The Climb Ahead

by | April 13, 2020

The tectonic shocks of a world now defined by COVID-19 will settle over time, but the landscape of our lives may never look the same. If this seems bleak, then for good reason: as public health officials anticipate viral peaks, we isolate and idle in a valley of existential concern and economic uncertainty. Yet, this crumbling normalcy also serves to slow time and sharpen reflection, which can bring unexpected gifts. New peaks in our lives may be defined and reached. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about this clarification of purpose in his recently published book, The Second Mountain: A Quest for a Moral Life, in which he explores the common experience of those who have spent the primary half of their lives ascending the “first mountain” – the mountain of material success and professional ambition – only to find themselves unfulfilled. He notes that it is often only after the experience of true adversity, be it an acrimonious divorce, struggle with addiction or any other human hardship (a global pandemic must now be included), that we are able to find our “second mountain” – the mountain of service and other-centeredness – and achieve the elusive fulfillment so many of us seek. 

In our work recruiting and advising senior leaders of the world’s most dynamic social sector organizations, we have witnessed this phenomenon first-hand. Several of the most successful leaders have pivoted to mission-driven organizations following long careers in the private sector.  In years past, it hasn’t taken a pandemic to inspire this potential.  Many have been driven by a desire to find more meaning in their lives – leveraging their own range of capabilities, and finding their highest and best use.  The catalyst of COVID-19, however, may accelerate this trend and drive a seismic shift of talent from the business sector to the nonprofit sector.  

Leaders who are considering such a pivot often underestimate the applicability and value to the nonprofit sector of the skillset and expertise that they have developed in their corporate roles. In our research previously published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, we found a definable set of skills that differentiate the most impactful nonprofit leaders, based on psychometric assessment of more than 60 best-in-class CEOs from the private and nonprofit sectors. Professionals considering ascending their own “second mountain” should seek to cultivate these traits in themselves, and clearly articulate these competencies when speaking with prospective hiring organizations:

  • Confident and creative problem-solving: The limited resources with which nonprofits invariably operate require that their leadership possess creative problem-solving skills. Funding gaps necessitate flexibility in developing new business models and innovative donor engagement strategies, while the lack of real-time, hard data to support decision-making (compared to the private sector) calls for a leader with the confidence to trust their intuition.
  • Pragmatic critical thinkers: Social sector leaders make decisions that have the potential to save or significantly improve the lives of millions of individuals. The weight of this responsibility requires managers who are pragmatic and able to critically evaluate imperfect information to reach the best possible decision – for example, streamlining long-standing programs in order to maximize the impact of limited resources. Additionally, the often complex and highly regulated bureaucratic systems within which many nonprofits operate require that effective leaders anticipate problems and focus on objectives, rather than procedure, in order to drive results. An entrepreneurial and flexible mindset is essential.
  • Collaborative and empathetic team players: Since social sector organizations often require consensus-building across a range of stakeholders and constituencies, they benefit from leaders who can navigate complex inter-personal dynamics while keeping the entire organization engaged. In a multi-stakeholder environment, leaders who are receptive to others’ views are more likely to effectively build consensus and succeed. This collaborative spirit will be particularly valuable as organizations adjust to the post-COVID “new normal,” which will likely require more partnerships with businesses and other nonprofits to survive.
  • Personally motivated by the mission: A sincere personal commitment to the mission is imperative for any leader to motivate their team and generate buy-in from staff, stakeholders, partners, and donors. “Second mountain” climbers should not be shy about sharing their personal stories and motivations for making a career change.  In order to assuage anxieties and bolster confidence among constituents who feel unmoored by the current crisis, it is essential to know when to be the heroic leader who can inspire to action (leading others up the mountain), and when to be the vulnerable leader,  who can share feelings of helplessness or anxiety.

Professionals who had previously contemplated such a career change as theoretical may now be forced to engage the prospect more literally as a result of a job loss, market disruption, or perhaps also out of a renewed connection to their inner-selves and priorities. Though most of us remain unsure as to when we might emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, we can begin contemplating who we want to be when it passes.  And, no matter in which sector you choose to lead, now is the time to call upon and cultivate these strengths – for our institutions, our communities and ourselves.

Jamie Hechinger is a Managing Director and head of Russell Reynolds Associates’ Social Impact and Philanthropy practice.

Emily Meneer is the Global Knowledge Leader for Russell Reynolds Associates’ nonprofit sector.

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