Opinion: Coaching for global NGO leaders

Photo by: Matthew Henry

This article was produced as part of a media partnership with the Forum to Advance Women’s Leadership in the International Development Sector, happening June 6, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

In a story from Hindu mythology that I recall from my youth, two brothers with equal ability were assigned to search out someone who could teach them new skills. The first brother returned and said to his teacher, “Everyone I met has certain skills that I do not have, so I can learn from everyone.” The second brother returned and concluded the opposite: “I have certain skills that each person does not have, so I cannot learn from any of them.”

Nonprofit leadership needs to think like the first brother and always strive to learn from others.

In a world characterized by global markets, interconnected social problems, and strong national identities, large NGOs are likely to be organized not as hierarchical organizations with top-down management but as alliances, federated networks, and global coalitions to deliver impact at scale. Decision rights are shared among global, regional, and local teams by means of operating agreements and distributed governance. The leadership team at these global networks requires the perspective of a listener and collaborator.

Raising funding to invest in leadership development is not easy for most nonprofits, let alone for multilocation, complex networks. Yet an investment in staff development for NGO leaders is critical as civil society takes a greater role in delivering social services.

JA Worldwide operates in over 110 countries, partnering with both the public and private sectors to deliver education to young people, reaching over 10 percent of the youth population in some parts of the world. As we have grown into one of the largest distribution networks to reach youth, an investment in leadership development and staff development is a priority, and essential to continued success. Coaching is only one form of staff development — but it has been an effective format for leadership training and has been embraced with more enthusiasm than some traditional development programs.

Coaching pioneer Marshall Goldsmith introduced us to stakeholder-centered coaching, which starts with a 360-degree review of all of your stakeholders. He reasoned that one of the main benefits of coaching is for your peers, bosses, and subordinates to feel heard before you decide on which aspect of your leadership to focus on improving. Completing a 360-degree review is an exercise in listening — and, if it’s done right and delivered with the gentle hand of a good coach, it can cause even the most intransigent leader to listen to others.

At JA Worldwide, we arranged for experienced coaches from leading companies such as LinkedIn, Citi, Korn Ferry, and Facebook to help conduct 360-degree reviews for both regional and global leaders. For some, it was an emotional experience to come to terms with difficult feedback. For others, it was an intellectual journey in self-discovery. For everyone, the 360-degree review is a first step toward building self-awareness through data, and then selecting one or two leadership attributes to focus on improving. Choosing too many improvement areas dilutes your energy and can lead to disappointing results.

I chose to increase my focus on cultivating individual talents. My brilliant leadership coach, Mark C. Thompson, put it bluntly: “Pick something that is a strategic priority for the organization, not just you, and it is far more likely to be prioritized during busy weeks.” He was right. In the hustle and bustle of an NGO job, with a team that is distributed across countries and operating in some challenging conditions, it is easy to forget to focus on supporting the careers of others and cultivating their unique talents for personal development. Selecting this topic as my focus area was the impetus to bring coaching more broadly to JA regional leaders and high-potential staff, because I saw it as a means of raising the aspirations and effectiveness of our network.

After selecting the focus area, the next step is to communicate to your coach and all your stakeholders exactly what you are going to improve in that area. In doing this, your coach and your peers will be able to hold you accountable to your plan. In my case, my plan was to understand the senior leadership team’s career goals and personal goals in more depth, invest in their development, explore how I could align their goals with the organizational priorities more clearly, and arrange for a total of 10 coaches to work with them. Mark — who is a protégé of Marshall Goldsmith with experience coaching technology leaders, corporate CEOs, and senior teams from multilateral development banks — helped pick the 10 coaches. With his help and the generosity of Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 Coaches Project, Mark and I were able to find exceptional coaches for JA.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve been observing as coaches and leaders complete 360-degree reviews, listen intently to peer feedback, deepen their self-awareness, select one or two areas to improve, and meet with varying levels of success in delivering on their own high expectations and mine. I have also observed how coaching has helped unearth hidden team dynamics, empowered some of the women in leadership roles to be more explicit about their ambitions — for the organization, for the world, and for themselves — and revealed which leaders are eager to learn from others rather than assume that others should learn from them.

At the Forum to Advance Women’s Leadership in the International Development Sector on June 6, organized by Fiona Macaulay, founder of the Women Innovators and Leaders Network, I’m looking forward to talking more about JA’s experience with Goldsmith’s coaching method and about the value of stakeholder-centered coaching for NGOs of all types.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Asheesh Advani

    Asheesh Advani is president and CEO of JA (Junior Achievement) Worldwide, one of the largest NGOs in the world dedicated to educating young people in the areas of work readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship. He began his career at the World Bank and is an accomplished technology entrepreneur who helped pioneer the social finance business as the founder of CircleLending (acquired by Virgin Group). He is also the board chair of Prosperity Now and has helped grow nonprofit networks and social enterprises.