One of the joys of my last several months has been becoming an Executive Coach to nine leaders in housing and community development organizations as part of the NeighborWork’s Achieving Excellence program. The program enrolls individuals who want to make a transformational change in their organizations. They are given ample assistance to get things done: seminars in leadership and achieving results at Harvard, executive coaching, role playing in mobilizing people and resources, and a chance to bond with a group of peers who keep them accountable and cheer them on at every pass.
By the end of eighteen months, these leaders will change legislation, be ready to build hundreds of affordable homes, and generate millions of dollars to invest in low-income communities. As I coach them in these early stages to diagnose problems, generate allies, share their vision with the public, and set realistic and aspirational outcomes, I am struck by the power of one leader’s ability to inspire change. They begin with a well-defined performance challenge, then motivate others within their teams; next, within their organizations; and beyond that, their communities.
Some of the most compelling victories happen early when these leaders make a personal and passionate case for why the change matters to them and to their organizations, and then inspire others to contribute and act. They tend to be particularly successful when they put themselves at risk by stepping into areas they may not know well, while trusting their gut that they will emerge whole once they start swimming.
Success requires unusually high levels of discipline – both in finding the time to drive performance, and in deliberately applying the management and leadership tools of the program. There are constraints at every pass – reluctant staff, higher costs than anticipated, competing organizations. They need to be both visionary leaders ushering in change within their organizations, and effective mobilizers, gathering others to join and lead with them.
Finding this daily commitment – in the face of unpredictability and setbacks – takes an unusual storehouse of energy, and leaders need places where they can unwind and regenerate. At its most effective, coaching offers a space where leaders can reconnect with their creativity and knowledge and emerge with clarity.
So much of what coaching reinforces for me is the importance of staying on track, and how outside accountability – however you achieve it – helps keep leaders from derailing or postponing change. Leaders benefit from thought partners – colleagues, coaches, mentors – individuals whose only agenda is the leader’s success, and who encourage thinking boldly. No one can do this work alone.
Not everyone has the time or resources to be part of an eighteen-month coaching and leadership development experience. But everyone should reach out to a fellow advocate or colleague regularly to share aspirations, formulate strategies, and keep each other honest about what we stand for and when we may be at risk of stepping back. We are all in this together.