BRYANT GROUP Articles & Posts


Leading The Way
Sally Bryant DeChenne
Senior Vice President & Principal, Talent Enrichment

BRYANT GROUP's Talent Enrichment provides services that help to build powerful teams, including executive coaching for those in fundraising and nonprofit leadership.

Many times the best way to get promoted to nonprofit management is to first succeed at something else, such as raising major gifts. At BRYANT GROUP, we find the majority of Vice Presidents in the fundraising arena as well as many nonprofit CEOs came up through the fundraising ranks.

Although fundraising experience is important in these leadership positions, it certainly doesn’t guarantee success.  As Larry C. Johnson outlines in his book The Eight Principles of Sustainable Fundraising, “[Organizations] have made the mistake of promoting their most creative talent into line management positions as a reward. The result is often a frustrated individual, robbed of what he or she does best….”

So how does a successful major gift officer become a great leader?  Following are few of the things I have learned during three decades of leadership training and experience.

A great leader continually seeks out learning opportunities on leadership. Always. The saying, “School is never out for the pro” should be part of a leader’s mantra.   She reads books on leadership. She participates in conferences and online education.  And each time she wants to take her leadership to the next level fast, she engages a coach or mentor.

A great leader is a great coach of his staff and volunteers. Truly effective coaches do two things: believe in people and ask the right questions. Being an effective coach of others does not come naturally to most people. Successful coaches respect those they are coaching, knowing they can figure out their own answers. Telling people what to do or how to do it has very little place in great leadership.

A great leader understands his strengths and his weaknesses—and how they are related. A major strength is usually a major stumbling block as well—two sides of the same coin. A person with an intense work ethic can get a lot done (strength) and can also burn himself out (weakness). An analytic leader weighs a variety of options to make optimal decisions (strength), but can also get stuck in “paralysis by analysis” (weakness). Recognizing how to stay on the “strengths” side of the coin is imperative.

A great leader connects successfully with all kinds of people—which first means learning about and understanding personality types. Many leaders work with an educator trained in this area to better lead their team or organization.

A great leader can see any situation through the other person’s eyes. Read Leadership & Self Deception by The Arbinger Institute. Seriously. Go online get it now.

A great leader is accountable, taking responsibility for the actions of her team or organization. Except when something outstanding takes place—then a great leader praises each participant publicly. Conversely, conversations about mistakes or negative behavior are held one-on-one.

A great leader maximizes her team by empowering the superstars, moving the middle and re-assigning the misplaced. 

  • Superstars are those who go above and beyond. Everything they touch turns to gold. A talented leader asks the superstars what they need and ensures they get it. She allows these people to shine in their strengths and also solicits their input on strategy and direction.  
  • The “middle” usually includes the majority of a team—they are the dependable, efficient employees. They receive satisfactory job reviews and generally work well with others. An effective leader praises these people for the activities they do well and works intentionally with a few at a time to raise up superstars.
  • The “misplaced” are those who truly could be more successful doing something else, somewhere else. Their work is not satisfactory and they tend to be in conflict with others on the team. Many times much of a leader’s energy is spent on this group.  A successful leader helps these employees see that they could be happier elsewhere, and then reassigns them or gives them time to find another job. Although this is never an enjoyable task, it is possible to do it with respect.

    Continual efforts in these three areas grow the superstar group and diminish or eliminate the misplaced group. The returns to bottom-line and to the team’s energy level are worth the effort.

A great leader serves others in his organization. The only truly effective leadership that produces positive change in the world is servant leadership. Organization charts really should be drawn “upside down.” The CEO (and the Board) should be at the bottom, supporting the rest of the organization. Great leaders are the broad shoulders of support; the ones who carry the weight of the organization or the team, which can only be done from underneath.

And finally. John C. Maxwell may have said it best, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

If you are a leader by chance or by choice, thank you for serving.

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