All too often we hear that our nonprofits would be more sustainable if we were to look at for profit models and take away key lessons and structures that help them succeed. These lessons can come in the form of revenue and pricing models that could build our own base or staffing models that right size a full-time and contractor workforce. Yes, we know we live in a time of ever shift – and so any model we look to is going to have to be part of an organizational design that can be flexible and evolving. The foundation of that agility is inquiry.
Whether it is a Board of Directors, or any C-suite officer, executive presence in our world today means a balance of competence, confidence, and humility. While knowledge and experience are foundations of strength, they are not the entire story. Leadership that will continue to seek organizational evolution and adaptation inherently need to embrace the humble position that they need to know more than they do today – and that means asking more and better questions.
In the busy world of answering emails and trying to get too much done in too little time, we can forget about the great power that comes with inquiry. Inherent in meaningful question asking is a trust building with the person who is sharing their knowledge and perspective, is a learning exercise as the inquirers own point of view expands, and is the discovery of how much more there is to learn as new opportunities unfold. Strong leaders in the C-suite recognize this and intentionally apply it to how they lead our organizations:
- Inquiry driving Board relationships: Our Boards are constructed (or should be) for a good mix of diverse experience, knowledge, strengths, skills, and backgrounds. Each Board member can provide a C-suite leader with a unique perspective based on their own path, helping the C-Suite executive bridge the realm of nonprofit best practice with the practical example from the represented industry. Board member inquiry builds the staff-board relationship and bridges the on-the-ground insights needed.
- Inquiry driving staff contributions: Organizations who have a well designed staffing structure bring to the table subject matter experts in their respective discipline areas who, by their very nature, translate their skills into the vision and structure of the organization. Tapping into these wise staff in an advisory capacity can provide a series of internal viewpoints that, from the elevation of C-Suite may be missed. Staff inquiry also demonstrates that across layers of management, the insight of staff is invaluable regardless of title.
- Inquiry driving external wisdom: Each C-Suite executive recognizes that their organization doesn’t exist on an island. We each live in a world of potential allies, competitors, and structure makers. From each these avenues there are lessons to be learned if inquiry is directed and focused, seeking to gain examples and models that add to success and avoid pitfalls. Seeking wisdom outside the organization is never a weakness – it is the bridge that brings the lessons of the outside world to bear for our organizations.
- Inquiry from a kitchen cabinet: Leadership at the top can be lonely – very lonely. When you have a C-suite position, while it is an incredibly powerful moment when you admit that you may not know something, you are often looked to as the apex of perspective and direction. Growing a kitchen cabinet of trusted advisors you can turn to where you can ask the hard questions where you may not have clarity is essential for a successful career as well as for the organization you serve. These relationships are often grown over time, but are the ones that, at the end of the day, are there to professionally support you through it all.
Through each audience lens, and there are more, the approach to inquiry – of seeking a greater perspective – is not a deficit, but an avenue of growth. As you think about your own connections, community, and cohorts, where can you incorporate an inquiry mindset? What are the questions that could elevate your own work and career to the next level? There is no day like today to ask a good question.