6 Leadership Lessons Corporate Leaders Can Learn From Nonprofits

03/17/2015 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015
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By: Mina Chang

Women in nonprofits have long been perceived as needing different skills and holding different life goals than women in the for-profit sector. But as corporate responsibility takes hold and more for-profit organizations become mission-driven, the line between nonprofit and for-profit is blurring.

The age of connected consumerism and social media has transformed the way people and organizations interact. More customers want to make a difference, and employees do, too.

Women leading for-profit companies can learn a lot from their nonprofit counterparts. Nonprofits address the most pressing needs of society -- including poverty, unemployment and global conflict -- that affect for-profit companies in profound ways. By collaborating in their efforts, women can improve their own leadership portfolios and speed up positive social change.

Here are six leadership lessons that women in for-profit companies can apply to their companies and communities:

1. Lead With Empathy

Women are famously empathetic and are drawn to helping and understanding others. This is one of the most significant qualities that unite women in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Both types of leaders must exercise empathy to communicate successfully with staff, clients, donors and other collaborators.

In my nonprofit organization, understanding the communities we serve and establishing a shared vision has helped us implement sustainable change. Empathy is the critical foundation to understanding the problem, pinpointing the required resources and crafting a solution that will survive after the leader leaves the room.

2. Be Resourceful

Women are also naturally resilient -- physically and psychologically. Resilience is especially essential if you're a woman in a culture where men largely hold power. In times of economic stress, women tend to be more flexible than men, creatively adapting to new lines of work and making ends meet.

This resourcefulness is paramount to both nonprofit and for-profit work. In my organization, we look for ways to invest in women's health and economic development initiatives because we know that resourceful women are often the driving force for change in the communities we serve and beyond.

3. Adapt to the Changing World

For my organization's programs to work in disaster or conflict-ridden zones and impoverished countries, we have to adapt quickly and react to changing circumstances. Women in nonprofit environments learn to become flexible with their own goals, methods and approaches as situations dictate. But this ability is also crucial for women in the for-profit context. When "disruption" is the economic norm, being the best in your industry today won't insure your spot in the market tomorrow. You must be adaptable to stand a chance.

4. Develop Strong Relationships

Nonprofit success depends on connecting and communicating with donors. In a rapidly globalizing and technology-driven world, true human connection is more valuable than ever. By forming relationships with diverse people and communities away from the overhang of government entities and big media, woman leaders of all kinds can build human-centered ventures that grow and give back.

5. Don't Be a Martyr

Women in nonprofit organizations work hard to break the cycle of poverty by empowering those in need to take control of their own destinies rather than remain victims of their circumstances.

For-profit leaders can learn from this message. Holding your staff accountable and giving them a sense of ownership over their work inspires them to work fruitfully. Instill trust in your team, and they'll rise to the occasion. Empowered team members question the status quo and feel compelled to defy conventions in the name of true progress.

6. Be Driven by Purpose

Some of the most beautiful and determined women I've met in the field live with a clear sense of purpose. As business leaders, we have a responsibility to lead with vision and determination. In the 2013 Emerging Workforce Study, Spherion Staffing Services found that 70 percent of employees were more satisfied at work when their companies consistently adhered to a distinct corporate mission.

I always take a moment of reflection, particularly after a crisis, to reevaluate my organization's approach. This sense of clarity about my mission and values helps me build relationships with partners and donors and unite everyone involved around a shared goal.

When outlining a mission for your company, team members need to be involved every step of the way. Regardless of your industry, your team members are on the frontlines, fully entrenched in the wants and needs of your audience. Involving them in the mission and goal-setting process will give you a clearer sense of exactly where your company should head.

Women in both nonprofit and for-profit companies have inherent characteristics that make them strong, capable leaders. As consumers' buying choices are increasingly dictated by what a company believes in, not merely the products it makes, the values and techniques of corporate leaders will move closer to those of their nonprofit peers. It's time we stopped siloing sisterhood and started using the best of both worlds to make our communities better.

Mina Chang is CEO and president of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on children, global awareness, and breaking the cycle of poverty around the world. Linking the World has been saving lives and transforming communities since 1997 through its unique emphasis on partnerships to kindle hope.