Leadership development in Los Angeles (and Bethnal Green)

[Guest post from SSE's Development Director Ian Baker….]

As you may have seen, SSE was one of only two British organisations to have been recently awarded the Bank of America Neighbourhood Excellence Initiative 2008 Neighbourhood Builder Award. The other organisation was Trees for Cities. As well as £110,000 of unrestricted funding, this award comes with leadership training for two employees (the executive director and an emerging leader) in the US. As SSE's Development Director I was lucky enough to have been chosen as the emerging leader to attend this US training. I've recently come back from the first of three weeks in the US, for leadership training run by the Development Training Institute.

Before going to LA I'd been advised by people, as one of only two Brits, how to survive a room full of 90 Americans (from US non-profits who have all been awarded $200,000, making a total commitment from Bank of America in 2008 of around $20million). I think my colleagues thought I wouldn't be robust enough, loud enough or extroverted enough. So I went there with some expectations of cultural difference. But the most striking thing I'm taking away is just how similar we are, especially those of us working in the non-profit sector. Our motivations are the same, the issues are the same and the problems/challenges we face in our organisations/sector are uncannily similar. The diversity of organisations is probably narrower than the range of student projects we see at SSE, though. There were many more housing focused organisations, providing both physical housing and support services for different groups, ranging from the homeless, through low income families to people on moderate incomes. There were also a lot of counseling and advice services for people facing foreclosure (repossession).

We visited one project in LA's Skid Row – a large area of downtown where the city's 50,000 homeless population are centered. LA is the US's homeless capital and the number of homeless people on the streets was shocking; made more stark by the close proximity of downtown's financial district. I was surprised that a whole area was actively called Skid Row. I wondered how much this in itself provided barriers to the aspirations of people in the area. We visited Skid Row Housing Trust, which is doing excellent work at providing modern, well designed homes for some of the city's homeless population. Their biggest challenge was how to sustainably fund the healthcare and support services they provide to their tenants, especially now that their income from development activity has been cut by the financial crisis. In groups we offered solutions to this sustainable funding challenge, many of which relied on in-kind support and various kinds of fundraising activity, especially capitalising on the city's celebrity dollars. A few social enterprise solutions were offered but my impression was that philanthropy was a much bigger part of non-profit income in the States than here in the UK. I sensed that social enterprise and entrepreneurship may be higher profile in the UK, which surprised me, but perhaps I am just seeing this from a skewed perspective as I am so embedded in the sector here? Another difference that I noticed was the worrying number of US non-profits in the room who were having to make redundancies due to the financial crisis.

So there are some differences when you start to delve into the detail of the sector. But my main impressions are still of the similarities. And yes my American peers were generally louder, more extroverted and more positive than me. But on reflection I think some of my British peers can sometimes be too negative and reluctant to celebrate their successes. Perhaps somewhere in between is a healthy compromise.

As for the leadership training itself, I think the proof will be in the pudding of any changes in my own practice. The part I found most useful was 360 feedback from my colleagues about my leadership practices, or lack of them! Using the Kouzes Posner Leadership Practices Inventory, my colleagues rated my leadership practices under five broad headings: modelling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act and encouraging the heart. Many people, myself included, seemed weaker in inspiring and encouraging. I'm coming away with a shifted attitude towards leadership and work; realising even more that investing time in building relationships and effective communications is key to effective leadership, and it is still work! Also, it isn't just the responsibility of the CEO to model the way, inspire, challenge, enable and encourage; this can (and should?) be done by anyone/everyone in the organisation.

Roll on Philadelphia in May…

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