Lessons in Leadership
A book excerpt
By Philip Coltoff
The Children's Aid Society's former CEO shares lessons he learned during 24 years of leading the agency.
Many people see two clear styles of leadership: authoritarian and autocratic, or participatory and democratic. Max Weber, a famous social scientist from the early 20th Century, characterized these different styles as vertical and horizontal. Both are necessary. The not-for-profit executive needs to be a figure of authority without being authoritarian, a person of strength without being a strong person. The most central challenge is serving as a catalyst, inspiring the staff to reach their full potential.
Vertical leadership strengthens the role of the top executive in setting direction, standards, and policy and is often referred to as "top-down" management. The horizontal approach is more collegial, invests more authority to others, and involves considerable power sharing. Neither approach, on its own, is ideal.
Agency executives who yield too much power and authority to others in the horizontal model often abdicate their responsibility to lead. They are fearful of the consequences and responsibilities that accompany decision-making and therefore delegate it to others. On the other hand, executives who only pronounce from above and expect people to follow do not understand the importance of engaging every person on every branch in the tree of responsibility.
The executive has to find the proper balance. She has to know when to delegate and when to make decisions herself. She needs to share authority and power, but she also needs to know when to intervene. Everyone knows the joke about the difficult, perplexing, or daunting issue that comes up, only to be referred to committee, where it will languish forever. Instead of dodging responsibility, a good executive director addresses those issues directly, leading vertically.
Other instances call for the horizontal approach. I recently told some of our staff, who were busily drafting their annual budget, that I could have gone into my office, locked the door, worked for three hours, and devised essentially the same document that was taking them weeks and months to prepare and finalize.
Why not do it that way and save lots of time? Because in so doing, you deny your staff an opportunity to own the process, to be involved in the development of such an important instrument, to learn from their participation and feel empowered that they struggled, invested, and ultimately defined their own budget.
The best leaders bring out the best in their staff. I've always tried to hire staff from the communities we serve and to offer opportunities for professional development. I think of Casper Lassiter, a young African American who came to our Dunlevy Milbank community center in Harlem at age 9, when he was living with his grandmother in an apartment on the same block as the center.
Casper's mother was struggling to make ends meet, and his father was in prison, but between his grandmother, his uncles, his extended family at Milbank, and his own hard work, Casper thrived. He excelled in our basketball league, joined our Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, and earned his first paycheck selling hot dogs as part of an entrepreneurial club at Milbank. Thanks in part to the connections he made in our basketball league, he earned a sports scholarship to the Salisbury School, a private high school in Connecticut.
When it was time for college, Children's Aid provided modest scholarship support to help him attend Lehigh University, where he studied social psychology and theater, and we later provided a staff scholarship when he attended the Hunter College Graduate School of Social Work. We are lucky indeed that he has chosen to remain with us, working today as the assistant director at Milbank. He is married, the father of a 6-month-old son and two girls, ages 10 and 7, who now also attend our programs.
Leaders who are catalysts help employees at all levels figure out what they need to thrive. For messengers, that might mean providing an on-the-job mentor and offering a flexible schedule so they can finish a high school degree. For senior executives, it might mean employment arrangements that make it possible to simultaneously lecture or consult, or simply providing the autonomy they need to bring programs to new heights. Catalysts constantly encourage their staff to learn, share ideas, experiment, and expand their intellectual horizons.
Instead of thinking of leadership as strictly horizontal or vertical, executive directors should take a more nuanced approach that incorporates elements of both. Even more important, leaders should consistently strive to create an environment that sparks personal and institutional growth.
Encouraging High-Level Performance and Morale
It's not fashionable these days to admit we are drawn to people who possess power and are bold and forthright in its use, but surely we are. Even the professional literature over the years has spoken of leadership as constituting three interconnected systems: power, affection, and communication. All three elements deserve closer attention.
Power, if used correctly, is necessary to implement an agency's goals. The communication system, formal and informal, is equally important. This is as true in the age of the Internet as it was in the era of the mimeograph machine. Affection is also crucial: Leaders need to be liked and to share positive feelings toward others. The leader who is strong but despised is isolated and ineffective. The leader who is liked but not strong is seen as spineless. Leaders who are likable and strong but do not know how to share, delegate, distribute, and reward are also ineffective.
Communication and affection are often intertwined, as is the case with staff development. Salaries are never the sole reason people remain on the job. High turnover is the bane of the not-for-profit manager, and we all know that even when compensation levels are adequate, they are not enough to retain staff over the long haul.
What else is needed? Over time, I've found that employees stay with an agency when they believe the agency cares about them, that it is committed not only to its mission but also to its employees. Staff members want to be a part of the executive director's work family. They want to be known and noticed, admired and respected.
In smaller organizations, the executive should take the time to know every employee. In larger organizations, the executive should still try to know each employee's name and can create a caring environment through institutional arrangements. This can include an employee assistance program that provides counseling for staff coping with serious issues like divorce and the death of a loved one. It can also include a scholarship program to support professional development.
Other helpful steps include flexible work arrangements for new parents and compassionate policies providing medical leave and time off to care for ailing relatives. At The Children's Aid Society, we also implemented a domestic violence prevention program with the help of my wife, Lynn Harman, an attorney who established such a program in her for-profit company. This proved useful not only for our clients but also for many of our staff.
An effective leader also opens the channels of communication with staff members, encouraging them to think independently. Staff should feel they can express their ideas within their departments--and directly to management. A leader is a change agent, and a change agent looks critically not only at our larger society but also at his own agency, seeing it as a dynamic, ever-changing organism. Staff members can help create change by setting up committees to address issues and policies of concern. This should be more than an outlet for frustration. Have the foresight and the courage to follow through and change dysfunctional systems--we all have them, and only through an effort by all involved will we improve or replace them.
Each organization has different needs and different budgets, yet even in difficult times, the executive director cannot ignore the importance of providing tangible support for work that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Incentive pay and modest bonuses are crucial to the process.
Another useful measure is establishing an employee excellence award program, which institutionalizes a commitment to excellence at all levels, from professionals to support staff to maintenance workers. This program, which we initiated at Children's Aid 15 years ago, involves a small monetary award and a citation; employees attend a ceremony, often accompanied by family members, where their supervisor lauds their accomplishments. To recognize the importance of their efforts, I always attend along with our board president or chair.
I also believe very strongly in interacting directly with staff. Visiting the various work sites, floor by floor or building by building, has always been part of my regular routine, especially on evenings, weekends, and holidays, when staff give up their personal time to provide around-the-clock support for clients. It's amazing to see how much staff members appreciate it when the executive director visits on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning, at nine in the evening, or on a Sunday afternoon. A visit of this sort shows front-line staff they are not alone in their work, that the executive travels the same path they do. It shows how deeply the director values their contributions.
An old camp director of mine would say, "Smile. It only takes six muscles. Frowning takes more than 300." I agree. It's so easy to give recognition and spend a few hours in the field. It cheers you up, it inspires the staff, and it's always more productive than locking yourself in the office with budget sheets.
Risks and Rewards
Around 1970, before the advent of Roe v. Wade in 1973, there was a short, sharp spike in the incidence of teen births in the United States. At The Children's Aid Society, we didn't need to review the data--we saw the situation firsthand throughout our programs and services, where our staff were increasingly at the receiving end of sensitive questions about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and illegal abortions. This led, in turn, to questions directed to the top: What was our position? Where did we stand? How best could we help teens who trusted us to provide sound advice?
Instead of ignoring or avoiding teen sexuality--a politically charged topic then and now--we chose to take a risk and address the issue directly. It was indeed fortuitous I had been introduced by a mutual friend to Michael Carrera, who earned his doctorate in health sciences with a specialty in human sexuality. I passed on the questions from our staff to Mike, and his answers were so useful and insightful that I knew he had to join us. He was a professor at Hunter College, on his way to becoming a national expert on sexuality education, but I was able to hire him part-time, and he eventually developed an "above the waist" teen pregnancy prevention program that is intensive, comprehensive, and not inexpensive. It is also highly controversial.
The program is now adapted or replicated in about 50 locations nationwide and does so much more than prevent pregnancies. Children join at age 11 and continue until high school, attending workshops six days a week for 50 weeks a year. Mike now runs the program full-time, and he advocates a "lifeguard" approach, jumping in and doing everything humanly possible to help participants succeed. As he puts it, "Hope is a powerful contraceptive. The way you help young people avoid pregnancy is by providing them with real evidence that good things can happen in their lives."
We provide this evidence through academic assistance, job training, mental health services, sports and arts classes, and medical and dental care. None of this raises alarm. Yet the program also includes unusually clear and direct discussions of family and adolescent sexuality. Our counselors advise young people to wait to become sexually active, but they do not reject teens who ignore the advice, and instead offer practical information on how to avoid pregnancies; when they do occur, counselors provide information on the full range of options. Pregnancies have been a rare outcome over the two decades of the program. This program was risky for the agency when we started, and it remains risky today, especially in a time when "abstinence only" is the government's preferred approach.
Yet this risk has led to incredible rewards, especially for the thousands of young people who have graduated from the program. A three-year evaluation, conducted by Philliber Research Associates, found that ours is the only program in the country working with teens in disadvantaged communities that has achieved reductions in both pregnancies and births. In fact, teen girls in our group were nearly 50% less likely to experience pregnancy and births than teen girls in the control group.
This extraordinary success underscores the importance of standing up for principles and taking risks in programming, even if it means forgoing government funding for this program for more than 20 years. Another level of risk involves honestly confronting dysfunction and failure within programs and services, and sharing issues directly with staff and board members. At the board level, it's much easier to put on a monthly dog-and-pony show that highlights stellar programs and services. But even the best organizations have weak spots, and the board needs to know where they are.
The board should also understand the risks and exposures that accompany governance--and this isn't just about proper bylaws, current directors' and officers' insurance, and compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley. The real risks involve the work we do and the challenges that come with the work, from a child getting lost on a field trip, being sexually molested by a guardian, or even dying while in the agency's care. Despite all our efforts, crises can and do occur, and they shouldn't take board members by surprise.
Painting a true picture can be painful, but it does offer benefits. It creates a sense of teamwork and gives the board and staff the opportunity to join the executive in solving crises and problems. It also builds trust--if the staff and the board see that you accurately assess risk, it helps them feel better prepared. It can't be stressed too often: Open communication is essential for a strong, effective organization.
Philip Coltoff is Special Advisor to and former CEO of The Children's Aid Society, New York, New York.
This article is excerpted and adapted from The Challenge of Change, Leadership Strategies for Not-For-Profit Executives and Boards, by Philip Coltoff and published last year with support from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, New York University School of Social Work, and in cooperation with The Children's Aid Society.
Coltoff led The Children's Aid Society in New York City from 1981 to 2005 and continues to consult for the organization. Under Coltoff's leadership, the agency's budget grew from $10 million to $80 million annually, and its community school and teen pregnancy prevention programs were adapted in more than 1,500 sites nationally and internationally.
The Challenge of Change can be purchased for $14.95 by contacting Angela Pelliccia at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 212/949-4918, while supplies last. Proceeds benefit The Children's Aid Society.
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