Not long into the video interview I recorded last week with Suzanne McCormick, who took the helm as US President of United Way Worldwide a year ago, I was struck by her fresh, open-minded view of the nonprofit chief executive’s leadership role and functions. For example, Suszanne took the helm at United Way Worldwide’s US headquarters with a clear sense of what I call “CEO-centric” leadership targets she intended to achieve. CEO-centric leadership targets involve a substantial commitment of the chief executive’s own time and attention to achieving a small number of really high-priority leadership outcomes, above and beyond the CEO’s general responsibility for making sure organization-wide outcomes laid out in the annual operating plan are achieved. For example, one of the CEO-centric outcomes that Suzanne mentioned in our interview is building trust between United Way Worldwide’s US headquarters and the 1,100-some United Way organizations in the US – by focusing on transparency and open communication. The concept of CEO-centric leadership outcomes looms large, by the way, in the critical area of board evaluation of CEO performance – a key element of the move away from the old-fashioned, hopelessly subjective approach of board members individually filling out evaluation questionnaires assessing functional capacity (e.g., executive team building; strategic thinking; financial planning; etc.) rather than real impacts and outcomes.
Another example of Suzanne’s cutting-edge approach to nonprofit CEO leadership that she discusses in our interview is her strategy for cementing the relationship with her new Board. Far from being a traditional chief executive who keeps her distance from board members and focuses on drawing boundaries and distinguishing roles and responsibilities (the notoriously ineffective “policy governance” school of relationship building), Suzanne understands the human dimension of partnership building. So, as she describes in our interview, she early-on spent significant time getting to know her new Board Chair in depth – his style, aspirations, strengths, special interests, etc. – and made a point of becoming acquainted with every one of her Board members through one-on-one meetings. Anything but aloof from her Board, Suzanne frequently seeks the counsel of individual Board members on issues they are knowledgeable about.
On a more personal note, I was interested to learn that my and Suzanne’s professional lives were significantly influenced by very similar experiences: her 2 ½-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, and my 3 years as a Peace Corps teacher in Ethiopia. We both emerged from these life-altering experiences firmly committed to careers in the nonprofit sector, but neither of us had consciously thought of the Peace Corps in professional development terms. As both Suzanne and I learned, experience can, indeed, be a powerful teacher, provided you are open to learning what it has to teach!