Friday, May 8, 2015

Three Most Important Nonprofit Executive Director Soft Skills

If you were asked to narrow down the list of executive director qualifications to the three most important, which ones would you identify? Would the list consist of soft skills, hard skills, or some combination? Would your list be based on the great ED you are or one you've worked for, or would it be your wish list for the ED you haven't been fortunate yet to work for? 

This was an assignment in my recent online class in leadership and administration for the American Association for State and Local History. I asked the class to review three-five advertisements for museum directors and analyze what these listings intimated about the organization’s past experience, current focus and goals, and future aspirations. Then, I asked the class to identify what they consider to be the three most important qualifications they would look for in a director. (Okay, so there's more than three if you dissect my three big groups.) 

Soft skills outnumbered hard skills, although demonstrated museum/nonprofit experience is right up there on the list.  We'll focus on the soft skills in this post; hard skills later.  Here's what the class said: 

Passion, Vision and Creativity 
"Museums need innovative and ambitious thinkers willing to try new things while being careful to not lose sight of those ever-important priorities," wrote one participant.  Another wrote, "Willing to carry out the values and vision of the organization."  Others cited a passion for the museum's discipline (science or history, for example) or special focus (Impressionist art or American arts and crafts). But this is not just about the objects; it's about connecting the dots. In that vein, one wrote, "Passion about the relevance of history to modern life." 

Effective Communication 
How many times have we seen this is a position listing?  When you think about the sheer number of people museums and their leaders interact with, communication is not just about speaking and writing in whole sentences.  This is about being able to build bridges at the staff and board levels, among audiences and within the community; to articulate a vision and purpose in ways that inspire individuals to get involved; to understand different groups and how to talk/work with them and a willingness to keep staff informed; and to negotiate and be able to reach consensus. 

I was surprised at how many times this attribute was cited as a top qualification.  This contribution from a class member says it all:  "I think that a good leader should always be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, or at least be aware that there might be alternative ways that something can be viewed. Be cognizant that you can always learn something new from anyone. First and foremost remain open to dialogue and differing points of view and always listen to advice given. You don’t have to follow it, but just listen, it just might be worth it. And don’t tell anyone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself."


Carolyn Goodridge said...

These traits are on target! For me, "Communication" is key. "Passion" can't be faked, at least not for long.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thanks for your comments, Carolyn! Communication may be the key underlying skill -- without it even the most passionate, innovative, or thoughtful leader can't lead.


Gerald Vonberger said...

I definitely agree with these "soft skills" that are listed. I particularly find humility to be an important one, especially in non-profit situations. Non-profit organizations tend to be a lot more democratic than corporations are, and therefore the leader has to know how to honestly evaluate the merits of ideas and accept them above his/her own if they're more valuable. That takes a lot of humility and understanding and I feel like that's the lifeblood of service-based organizations. Great article!

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