Blog: Amplify

Preparing to Lead: Be Your Authentic Self

After working in the philanthropic field for the past 10 years, the Council on Foundations Career Pathways Program gave me the opportunity—and frankly the time—to seriously consider being an executive leader in the sector. It’s not something I could always see for myself.

I am happy to say I can see it clearly now.

I started off in the programs area where I learned to be a grantmaker. I can hear the voice of mentors and colleagues telling me “grantmaking is as much an art as it a science,” and to use my skills to foster the change I want to see. I greatly enjoyed my time and was very comfortable as a program officer.

But the more I became involved with various boards, foundations and organizations such as The Council, my true calling became clear. It was time to push myself, to think more broadly about my contributions to the field, and to gain the tools I needed to step confidently into an executive role.

As the first person from Lumina Foundation to go through the program, I had no one to help me compare notes or outcomes. How would I know if it “worked?” Even without all the data that I usually require to make a big decision, I applied to the program and I am so glad I did.

The evidence quickly became clear in our sessions. Former participants who are now Presidents and Executive Directors of their organizations proclaimed the benefits and skills they gained through the program. In preparation for our most recent session in Chicago, we had to write a letter to a newly appointed CEO, citing three pieces of advice we would give as CEOs. As a woman of color, I knew my three points should reflect my personal experiences—including my challenges, my successes, and my need to succeed in a field that is not always welcoming to leaders of color.

Here are excerpts from my letter:

  1. Be your authentic self: If you remain true to yourself, your beliefs, and your values, you will remain grounded. And that is key. When crises arise (and they will!), when others might not fully embrace your vision for the organization, or when your leadership is challenged, be confident in your natural ability to address difficult situations head on, to always see the larger picture, and to recognize that out of conflict comes growth.
  2. Be candid, clear and courageous: Be willing to “call a thing, a thing!” As women of color in a predominantly White male-led field, the “things” we have to name are numerous—tension, controversy, bias, low expectations, name your –ism. When you see it, call it out! If you place equity at the center, you’ll be a trusted partner to and a champion for the communities you serve, you’ll create the space to have those vital crucial conversations needed to bring out much-needed change. You’ll also ensure that when people look at your organization, your board, and your grantees, they’ll see a true manifestation of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  3. Be sure to give yourself time: Give yourself time to learn, to grow, and to find trusted peers. I needed time to learn more about what my organization truly valued. I also needed time to really get to know my board, my team, and my staff so I could make informed decisions about our future direction. And, I needed time to connect with trusted peers and have the safe space to speak frankly about being a CEO. Thankfully, I had several Career Pathways colleagues who did not mince words!

Although I say it jokingly at the end of my letter, I am truly thankful for the people in my life who are not afraid to challenge me or my ideas. They help me stay true to my authentic self—something the Career Pathways program continues to reinforce over what I know will be a long and fulfilling leadership journey.

Learn more about the Career Pathways Program

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