CEOs are good at talking to people. The truth is, they need to be — communication comes part and parcel with being an effective corporate leader. For all that popular culture tends to depict corporate bosses as unreasonable tyrants, likeability and connectivity matters.
I’ll borrow a quote from management researchers Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter. “What differentiates a leader from a manager, research tells us, is the ability to figure out where to go and to enlist the people and groups necessary to get there. Recruiting stakeholders, lining up allies and sympathizers, diagnosing the political landscape, and brokering conversations among unconnected parties are all part of a leader’s job.”
Data backs the pair’s conclusions. Generally speaking, organizations with better-connected CEOs and board members tend to snag cheaper financing and see better performance, respectively. Networking skills empower leaders to build the relationships they need to extend their reach, tap into talent pools, and achieve more than they ever would have if they had gone it alone.
But I believe that a CEO’s networking skillset does more than smooth the way in business — that it can empower corporate leaders to help their communities.
To be honest, I’ve been on this train of thought for a while. I realized that my work as a corporate leader in luxury real estate gave me the networking opportunities I needed to connect with high-profile philanthropists in New York City and inspire real change in my home city.
It was a game-changing realization for me. I might work in Manhattan now, but I’ll always be a kid from the Bronx — even as I grew up, I realized how much work could be done to improve the lives of the people in my neighborhood.
Shortly after that, I started applying the networking and collaboration skills I’d honed as a CEO to the nonprofit sector. I found one of my first causes, Literacy Partners, through a friend who used to be a board member for the organization. Since 2015, I’ve also been involved with the Room to Grow program, which provides coaching services, community connections, and goods to support parents and children in the Bronx. Just last year, I virtually co-hosted the organization’s annual benefit with Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman.
To be clear — I’m not saying that all CEOs should step away from their desks and connect with celebrities. Instead, I’m saying that their communication skills make them uniquely positioned to connect with and activate potential donors and collaborators.
Past research tells us that high net worth individuals give when they feel they’re responding to an organizational need, believe they can make a difference, believe in a nonprofit’s values, and are concerned about the cause at hand. Now, a philanthropically-motivated CEO might not telegraph shared values or concerns, but they can certainly communicate a need and sell the donor on a cause’s importance. Donor activation requires negotiation, sales, pitching — all skills that are well-taught in the boardroom.
That said, if a CEO isn’t necessarily comfortable focusing on donors, they may also want to consider lending their counsel, support, and mentorship to nonprofit leaders.
This kind of assistance is more wanted than you might think at first listen. The nonprofit sector’s problems with personnel development and succession planning are well-documented. According to a report published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), only 30 percent of C-Suite roles in nonprofits are filled via internal promotion; this is about half the rate reported in the for-profit sector.
“Our new study surfaced what we call a leadership development deficit. The sector’s C-suite leaders, frustrated at the lack of opportunities and mentoring, are not staying around long enough to move up,” SSIR researchers wrote.
“Even CEOs are exiting because their boards aren’t supporting them and helping them to grow. This syndrome is coming at a high financial and productivity cost to organizations, undermining their effectiveness and hampering their ability to address social and economic inequities.”
As you might imagine, the turnover can be expensive. By some reports, the cost of locating a capable high-level leader can be as much as half of the person’s annual salary. This monetary expense doesn’t encompass the “softer” turnover costs — i.e., productivity lapses, fundraising, and the general distraction posed by recruiting.
Taking some time to provide mentorship or advice to upcoming nonprofit leaders could be an easy way for CEOs to use their networking skills and business savvy to cultivate positive change. In offering their time, these corporate executives help facilitate effective leadership, reduce nonprofit turnover, and further their community efforts.
All CEOs take a slightly different approach to leadership. Some are more direct in their oversight; others prefer to delegate. But by and large, all successful executives are stellar communicators. Those skills don’t need to be — or perhaps shouldn’t be — confined to boardrooms and C-suite offices. As corporate leaders, we can do more to support the causes we love than only contributing funds.