One of the most critical factors in technology success in nonprofit organizations is having an experienced and empowered technology leader with the right leadership qualities. Whether a leader is managing technology projects, programs, or responsible for all technology at a nonprofit, certain soft skills are essential.
Build Consulting has worked with over 500 nonprofit organizations, and through that experience, we have identified several leadership traits that result in improved outcomes with technology, both in overall strategy and with specific software implementation.
The traits we often see in successful and effective technology leaders are:
An important part of leading successfully is that people believe in you, and judge that what you are doing is in the best interest of the organization, not just yourself. The idea of being an ethical leader also encompasses characteristics like trustworthiness and integrity.
- Does a leader do what they say they are going to do?
- Are they willing to hold themselves to the same standard they hold others?
- In a leader’s explanation of decisions, are they transparent? If a leader is irrational in their decisions, is opaque, or seems arbitrary, this undermines trust in them.
- Are the leader’s decisions primarily to their own benefit, or do they demonstrably benefit the entire organization?
We have seen people in these roles behave in exemplary ways. They refuse to be swayed by any favoritism from vendors, will act respectfully and generously towards others, and set clear boundaries for themselves and others regarding privacy and use of privilege. They admit their errors and propose resolutions, and they help to promote positive cultures where good people are elevated and people that hurt the team are let go.
It’s important for a technology leader to be able to frame the right questions for other leaders inside the organization, such as the opportunity for return on investment, risk versus reward, and understanding the value and process of organizational change management.
We sometimes see technology leaders get into too many technical details, explaining their excitement about what a certain technology can do without ever getting to the heart of the choices that senior leaders need to make for the organization to use that technology effectively.
While they themselves must have a strong and reliable grasp of the technology, a strategic technology leader will not distract their executive partners with unnecessary technical details. A strategic leader will make the business case for the change and build consensus around that case, before moving to frame the business case in terms of a specific technical solution.
A strategic leader is also a planner, not a reactor; proactive, not reactive. This includes realistically determining and communicating what any project will take in time and resources to get an organization to its destination.
When we talk about being “process-minded,” we are speaking to the importance of technology leaders understanding what the organization is trying to do and the specific processes the business units need to execute to accomplish that. The technology leader should be clear-sighted about the culture of the organization, open to learning from past technology failures and understand and build on past tech successes.
A successful technology leader needs enough technology experience to make informed technology decisions but must have a primary focus on what people and teams are trying to accomplish.
The technology leader really needs to bring perspective and guidance on how to best use technology to accomplish the goals of the organization. A process-minded technology leader envisions the new process that the new technology will require and communicates that vision in a way that staff and stakeholders can embrace and adopt.
Finally, a process-minded technology leader will put in place mechanisms to evaluate the progress of any technology implementation underway, to make sure it continues to represent the business needs and processes of the organization. This helps ensure that implementation course corrections may be made in a timely manner, as needed.
A collaborative nonprofit technology leader will have good relationships with other key stakeholders in the organization—and lead in a manner that ensures they go on the journey with those stakeholders and arrive at the destination together. For systems to be effectively implemented, all key stakeholders must be heard and valued—brought together, and then moved forward together.
Another important characteristic of a collaborative leader is that they are open-minded. They are willing to learn and be informed by others’ experiences, find solutions together, and partner with others to implement these solutions. There is often some teaching a technology leader needs to do, but the best listen more than they talk.
Things aren’t always going to go as expected, and a good technology leader needs to be able to change plans with positivity and grace in order to maintain the confidence and the engagement of the people with whom they work.
Being an adaptable leader is also about resilience, which is extraordinarily important during times of changes and challenges. People in any leadership role who are not sufficiently adaptable do not perform well for their organization, particularly in a rapidly evolving landscape.
Sticking rigidly to the original plan when the real-life events have taken a detour is going to lead to long-term failure even if a short-term deadline is met. An adaptable technology leader should build in contingency planning to the implementation plans.
Servant-leadership is an important value at Build as it is at many nonprofits, whether they know it by that name or not. A leader who views their role as being in service to others, not about wielding power over others, is going to have more success in leading nonprofit technology projects at any level of authority, from an IT Manager to the CIO. We believe this to be true because the organizational change required for successful technology projects always has a heavy people element to that change. A leader who seeks to listen, understand, and serve will always have an advantage in gaining the buy-in necessary for that change to be effective.
A servant leader does not need to be the center of attention and does not need to get all the accolades. A servant leader empowers others, putting them in positions to do what they do best in a collaborative and transparent environment.
Particularly in the nonprofit sector, where our work is all about mission and impact, we at Build believe a servant-leadership approach appropriately puts the focus on the many people at an organization who are vital for achieving its mission.
Bottom line on the Six Traits of Successful Nonprofit Technology Leaders
One of the most critical factors in technology success in nonprofit organizations is having an experienced and empowered technology leader with the right qualities to get you where you need to go.
Many of these qualities are what might be considered “soft skills”—and hence might be overlooked in favor of technical expertise and know-how. In the collective experience of Build Consulting, while technical skills are required, these six traits are vital for leading nonprofit technology teams and projects to success.
Build believes that effective and involved leadership is foundational to information strategy and technology change. How leaders engage during a technology change effort can mean the difference between project success and failure. Each one of the traits above increases the chance that your project will be successful.
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Looking for a technology assessment, help creating a technology roadmap, or need a part-time CIO to keep a project going or guide big decisions? Contact Build to start the conversation.