic plan etc. – calls for strategic leadership that is inclusive.

Strategic leaders do six things:
  1. Engage a broad swath of people in a process that helps name problems and solutions.

  2. Listen carefully and with an open mind to people’s thoughts and concerns.

  3. Shape proposals based on the conversation and data.

  4. Seek out champions for the proposed solutions.

  5. Convey the results to all those who provided input and helped determine the outcome.

  6. Build mechanisms for revisiting and refining the solutions or directions that emerge.

Good strategy work requires talking to stakeholders throughout an organization to get their perspectives on what’s needed to move the organization forward.

Board members are terrific to query because they bring skills and perspectives that are one-step removed from the day-to-day fray. Program staff can offer important perspectives because they are so close to (and hopefully dedicated to) the service or product that the organization is providing. And finally, constituents – people who are on the receiving end of services or closely related to them (for example, caregivers) – also have rich insights into how well things are going.

This type of process – which should be done a regular basis for strategy work – requires careful listening skills and an inquisitive mindset that is genuinely interested in learning from what people have to say (regardless of whether their comments are upsetting or diverge from initial thoughts about how to tackle the issue).

Strategic leadership requires an openness to change and adaptability.

Listening is done best within a context that tests assumptions throughout a continuing series of conversations with stakeholders. That vetting builds support for news ideas as they are being developed which creates momentum for the change that needs to occur. Along the way, you’ll identify key influencers who will generate excitement about the direction that is emerging.

Finally, once it’s done, it ain’t over.

Good leaders think about how to inform people about the decisions that resulted from their input so that those folks know their voice mattered. Communication is key.

They also provide ways to receive regular feedback to assess that whatever has been implemented is working as it was intended (and if not, to ask questions about how to make things better).

Change is messy. Progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line.

But by strategically engaging stakeholders in a process of gathering information, adapting it, finding champions for the ideas that emerge, informing people of the choices they shaped, and revisiting the implementation, you have a good shot at being a successful leader and manager.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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