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CEO Message: A Few Things I Have Learned about Leadership (So Far)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

by Ellen LaPointe, President and CEO, Northern California GrantmakersHeadshot of the author, Ellen LaPointe

A few weeks ago I was asked to help welcome NCG’s inaugural cohort of Rising Leaders with a few words on leadership. At first I was daunted, not sure exactly what I might have to offer on this topic. So I did what I always do when I am trying to get my head around something: I made a list. In the spirit of reflection and learning, here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Find your people.
Seek opportunities to work with people who inspire, challenge, and support you, and whom you enjoy being around. Stay with them as long as possible (and bring them with you to your next thing if you can!).
Know thyself, and hire everything else. 
Your job is not to know how to do it all. It is to ensure that you are staffed in a manner that complements your core skills and ensures that the organization (or your team) has full capacity to deliver what it promises.
Play an “inside-out” game.
Great leadership is equal parts team management and effective engagement with colleagues and stakeholders. Pay attention to both.
Learn how to ask good questions.
Everyone will be better for it.
Make an effort to really see and hear people. 
We all need and deserve to be seen and heard. And everyone has unique perspective, lived experience, and knowledge to contribute.
Embrace ambiguity. Learn to patiently support others who struggle with it.
It is not only OK not to know the future, it is sometimes essential. Name and hold space for this so that others can operate without undue worry.
Learn how to put in, and when to take out.  Also how to portage.
This is a canoeing metaphor. It’s about developing judgment around where to begin and end things, and developing muscles to carry heavy things together in order to stay the course and complete the journey.
Ask for guidance – all the time.
Because humility…
Practice saying “I was wrong.” 
See the above note on asking for guidance.
Learn how to tolerate it when someone is unhappy with a decision you have made. 
A biggie. Par for the course. If this is unfathomable to you, leading will feel very hard. Also holding space for unhappiness on teams is one powerful way to see and hear people. Pro tip on how to learn this: have a kid.
Attend to yourself the same way you attend to your board or staff or grantees or anyone else to whom you give your attention and support routinely, without a second thought.
It’s the only way to do your best work and to stay in it for the long haul. Yes, self-care can include binge tv.
Learn to play a good game of pool – strive to be two moves ahead at all times.
Yup – another metaphor. You will not be able to guide people effectively along a shared journey if you are focused only on the “now.”
Develop proficiency with numbers, but hire an expert to actually do the math.
Because while the “buck” truly does stop with you, spreadsheets are best left in the hands of the pros.
Take jobs that throw a little fear into your heart.
It’s how you will grow.
Actually taking time to reflect can be the difference between good and great leadership. And it is great role modeling besides.
Also, we should all be slowing down in these challenging times.

Thank you for the honor and privilege of leading this wonderful organization – and being in community with all of you – over the last five years. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I am so, so proud of all we have accomplished together. I wish you all good things. 



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