Developing Leaders, Developing Successors

Interview with Allison Bogdanović Executive Director, Virginia Supportive Housing

There are two pervasive myths – false assumptions – that are holding back the development of leaders in the nonprofit sector.

The first myth is that leader development is too complicated and too expensive, which makes it the exclusive domain of the “big guys.” In other words, it’s for those mythic “other” nonprofits. You know, the ones with unlimited resources, lots of staff and plenty of time to do things… Just, not us.

The second myth is that organizations develop leaders. Behind this myth is the idea that leader development is something that the organization provides or does to its people. Unfortunately, this myth is causing many people to postpone leadership development actions that they could be taking today because they’ve bought into the false belief that it’s up to their organization to provide some sort of program or send them to a course that will magically turn them into a leader.

This case study interview dispels both of those myths. We will be talking with Allison Bogdanovic, who is executive director of Virginia Supportive Housing (virginiasupportivehousing.org) in Richmond, Virginia.

Allison was an internal candidate who was promoted to the CEO position in 2013 after a competitive search process that involved internal and external candidates. Allison shares her experience of developing as an emerging leader, her perspective on the hiring process, and the realities of transitioning from a senior leader into the CEO role. 

Whether you’re a CEO or senior manager who wants to do a better job of developing leaders in your nonprofit, or you are a nonprofit staff member who wants to move up the career ladder, Allison shares wisdom and insights that can help you.

Many thanks to Allison and the folks at Virginia Supportive Housing for sharing their experience with us. To learn more about Virginia Supportive Housing, please visit virginiasupportivehousing.org.

Below is a guide to the topics covered in this case study.

The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap Case Study Video

Developing Leaders,
Developing Internal Successors

An interview with
Allison Bogdanović
Executive Director, Virginia Supportive Housing

Timepoint             Topic

00:00   PRE-INTERVIEW – Introduction to the case study

  • Two myths that are holding back leader development in nonprofits.
  • The 70-20-10 framework in action.

03:18   INTERVIEW BEGINS – About Virginia Supportive Housing

06:16   How Allison’s prior role prepared her for the CEO position

  • Learned coalition building, financing, developing trust with communities, and telling the VSH story.
  • Comfortable working with external partners.
  • Collaborating with other departments to get all the pieces in place after the properties have been developed.
  • Newest piece of the job is working with the board, partnering with the board.

09:00   The process of moving from a senior manager role into the CEO position

  • The switch in mindset that’s involved.
  • ”Suddenly being the boss of your peers certainly changes the game.”
  • Made very deliberately thoughtful move in the first month of setting up her office—very consciously not just crossing the physical threshold to a new office, but the mental threshold to a new position.
  • Took on a six-month learning agenda—speaking with staff, board members, and community partners; looked at the agency with a new perspective; pushed attention up to the level of the new job.

10:55   What helped her get started

  • Closed-door executive committee meetings; executive committee was very supportive and listened and provided feedback.
  • Started working with an executive coach; helped her prioritize in new ways.
  • Joined a peer network of other executive directors in the area; “Has been a rock for me.”

12:00   Some things have taken longer than she expected

  • Picking her leadership “stewardship team” made for some hard choices.
  • Leading infrastructure improvements following a period of growth.
  • Leadership transitions are an opportunity to look at the sustainability of the organization.

15:05   What surprised Allison about the role

  • Adjusting from a project management mindset (driving towards a project completion deadline) to an organizational change mindset where changes take more time and there aren’t easy answers.
  • The difference between identifying opportunities and getting the right people and tactics in place to fix them.

16:15   What was most helpful in settling into the role

  • A well-planned handoff process—30 days of overlap with her predecessor
  • Handoff of key relationships—Allison and her predecessor went together to visit key donors and key community partners.
  • Spending the last month together—”We always worked very closely together, but spending that month together really helped me ‘to get into her shoes.’”

17:00   Continues to maintain a healthy relationship with predecessor

  • Predecessor set up the organization up for the next phase of leadership.
  • Maintains ties with frequent consultations with her predecessor.

18:15   Allison’s professional developmental path

  • “It wasn’t a formal process for me, but one that I drove with my ambitions and my interest.”
  • “I don’t know from the get-go that I wanted to be executive director, but I knew I wanted to learn more and take on more responsibility.”
  • Was given time and access.
  • Volunteered for assignments to gain hands-on experience and opportunities to learn by watching; “I had this window into [what the job] was like… I started to see that I had characteristics and skills… I felt like I could do that too.”
  • “We were small and we all wore many hats, so I had the opportunity to take on different jobs”; learned by doing and gained confidence.
  • Permission to ask for stretch assignments and the courage to ask.
  • “I put myself out there on multiple occasions”; Allison put herself on the line.

27:10   Allison’s advice for CEOs and board members

  • VSH leaders were generous in sharing their time and perspective.
  • Make sure there is some overlap and a good handoff.
  • Hold joint meeting (departing executive and new) with key stakeholders; “There was a loud endorsement from [my predecessor] and the board that this is our new leader—it was a springboard for me.”
  • The board gave space and time; “Our process of [working together] and getting to know each other has even changed some of their expectations; they have been open enough to do that and we evolved together.”

28:20   The hiring process when it involves internal candidates

  • Don’t let your internal leaders get pigeonholed.
  • The VSH board had a good process that gave internal candidates a fair shot:
    • The board welcomed internal candidates.
    • The process allowed the search committee to see the candidates in a new light—beyond their previous understanding of those candidates within their staff role; they didn’t pigeonhole their internal candidates.
  • In presenting herself as a candidate, Allison demonstrated…
    • An understanding of the job requirements going forward and specific examples of her experience and perspective that linked to those job requirements.
    • That she had the strength and experience to bring about organizational change—the continued growth and development of the agency.
    • That she and the board had a shared understanding of the organization’s strengths to build on as well as the challenges that needed to be addressed.

30:40   Allison’s interview prep as an internal candidate

  • She took the interview prep very seriously.
  • She used external advisers in the preparations who helped her see her skills and experiences with fresh eyes. They helped her reframe things.

31:50   Allison’s advice for staff members who aspire to move up

  • Ask for opportunities—don’t wait for them to be handed to you.
  • Be willing to invest time to work with your leaders so you can build relationships with them and start to learn through them.
  • Look for internal as well as external learning opportunities through serving on other nonprofits boards and committees with other nonprofits. Gives broader perspective and experience. The importance of having that broader point of view.
  • Have the courage to plant your flag—letting folks know that you want to take on a leadership role and that you’re willing to invest the time to develop towards that. Be your own self-advocate.
  • “[You have to demonstrate a] courage and a commitment towards that goal, which is part of the attributes that you need to demonstrate as a leader. You have to start showing those very early on. And if you do, opportunities for development are just going to naturally come your way.”

31:25   It takes a change of mindset

  • There will be a pivot in how people relate to you. Conversations and relationships with staff members change when you’re the executive director. Simple everyday actions take on new meanings. Whether you’re ready for it or not, those conversations and relationships change from day one.
  • Embodying the chief executive role takes time. It takes time to own the role.
  • Don’t buy into the heroic leader myth—“Know what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask for help; reach out and don’t just try to bear down and push forward.”
  • “Asking for help has improved my relationship with the board. Often times… there’s someone on the board who has the resources, either because of their time or connections they can make. We shall hear what we need. Having that dependence on each other and knowing that you have each other’s back, it’s a wonderful place to be—between a board and a chief executive.”

39:15   POST-INTERVIEW – Lessons Learned

  • Great example of the 70-20-10 framework in action.
  • 70% refers to on-the-job experience.
    • How Allison occupied her former role was a big part of her leadership learning. She grew herself into her former role.
    • She sought out ad hoc assignments:
      • Some were stretch assignments—stretched her skill set and built her confidence in her advancing skills.
      • Others were “rounding out” experiences—exposed her to other aspects of the organization’s operations in the range of functions needed to keep her nonprofit going.
    • She also looked for developmental experiences outside the organization.
  • 20% refers to developmental relationships.
    • Relationship with Allison’s predecessor and other leaders at VSH.
    • Opportunities to shadow and learn from her predecessor through external meetings and elsewhere.
    • Engaged in executive coaching and became involved in a peer network when she assumed the executive director role.
    • Supportive relationship from the executive committee helped her get started.
  • Another critical ingredient is attitude.
    • Successful application of the 70-20-10 framework depends on a developmental attitude.
      • Developmental attitude on the part of Allison.
      • Attitude of her predecessor—Alice’s openness and generosity; willingness to invest the time in providing face time and sharing her perspective; and created an environment to support an emerging leader.
    • Application of 70-20-10 requires two sides of an equation:
      • Seekers (people who are eager and willing to invest the time in their own leader development), and
      • A supportive environment (an environment that supports the development of emerging leaders).
    • Most of the 70% items don’t cost money; usually they just require an investment of time.
    • What CEOs and senior managers do to develop leaders in their organization.
      • Three things you can do:
        • Carve out time to provide face time to the emerging leaders in your organization, and make leadership development a part of your job and every one of your senior managers’ jobs.
        • Offer stretch assignments to the high-potential members of your staff. Increase the impact of those assignments by encouraging those emerging leaders to reflect on what they’ve learned.
        • Provide opportunities for emerging leaders to round out their experience and perspective. Help them develop a broader understanding of the organization’s operations and the field.
      • Reap the rewards: dramatic impact on emerging leaders, your entire team, and the organization’s performance.
    • What emerging leaders can do:
      • Take complete ownership of your career. Don’t wait around for developmental opportunities to come to you; seek them out.
      • Fully occupy your current role; make sure that you have fully grown into it. Ideally, have enlarged its responsibilities.
      • Look for opportunities inside and outside the organization to stretch your leadership skills and reflect on what you’ve learned, ideally with a mentor.
      • Look for opportunities to round out your understanding of the organization’s operations and the field. The higher you move up the more important is to have that broader understanding.
      • Seek feedback. The fastest way to accelerate learning is to couple practice with feedback from a coach or mentor.
      • Look for ways to build developmental relationships with the leaders around you, both inside and outside the organization.
      • Be thoughtful about how you seek opportunities to shadow leaders. Rather than asking for “shadow opportunities” look for ways to add value to situations where you can actually learn from those leaders.
    • Don’t underestimate the importance of reading and developmental courses.
      • Reading should be a part of your developmental regimen across your career. For the most part, “leaders are readers.”
      • Formal courses and training can provide real pivot points in your career.

If you have any questions about this case study, or developing and hiring internal candidates, feel free to reach out to me using the contact form.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources on developing leaders:

BridgeSpan – has a range of tools to help organizations develop leaders and individuals develop as leaders.

Talent Philanthropy – works to increase foundation investments in the nonprofit workforce.