“Executive sessions” give nonprofit leaders a boost

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By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

I just might have a problem that you’ll understand. 
We all need somebody to lean on.
— Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”

Betty Cockrum, the retiring president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, has had a lot on her plate during her 15-year tenure. She manages an organization with 19 locations in two states, 170 employees, and a $16 million budget.

She manages to keep a handle on everything, but every now and then it’s nice to get a little extra help. As the old song goes, it’s nice to have somebody to lean on when you need a hand.

It was just more than three years ago that Cockrum found her “somebody.” She was invited to join a small leadership group, not specific to her nonprofit sector, but a group that has provided invaluable guidance.

“I’m just really grateful that I got invited, and I place great value on it. I feel like everyone of them has become a person in my life that I can call on in the middle of the night,” said Cockrum.

This nonprofit leadership group, which has no official name, was launched by Cassie Stockamp, president of the Athenaeum Foundation, Jim Morris, CEO at Greater Indy Habitat for Humanity, and Kyle Lanham, vice president of community engagement and chief advancement officer at Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana.

The three had been members of similar for-profit groups. When Morris moved back to Indianapolis from Orlando, Fla., in 2008 and got re-involved in the community, he discovered there wasn’t a group for the nonprofit sector.

“I just started asking around, ‘would anybody want to do something like this?” said Morris.

Both Lanham and Stockamp had had longtime involvement with the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), which was founded in 1950 in Rochester, N.Y., and designed for young for-profit leaders. Both had small for-profit companies, before serving as nonprofit leaders, and Stockamp said for the first seven years, she was the only woman in her group.

After a year of contemplation, and asking questions about whether the size of nonprofits mattered and how dynamic to make the group, the three got serious. They adapted the YPO model and compiled a list of potential collegial candidates. Each reached out to individuals to gauge interest and commitment. But most importantly, they found solace in forming a group that could help shoulder the weight of a nonprofit leader to provide qualitative direction.

“So we literally just put a list together, and then went out and described what the group would be and asked, ‘Would you be interested?’” said Morris.

Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Executive Director Lindsey Mintz remembers having coffee with Cockrum, who had signed on to the group and was gauging Mintz’s interest. Before Cockrum had fully explained the concept, Mintz remembers being hooked.

“I wanted in. I had gotten all sorts of stuff that I could talk about and getting access to all of this expertise and support was the selling point,” said Mintz, the group’s youngest member.

Rounding out the group are ACLU’s Executive Director Jane Heneger, Second Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor Lewis Galloway and IU Health’s senior vice president and chief mission and values officer Kevin Armstrong. Lanham said that recently the group decided to remain under 10.

Stockamp stressed that members cannot be vulnerable, but must be willing to cry and laugh. By nature of their positions, executive directors must provide direction for the entire organization, allow it to thrive and adjust to fit the changing needs of the people or issues at the core of its mission. They must motivate a team of people — all of whom rely, in one way or another, on the direction of the executive to maintain the viability of the entire organization.

Not everyone heads a nonprofit, so technically the group is not just for CEOs. With no official name, several members write MBO (mission-based organization) on the calendar. Morris quipped that maybe a name and matching t-shirts are needed.

“I have staff members who say, ‘What is that thing on your calendar every month?’ And I say, ‘That’s top secret, I cannot talk about it,’” said Cockrum.

Regardless of the name, the group plays a significant role for each member, and confidentiality is paramount. There is no signed agreement, but everyone adheres to the policy, and all understand it includes spouses and partners.

“Kyle may know you, but Kyle won’t know your wife. He may be less inclined to share something, if he’s not sure that he can trust her. So that was an important lesson for me 21 years ago, and definitely one I shared,” said Lanham. “This is a place where I can go and have a conversation and I know it will be confidential. Getting the right mix of people is important.”

From its start three years ago, the focus has always been a de facto support group and gives each member a confidential sounding board. While most have someone on their individual staffs to turn to for advice, there is a limit of what can be shared, and sometimes a feeling of loneliness.

“Every industry and job has its source of stress, but there is something unique to organizations where ‘Yes, I have to balance my budget, and I have to go out and find money, but I am trying to improve society in some way.’ There’s an understanding that all of us feel passionate about our missions. Really being there for each other and what each other’s going through is part of the glue,” said Mintz.

Meeting guidelines are simple: keep the group small — between eight to 12 — and attendance is a priority. Monthly meetings start at 8 a.m., with a rotating location and host, and a precise agenda. There is a guaranteed finish of 10:30 a.m.

“I think because this group of eight jelled so well and because our purpose for being has become so meaningful. If I really needed to feel shored up, I have that Monday morning to look forward to with seven individuals, and be sure that when I walk out of there at 10:30 in the morning and start my week for real that I walk a little stronger and straighter than when I walked in the door,” said Cockrum.

Meetings begin with a three-minute check-in to share each person’s highs and lows — professional, personal or a combination – of the last month. After check-ins, the harder work begins. Using a coach-presenter format, an individual poses a topical challenge. Prior to the meeting, the coach helps the individual tease out the issue.

“At the core is a question that they’re bringing to the group. While the group has expertise, it’s not there to necessarily advise or sort of be a wisdom council. It is there primarily to stir up the question, maybe build on the question,” said Morris. “We are really trying to get the presenter to think more broadly about it, to see if there are deeper questions to ask.”

While everyone takes on the presenter role, Mintz admitted that she had to be coached a couple of times before she had the nerve to offer to coach somebody. “There’s a ton of trust that you have to build, too,” she said.

This 45-minute portion of the monthly meeting tends to be fairly interactive. The presenter’s situation might be how to manage a project or tackle a staffing issue or board problem, but topics tend not to focus on funding. No matter, it’s eye-opening for the group.

“Every major decision that I’ve made, I went to the group first. The coach helps to make sure that the question you are asking is the right one. I have learned with help from the coach that my original question is not really the question,” said Lanham.

Clearly, everyone has a stake in the game.

“Invariably it’s not just the person learning something and getting feedback from other people, but everybody around the table takes something away from it. It may be one person’s issue, but we all get to grow from it and learn from it,” said Mintz. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed a session. There is very little that I wouldn’t move to make one of these sessions happen.”

“For me, it is getting advice from a bunch of people who know me, know my situation and have good judgment. That’s why the group is important,” said Lanham.

At the end of the session, there is a pregunta degu – literally, “ask me” — a question of the day. One member takes responsibility for leading this. Recently it’s been Lanham, and it’s designed to dig a little deeper.

“I think that’s been a very valuable part. You can gloss over it, think, ‘Aw, it’s just a fun little way to get to know each other,’ but it allows you to listen to the seasonal pulse of somebody and where they are,” said Morris.

While the group doesn’t often talk about an issue again, Mintz said, everything builds on previous conversations and deeper relationships.

“But really the sense of understanding, that sense I can say just a couple of sentences and I know that they’ll all get it, even though we all have very different organizations. For me as a younger professional, to find my legs, and my own voice, that’s also something that I learn a lot from this group. It’s really, really huge to be able to have that conversation with people in totally different industries, and faith traditions,” said Mintz.

But it doesn’t stop with the monthly meeting. There is a constant ebb and flow of information, and someone is emailing an article.

“It is important to just be reminded, that it’s about the journey, but it’s also about the destination. Sometimes you get so caught up in your daily meanders and challenges and you sort of forget what the long game is. And this group helps keep that focus,” said Cockrum.

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