News & Views

A blog for those interested in what affects, motivates and drives the New York City Nonprofit Sector — written by CRE’s crackerjack consulting team. We hope you use this space to share your thoughts, ask questions and engage in conversations about our city, social justice and the nonprofit sector.

Coaching: A Critical Skill for Effective Nonprofit Management


By Mohan Sikka, Managing Director - Corporations – including nonprofit organizations – are not people, as the Supreme Court seems to believe. But they are made up of people: boards, leaders, staff teams, volunteers, clients. In all aspects of leadership, management and operations, these people have to deal with each other, quirks and all. What gets overlooked sometimes by managers is that they, not a strategic plan or a tracking form, have to be agents of change and accountability. In other words, there's no getting around the reality that relationships are key to management success, and that what we think, feel, say and do, our presence as human beings, and how we communicate and relate, are the primary tools we have to organize, motivate, and influence others.

Many executives and managers shy away from the human implications of what it means to run an organization or a program. In the midst of all the external and internal demands, they avoid difficult conversations and hard truths, allow sub-optimal board or supervisory situations to drag on, and especially resist facing their own shortcomings. The consequence is that plans sit on shelves because no one wants the hassle of managing resistance. Necessary changes aren't made until a crisis erupts and even then, reluctantly. People “assume” leadership roles on paper but don't actually step into them. Toxic relationships are allowed to fester and poison team morale.

Coaching, in my experience, is a way to deal with these human issues head-on.

So What Is Coaching?

Coaching is a high-impact style of working one-to-one with managers to help them clearly identify their current challenge or situation (especially their role in creating it), assess the costs and benefits of staying stuck, and create a desired state or outcome to move towards. At Community Resource Exchange (CRE), our coaching is grounded in data and assessment; most of our coaching work starts with a 360° evaluation of management abilities. For example, if my supervisory style is the challenge I want to work on, I first need to know how others perceive my behavior and its impact on them. If I am entering a role for which I feel poorly equipped, it would be useful to know what others think of my strengths and gaps and how closely this matches my own self-perception. If I am overwhelmed, I might want an accurate sense of how I am spending my time and attention, rather than how I think I'm spending them.

After a clarifying assessment, the coach helps the manager work systematically towards a desired change. Problems become useful material to help grow particular muscles: the muscle of exploration and discovery, for example, or the muscle of becoming more assertive in service of effectiveness, or the muscle of managing the anxiety of making unpopular decisions. It is important to note that coaching is distinct from mentoring, a much more personal and informal practice. A mentor provides perspective from life experiences to help mentees develop, while a coach helps a client come up with their own perspectives and strategies on given issues.

The coaching process holds accountability for both learning and doing, so that new behaviors are tried, their impact is reflected on, and any insights are incorporated into future action. While problems are solved during the coaching process, what the coaching is really doing is helping the manager become more adept at negotiating emotional terrain, their own and other people's, and figuring out what relationship behaviors work and with whom. We know from experience that managers who are more adaptable and nimble in handling people and situations are more likely to succeed and guide their teams towards impact.

Executive and management coaching has been an integral part of management development in the corporate world for many years. In fact, Bill Ryan, a leading nonprofit consultant and researcher, states in a recent report that 50% of North American companies use coaching, and of those that don’t use it, 40% say they will use it in the future. Contrast this with the 2011 “Daring to Lead” study by CompassPoint and the Agnes and Eugene Meyer Foundation that says only 10% of nonprofit executives surveyed currently use coaching, even though those who use it find it highly effective. Following this study, there has been renewed interest in coaching as a way to bolster leadership and managerial capacity, and get nonprofits to the holy grail of improved performance and effectiveness. Most management consulting groups either have coaches on staff or can connect you to a certified/experienced coach. There are also many individual practitioners who offer this service.

How Does Coaching Impact Nonprofit Leadership?

Coaching has impact in two ways. First, it gives executives and managers new skills of awareness, perspective, and positive engagement with others. An example of a recent successful client engagement involving coaching is a Brooklyn-based multiservice agency with a senior team that was challenged with making and executing decisions. Personal styles and differences were getting in the way of team cohesion and were ultimately affecting the development and rollout of needed programs. We first administered a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and 360° Feedback Survey to each management team member. Individual results were compiled to create team profiles. We then coached all senior managers, individually and collectively, to help them gain insight into which behaviors and ways of doing business were moving the team forward, and which were holding them back. The work brought the managers closer together, not in removing differences completely, but in helping them learn how to negotiate differences in a constructive and timely way.

We also worked with a board chair and executive director of a youth-serving organization who were forthright about their opinions and expectations in private but were challenged in sharing them openly with each other. The coaching allowed each one to test the waters with the other, slowly gaining trust and confidence in speaking their mind and testing their assumptions with each other. Over time, they transformed their just-getting-by relationship into a powerful partnership whose impact radiated out to the full board and the organization. As donors saw the board and executive leader speaking with one mind, more resources started flowing into the agency, reversing a long-standing trend towards deficit operation.

The second benefit is that coaching also helps managers become coaches, in turn, and makes them more adept at facilitating their staff’s growth and development. Thus effective coaching can be a critical supplement to traditional modes of managing, such as strategy setting, goal monitoring, and advice-giving. Instead of only a top-down approach and fixing problems for others, the manager can now support their staff become confident and self-reliant in solving their own problems, which is vital for developing people and teams for long-term success.

What Skills Will Coaching Help Me Develop?

Nonprofit managers, in my experience, are looking for strategies that work. They are short of time and resources, and the pressure to perform and show results in this environment is more intense than ever. In this context, it is vital that managers “get out of their own way” and engage in relationship practices that are more likely to motivate and influence others towards a shared mission, given that hierarchical approaches have limited efficacy in today’s world.

In a supervisory relationship, this means skills like deep listening, a comfort level with emotions (in fact, an ability to use them constructively), checking for agreement and dissonance over a command-and-control default, and making room for trial and error and for other perspectives. Many things about a coaching stance are intuitive, or can be learned with practice. The “manager as coach” practices inquiry over providing ready solutions; believes that people are naturally resourceful and creative, and able to solve their problems with support; and champions others in getting to their inner reserves of wisdom and experience.

Coaching, as we practice it at CRE, helps nonprofit leaders to strengthen these skills to more effectively manage themselves and their teams to greater results. It is a highly effective tool that can have a deep and lasting impact on the individual, their peers, and ultimately, their organization.

Develop your coaching skills in a 3-day intensive workshop sponsored by Community Resource Exchange and the Coaches Training Institute.

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