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Leading for Impact: Navigating the Reality of Non-Profit Leadership in a Post-Pandemic World

Chekemma J. Fulmore-Townsend is President and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network. Chekemma attended the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – Virtual (SPNMV) Executive Education program at Harvard Business School in June. In the post below, she discusses her experience in the program. 

I came to the Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management (SPNM) program following the most challenging year of my professional career. For the past 22 years, the Philadelphia Youth Network has helped young people between the ages of 12 and 24 to prepare for their future careers. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were implementing our summer employment efforts to employ 8,000 youth. However, the national shutdown abruptly ended our work and the hope of all our plans. My confidence was instantly replaced with fear, uncertainty, and a lot of tough questions for which I did not have answers.

I felt the weight of the expectations of leadership and the personal responsibility to develop solutions, but I had never led during a pandemic before. Truthfully, no one had. I did not know if I was prepared. I viewed the SPNM program as a great opportunity to invest in sharpening my tools to lead more effectively. I now know that “normal” is forever redefined. I also know that the SPNM investment was the right one for me. Through this experience, I gained valuable insight that I am using to prepare for the next stage our organization’s evolution. The time I invested in learning new concepts and the perspective I gained through discussions with leaders from all over the world challenged and inspired me.

I was pleasantly surprised by the engaging lectures, the varied use of technology and the bond and support I gained from my daily small discussion group. Every day, we stayed much longer than required because our interactions were useful. It did not feel like a typical virtual experience, instead it was more like hanging out after an in-person class, reflecting and learning together. Truthfully, my team felt like trusted colleagues and close friends from the beginning. We were growing while supporting each other which made the experience more valuable. The time in my small groups refueled me which felt unusual given the length of time we were in front of the screen. Rather than feel screen fatigue, I ended each day with more energy than I started. The experience of generous reflection, thought-provoking dialogue, and authentic wishes for wellbeing and organizational impact is an unending gift I treasure.

I left the program with tangible skills and accessible frameworks that I could easily integrate, test and use with PYN staff and board members. I have already applied three concepts that I learned and have witnessed greater results. There are three game changers that I tried within the first month of completing the program:

The first is the “Known-Knowns, Known-Unknowns, and Unknown-Unknowns” framework for navigating change and uncertainty, which helped me better explain new ideas to my board and staff members. I used this strategy to build buy-in for my vision to move the organization forward. By reframing my position and information using these three categories, it evoked confidence, clarity and acceptance for changing the way we work.

The second was using “Divergent and Convergent Thinking” to encourage change, generate options and make decisions. I refer to this as the “zoom in, zoom out, decide, and declare” method. Change fatigue is draining many non-profit leaders and our organization is not immune. The pace and intensity of change can drain staff of both energy and motivation. To combat change fatigue, I have used this approach in one-on-one and department meetings to develop new solutions. I tried this approach at our first in-person executive leadership team meeting and the response, engagement and speed to results was rewarding and productive.

The last was using “operational transparency” to promote staff engagement and recognition. To be more effective as a leader, I increased my communication frequency and shifted our quarterly “All Staff” meeting to a monthly check-in. During every meeting, we acknowledge the outstanding work of our colleagues with a People You Notice (PYN) award. Increasing the visibility of staff accomplishments and naming what they did while we worked remotely increased results, connection, motivation, and workplace satisfaction. It also reinforced our goal to maintain a culture of accountability, results and celebration.

To lead effectively, I was challenged to reimagine, rethink, revise and rebuild. The SPNM program gave me frameworks, examples through case studies, and relationships that helped me grow and own organizations path forward. Leading for impact is choosing to move forward in the face of ambiguity. SPNM helped me develop new skills to become a better leader.

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