On Leadership: Robin Hood Foundation and Accenture Strategy Discuss the Making of Great Leaders

06/16/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

With Deborah Sakellarios, Senior Management Consultant for Robin Hood and Alana Duff, Senior Manager, Accenture

"Leaders are made, they are not born." Nearly everyone has heard that quote from football legend Vince Lombardi, but how many of us really believe it? The truth is that while natural-born leaders certainly exist, the vast majority of these visionaries honed and developed their skills over time.

With this in mind, Robin Hood, New York's largest poverty-fighting organization, joined forces with Accenture Strategy to create an executive development and coaching program specifically for non-profit organizations that helped senior leaders strengthen core competencies. Here we will explain the tenets of our program and how other organizations can put them into practice.

Why did Robin Hood and Accenture Strategy decide to focus on leadership?

Leadership is an important issue for any organization, but it's especially critical for non-profits as they're increasingly required to do more with less. Often, it's up to senior management to keep employee morale high, operations smooth and external relationships strong.

Our organizations' decades of experience in working with countless non-profits revealed that strong leadership is directly and inextricably linked to organizational success. Put another way, those organizations that improve the competencies of those in charge are likely to see positive outcomes throughout the organization.

With this program, we continue to help strengthen organizations from within by developing executives' skills in the areas that are most critical to the organization's success: program development; relationship management; financial acumen; and human resources.

What were the core competencies for successful leadership identified by Robin Hood and Accenture Strategy?

By conducting a study of exemplary leaders at Robin Hood-funded organizations, we identified four key characteristics for success.

1. Program Innovator: Strong leaders must be able to develop and deliver initiatives that their constituents need and value. At the same time, they must be able to assess the progress of those programs and adjust parameters to maximize the results.

2. Network Builder: Strong relationships - both those within the organization and outside - are critical to the success of a leader. Executives must be able to collaborate with external stakeholders such as government agencies, consultancies and current and potential donors, while also providing guidance to employees of all levels and leverage the experience and expertise of board members.

3. Talent Developer: The success of the organization does not rest on the leader alone. Hence, executives must be able to assemble teams and ensure they are empowered to meet the organization's goals.

4. Organization Sustainer: Effective leaders must also be able to mobilize networks and leverage external relationships to help grow the organization, deliver effective services and broaden their network of funders. Subsequently, leaders must be able to manage resources to achieve the organization's long term mission - both through effective planning and proper allocation of the staff's skills and resources.

None of this can happen overnight. It takes commitment and dedication to improve one's leadership capabilities and it's important to remember that great leaders are not afraid to hire people who can challenge the conventional wisdom and bring complementary skills to an organization.

How can other organizations implement these best practices?

One of the most important aspects of our leadership program involves having the non-profit executive participate in a 360-degree assessment. This tool captures feedback from the leader, organizational staff, board members, key donors and other critical stakeholders, allowing the executive to better understand their strengths and develop ways to focus on areas for improvement.

We encourage organizations to take a comprehensive look at their leadership teams and create an actionable professional development plan to promote what works and address what doesn't. The plan can include a variety of personal and professional activities, including formal training and education courses as well as coaching and mentoring programs ranging from improving message development, communication skills, and overall presentation of the organization and its leadership.

What are some of the success stories from the program?

Our leadership coaching program has helped grantee leaders from more than 30 organizations in measurable ways. For example, Chris Bean, executive director of POTS (Part of the Solution) applied the key learnings of the program to produce a fundraising plan focused on increasing board engagement, identifying contributors, increasing gifts and cultivating more private donors. His work led to an increase in funding of 10-20 percent and the organization experienced a 40 percent increase in number the number of clients they were able to connect with food stamps and other government benefits. In addition, they increased the number of people served by their emergency food program by 10 percent, more families to avoid skipping meals or going hungry.

POTS is just one example of how our program has made a measurable difference in participating organizations. Another nonprofit doubled individual giving in one year. Yet another increased new foundation/corporation funding by 30 percent. And an executive working on improving networking capabilities established a relationship with a government agency that brought in $100,000 of new funding to the organization.

What are some tips you can offer leaders?

1. Share your success. Many organizations keep their key learnings and best practices within the organization. While we understand that some information can't be shared externally, there's value in offering key learnings and best practices to those in a similar position. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

2. Be open. Even the most successful leaders understand that they have to keep pace with changing times; there is always more to learn. Be humble in accepting coaching, mentorship or other help from your network. Keep in mind that it is rare to encounter a problem that hasn't been solved before - and someone may already have a good solution.

3. Think long-term. While there's value in short-term goals, real change often happens over time. Work with various members of your organization and external stakeholders to create a mission and vision for your organization that addresses your immediate needs, but also furthers your larger goals and objectives.

4. Learn through failure. If your goals are achieved easily, then they aren't big enough. While our instinct might be to set reasonable and manageable objectives, it's important to continue to stretch. Never underestimate the power of a bold, but calculated move.