Cultivating Great Leadership from Within

Just before COVID hit the U.S., the Leap Ambassadors Community published guidance on succession planning for high-performing CEOs and got great feedback on it from social-sector CEOs starting to think about passing the baton to the next generation of leaders. Today, we’d like to augment those insights with those of a Leap Ambassador who was set up for success through a leadership-succession process that deserves to be held up for our entire sector to see.

The Leap Ambassador is Yolanda Coentro, who in 2016 became the President and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP), a Boston-based nonprofit that equips promising nonprofit leaders with the skills, confidence, and resources they need to make their organizations, effective, innovative, and sustainable. Yolanda was named one of The NonProfit Times’s top 50 most powerful and influential leaders, one of The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “15 More People Changing the Nonprofit World,” and Barr Foundation Fellow. Perhaps most impressive, she transitioned into the CEO role while she was the primary caregiver and medical advocate for two parents with cancer and raising two young children.

Here’s what Yolanda shared with us in a series of email exchanges over the past week.

Mario and Lowell: How did you get introduced to INP?

Yolanda: I was a midlevel nonprofit manager when I first got to know INP as a participant in its core certificate program. INP Founder Barry Dym later brought me in as an INP mentor and faculty member. He watched me teach nearly every class for a year. INP was his baby, so he wanted to see what I would bring to the teaching. And then he supported me to improve my teaching. He constantly put me into opportunities I felt unready for. He believed I could do more than even I knew. It was a transformative gift to me. I don’t know if you have ever had someone like that behind you [Lowell’s note: I sure do! Mario!].

Mario and Lowell: At what point did you become a candidate for the CEO role?

Yolanda: A few years into our work together, Barry apparently came to the conclusion that I was the one he could trust to take his work forward. But the succession journey was appropriately slow and deliberate. Barry needed time to prepare the board and prepare himself for retirement, and I needed time to navigate the integration of a potential new and big role with big responsibilities at home. So, he asked me to start the transition by taking on the role of COO and I got to know INP from the bottom up. Then, Barry and I became co-CEOs for a year. I often had to work from hospitals and ERs in managing things with my parents, but Barry always trusted I would get my work done.

Mario and Lowell: What was the role of the board and board chair in your succession?

Yolanda: Our board chair, Mark Rosen, was a key player in the succession plan from the very beginning. Thanks to Barry, I had gotten to know the chair well. I believe the chair felt that a national search would turn up candidates with a longer track record than mine but not someone with all the tangibles and intangibles I brought to the table. So both of them gave me every opportunity to shine in front of the rest of the board.

Mario and Lowell: We’ve read interviews with you in which you’ve spoken powerfully about having to do more to prove yourself because you’re a woman of color. Did you find a way to have open dialogue with Barry, a white man with a PhD from Harvard, about this dynamic?

Yolanda: Yes. We recognized the power dynamics and spoke to them. We acknowledged his academic gravitas and years of experience, as well as his age and race. We acknowledged that I was a younger woman of color without an Ivy League degree and without my name on the cover of four books. We looked for and found our commonalities. We’re two community organizers with big ideas around justice. We both grew up with little in the way of resources but a lot of love. We both have navigated journeys to find and build places of belonging for ourselves and others. And that’s how we built a friendship and deep trust.

Mario and Lowell: You’ve described a thoughtful process, but surely there were difficult elements. We’d love to hear about those.

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Yolanda: There were many challenges along the way. First, the idea of co-CEOs sharing leadership was a new concept back then. The idea seemed expensive and duplicative, and selling funders on it wasn’t easy. Second, I had a lack of clarity on the timing of the full transition. Of course, the question in the back of my mind was always, “What if in the end they decide not to promote me?” The board could have overturned Barry’s decision, and that weighed on me at times. Third, not all board members knew how to support me in the transition. In fact, they offered too much—things like a monthly meeting with me to serve as advisors. Despite the good intentions, I was offended by that offer; I knew that if I had applied from the outside, the board wouldn’t be micromanaging that way. The good thing was that Barry helped me name my feelings, the board heard the concerns, and they immediately responded well.

Mario and Lowell: How are you applying what you learned through your leadership succession?

Yolanda: I am always thinking with my team about questions like: “If this person leaves, who will replace them? How can I push people out of their comfort zones and put them in new situations to help them grow? How can we promote them or support them to advance their career outside of INP?” That helps us seize opportunities for cross-training, for advancing skills of multiple staff at once, for encouraging and retaining staff, and for reducing burnout. It’s also risk mitigation. All too often we see new leaders come in, disrupt teams, build their own, re-strategize, and hold up time on interventions, solutions, and actions for the community as they settle internally. We don’t have time for that! People are dying in the face of inequity. Our world is literally flooding and burning. Our communities deserve better and faster. If 2020 and 2021 hasn’t taught us that, I’m not sure what will.

We’re grateful to Yolanda for sharing her experiences. It’s a great illustration of our belief that unless an organization needs to go in a new direction or faces a turnaround, it’s often best to promote from within, as this provides for cultural continuity and less organizational disruption. And we loved learning about the ways in which a founder fully walked his talk on both effectiveness and equity—to the great benefit of a talented leader and the organization as a whole.

Wishing you a healthy, productive autumn,

Signatures: Mario and Lowell
Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap Ambassadors Community.

Updates From Around the Leap Community

You know how excited you get for a new season of your favorite show (like Ted Lasso!)? We feel that way about the new season of the Giving Done Right Podcast, hosted by CEP’s Phil Buchanan and Grace Nicolette. In the debut episode of season two, Phil and Grace talk with Cathy Moore, executive director of Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services (ECHOS), in Houston, TX. Moore shares her experience working on the frontlines during both Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Longtime readers of this newsletter will know how much we admire Chuck Feeney, the founder of Atlantic Philanthropies and the only donor we know of who has given away almost his entire fortune (he now lives in a rental apartment) to advance his goals for a better world. If you want to understand the animating spirit behind Mr. Feeney’s work and the giant legacy he has created, please check out the recent blog post “Limited Life, Unlimited Impact,” by Atlantic Philanthropies President and CEO Christopher Oechsli.

Scenario: You’ve collected the data from your organization’s stakeholders. You’ve analyzed it six ways to Sunday. You arrive at a scary conclusion: We need massive change. Now what? If you’re facing this scenario, you won’t want to miss “When Everything Needs to Change,” based on a insightful discussion in the Leap Ambassadors Community.

In “Transformative Philanthropy for Racial Justice,” the wonderful Crystal Hayling, CEO of the Libra Foundation, describes how she worked to ensure that the death of George Floyd would not just be another empty “thoughts and prayers” moment. Hayling and her board created the Democracy Frontlines Fund to partner with similarly passionate racial-justice donors to “fund Black organizers with substantial unencumbered funds in a way that shifted power from the privileged to experts on the ground … build partnerships based on trust, [and] create an ongoing community of practice to learn together with our grantee partners.” They created a great model for funders willing to “give up the wheel and foot the bill for fuel.”

Events/Webinars for Raising Performance

Sep 29–Online
How to ‘Super-Power’ Your Board in an Increasingly Virtual World” webinar; SSIR

Sep 23-Nov 1
Fall Remote Learning Series GEO

Sep 27-30–Online
Gen Impact Accelerator” virtual training; 21/64, The Philanthropy Workshop

Oct 14-29–Online
Education for Philanthropy Professionals” course; Stanford PACS

Oct 19-21–Online
Exponent Philanthropy’s annual conference virtual conference; Exponent Philanthropy

Nov 4–Online
Real Change?: How a Time of Crisis Has Shifted Philanthropy” virtual learning session; CEP

Nov 9-10–Online
Measurable Equity 2021: Funding Racial Progress” virtual conference; Clear Impact