Season 3, Episode 29
In this episode, we’re delighted to host Beth Napleton, CEO of Beth Napleton Consulting, with over 25 years of leadership experience in education and the nonprofit sector. Beth shares her insights on leadership, providing tips and strategies for nonprofit leaders to enhance their effectiveness and efficiency.
As a former educator, principal, and founder of a charter school network, Beth brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. She discusses the challenges of nonprofit leadership, the importance of finding support and motivation, and offers advice on combating the isolation that often accompanies leadership roles.
Beth also delves into setting and measuring organizational goals, emphasizing the significance of tracking success metrics that truly matter. She encourages leaders to invest in themselves and seek help when needed, highlighting the positive impact it can have on the entire organization.
Tune in to discover the secrets of successful nonprofit leadership with Beth Napleton.
For more leadership insights and resources, visit Beth Napleton’s website at bethnapleton.com and take her quick leadership quiz at leadership-quiz.com.
Hi, I am Amy Eisenstein, and today, Andrea’s on a break. And I’m here with Beth Napleton. And Beth is the CEO of Beth Napleton Consulting, with over 25 years of leadership experience in education. And most recently, she served as the founder and CEO of a small charter school network on the South Side of Chicago where all graduates, most of them first-generation students, were accepted to at least two four-year colleges.
Beth leverages her extensive experience in education to work with leaders in a variety of organizations to help them with time, skills, space to navigate the challenges of leadership to ensure success. And I’m excited to talk to Beth today about secrets of leadership and tips for leaders because nonprofit leaders are always looking to be more effective and efficient and better at their jobs. So Beth, thanks for being here.
Thanks for having me, Amy.
Beth’s Leadership Journey
So why don’t you start out just by telling us a little bit about your leadership journey and why you think this is important to help nonprofit leaders be more effective?
Yep. So I started in education and in the nonprofit space probably almost 30 years ago, which seems ridiculous to say, but somehow it’s true. And I think that I’ve always been attracted to mission-driven work and making the world a better place.
And so while a lot of my experience is as a classroom teacher, as a dean, as a principal, and then founding and leading a small charter school network, I also have worked a lot with kind of education adjacent organization, social service agencies and youth programming in various ways. And I found that, probably because I grew up as the oldest of eight children, I feel like leadership came to me very naturally, wrangling groups of people, and it was really meaningful.
How can you get a group of people to do something bigger than themselves and achieve goals and make the world better and go from there? But it’s also can be really lonely and isolating. You’re making the tough calls and the decisions that are just so challenging. And so a lot of what I focus on in my work, working with leaders as a coach and consultant, is how do we help you feel more connected, feel more grounded in where you’re making decisions from and proceed the best way that you think is right in the moment given the circumstances because there’s not always a clear map on where to go. And that can be really challenging for leaders as they navigate the ever-changing world that we’re in.
Yeah, I think that’s so true. There is a really common theme that leadership is lonely, right. Being at the top, you can’t always tell your challenges to your board. That’s not appropriate. And you can’t share your challenges with people you’re supervising.
How Nonprofit Leaders Can Combat Isolation and Where to Turn for Support
So talk a little bit about how leaders can combat some of this loneliness and isolation and where do they turn for support and for motivation, for inspiration, for answers.
Totally. I think you pointed out so many great pieces. So I think that there are definitely a lot of ways, right. And a lot of us rely on our partners and friends and folks to kind of vent to and say, and they… that has a role for sure. And also they might get tired of it. There are other things to talk about in your relationship that you are more than just your job and what you do professionally. I have found that there are two other places that really help leaders.
One is in kind of groups of professional associations or other executive directors and communities where people come together, who while their organization is… I always say, “You are unique, but you’re not special, right.” So you’re a particular set of challenges is particularly your board and your staff and your mission and your development and your budget. But everybody else… other people struggle with talent management.
Other people struggle with boards who are maybe at odds with each other. And so, how do you find a group of people who have some similar kind of challenges where you can connect to and learn from them? And I think that’s also why people will often go to a leadership or an executive coach because it’s a safe space. It’s a chance to kind of really vent. You don’t have to be filtered, and you’re not worried about, “I’m spending an hour at dinner talking about this work problem.” You’re able to talk about it and really work through it with somebody who’s also been there. And so I tell people, “What I bring to our sessions is not just my 30 years of experience in leadership. I have learned from every leader I work with so the tune of hundreds or thousands of years of experience across the board now to say, ‘Yeah, this is a super typical theme, and here’s some ways you can think about it and here might you approach it.'”
And we’re able to customize it to also say, “Hi Amy, you’re really a relational person, so let’s think about how to solve this in a relational way.” Versus if you’re a really strategic person, you might have a different way of approaching the same problem. There’s no right or wrong. It’s really about here are some options and what works best for you as a way forward to go. So I think that connecting with others often is a place of help. People go to books, they go to podcasts because I think even listening to this, you can feel like, “Oh, I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who thinks that.” And I think it’s so important to just constantly be mindful of feeding that part of yourself because otherwise, it can start to feel like, “Oh my gosh, I’m alone in my office, and what do I do, and the burdens.” You don’t want them to become too much because we need great folks working in social change spaces because our world has a lot of problems that needs fixing.
Go-To Resources for Nonprofit Leaders
Yeah, so true. Do you have specific groups that you recommend or podcasts? What are your go-to resources for nonprofit leaders?
Yeah. Well, I was a reading teacher back in the day, so I always go to books. I find a lot of community in book. I find a lot of resources there. And so a lot of, I think, the books that folks might… that I found that can be helpful, I think the Lencioni books about Dysfunctions of a Team are really useful. They have some good workbooks and some good… Patrick Lencioni’s written a bunch about meetings and executive teams, and they’re very quick reads, which is also very helpful.
There’s a woman named Maia Heyck-Merlin who does a lot on being organized as a leader, and her books are great. And I think her workshops are maybe a better way to apply it, but I think that kind of gets a group of people together. And then I think it really is about when I led a charter school, working with other charter school leaders in Chicago and nationally was helpful. I work with somebody who runs a Jewish community center, and when she gets together with other Jewish community center leaders, there’s a helpful sense of comradery. And so I think it’s finding role alike, or if I was doing this job in another city, right —
…or another place, who would be doing it. And sometimes, it can be in a group, and sometimes, it can be just going out for coffee or just connecting on LinkedIn. And it can be hard, I think when you’ve got an ever-growing to-do list to feel like, “How am I going to make time for coffee?” But I really do feel like it feeds us a little bit, and it’s a network. And then the next time you’re sitting at your desk thinking, “What do I do about this budget shortfall? What do I do about this staff member,” you can pick up the phone and call that person, and it can be a really invaluable lifeline.
Yeah, absolutely. Everything from actually paying a coach to a mentor to a peer, to a network group to solace of a good book. I think those are all good recommendations.
At Capital Campaign Pro, we do have a CEO roundtable regularly for our CEOs because they do have different challenges than their development directors, who we also have coaching and support for. But specifically, to bring together a group of CEOs to discuss their specific challenges in working with the board and working with development directors is a really helpful tool, I think.
Defining Nonprofit Leadership: What Makes a Good Leader?
All right, so let’s back up just a minute, and why don’t you help us with a definition of good nonprofit leadership or talk about what makes a good leader?
Yep. So I think that people… This, I’m sure, could be a college course or something or a graduate-level symposium, but to me, I think there are really three pieces. One, you are just putting your best foot forward and just doing the best you can every day, which, in some ways, people say, “Oh, of course, I’m trying the best I can.” But we can’t take it for granted. That’s actually not always the case. So I think there’s a part of that. I think there also is a humility I see in good leadership where they can say:
“I know what I don’t know. I know what I’m not an expert in. I’m not afraid to ask questions. I’m not afraid to get help.”
Because especially working with CEOs and executive directors or board chairs, you have a wide range of responsibilities. You can’t be an expert in all of them. You can’t have experience in all of them. And so I think that that humility is incredibly important. And I think there is… in folks I work with who really succeed, there is a drive to continuously improve. And that doesn’t mean that all day, every day, they’re thinking about, “How am I developing?” But I think there’s a commitment to, every day, be 1% better than you were the day before.
And that might be through the podcast or through the CEO roundtable. But I think that over time, you really see the difference in leaders who approach their work that way as opposed to people who say, “Well, I’m not going to really work on that this year, or this year, I’m going to deprioritize my growth.” When you commit to growing at least a little bit every day, I think that really the trajectory that you’re on as a leader and your own efficacy is remarkably improved.
Yeah, I think that’s interesting. From a Capital Campaign perspective and lens, we’re looking at leaders who are interested in helping their organizations grow significantly. And so having a vision and being able to facilitate a strategic planning process with the help of a consultant… I’m not saying they need to do it on their own, most engage outside professional expertise to help them develop the vision, develop a strategic plan for the organization, and then invest in a Capital Campaign experience to make that vision become a reality. And so, that to me is what I’m seeing in our leaders is leaders that have such a big vision that they need to bring the organization through a tremendous period of growth, which is an amazing thing to see.
It’s really fun. And I think the ability to then… Often, you see leaders able to spread their ideas, rally people get them excited. And I think to your point, acknowledging where I might not have the experience in capital campaigns, or I might not have the objective experience a consultant would who can get people to say things that they wouldn’t say to the boss because of the way that humans work, right.
And I think that that leader saying:
“Here’s where I best fit in, here’s what I can do and how can I engage resources to help us get to that better place that I think is going to be really amazing for our community,”
That I think a great… I would imagine a really interesting place to spend your time.
Right. Sometimes, just admitting what you don’t know so that you can invest in the resources and help and support. Not every leader knows everything, I think.
Of course, exactly.
Every leader doesn’t know some things. And so knowing when it’s time to hire a coach or consultant or help is part of being a good leader, I think. Not just insisting that you can do it all or that you should do it all or whatever the case may be.
Top Tips for Goal-Oriented Nonprofit Leaders
All right. So I’m interested in some of your top tips for leaders who are really being strategic and goal-oriented. What do you advise them to do?
So I think one thing that folks, I mean, I always… when I work with leaders, I’m always thinking:
- Do you have the right pieces in place?
- Do you have goals?
- Do people know about them?
- Do you have ways to track them?
And if the answer is “no,” that’s okay, but let’s start there, right, because then you can really move forward. And then it’s thinking about, okay. Often, there’s a tension in leadership. There is usually at least a few things that you are responsible for, but there is usually a much larger range of things that your team is responsible for.
And so, you need to be spending your time thinking about, “How am I setting those expectations? How am I checking in? How am I motivating people?” And I find that in leadership, one common trap people fall into is they will think about teams and think about the person who is a mess or where things are really falling short, and you have to pay some attention to it. But you also can’t… you can get so much more return on investment if you focus on folks who are also high-performing.
Five minutes thinking a week thinking about, “How can I really help and support my high performers in those small actions,” even if it’s just connecting them to a colleague or sending them an article you saw that was interesting, can help keep those higher performers engaged, motivated, and even performing beyond their current level. And so I think that’s one thing that leaders often don’t think about sometimes because they’re like, “But this person’s a mess, or I have to deal with this and call legal and do all that.” And that’s true. And even just a tiny bit of time thinking about your highest performers can really go a long way.
That is such a good point. I think we’re always so busy putting out fires. Nonprofit leaders are always putting out fires, and so sometimes that takes them away. They know that they can rely on their reliable people.
We actually have a Chief Happiness Officer here at Capital Campaign Pro, and one of her responsibilities is making sure that she’s recognizing people when they do great things, also propping them up when they need support. It goes both ways. But really calling out the great things that people are doing as well so that they feel recognized and proud and motivated and inspired to continue doing those great things. I think that’s a great point.
Setting Up Goals as a Nonprofit Leader
So you talked about goals. So how does a director, a leader, or CEO think about setting up goals for themselves and maybe their direct reports? What are some of the common goals you see that would help an executive director or a CEO know when their team is moving forward?
So I think, oftentimes, I’ll come in and work on an engagement with folks where they say, “We want to be more goal-oriented, and how do we do that?” And where we start kind of depends on what currently exists. So, for example, I worked with a lot of school leaders coming out of COVID where they said, “Before, we were pretty good about monitoring our academic progress, and there was no assessments during COVID, and now we’re back to this place where we don’t… Wait. I’d like to get back to where we were, but also people are quiet quitting. They’re leaving in droves. I don’t want to put pressure on.”
And so we kind of… one of the things I do is take a pretty thorough currency state analysis of all the different factors to say, “Here’s how I think that we should best approach it in your organization.” But broadly, I think it’s always thinking that are there metrics that track our success and how do we define success? And so, for example, I’m currently working with a board of directors, and they keep citing their success and growth and saying, “We went from a shelter for… that was $500,000 to $10 million.” And your job is to help women and children get back on their feet. So I don’t think the amount of money you spend each year is actually the number one thing you should be citing.
Let’s talk about placement and permanent housing ability to earn a living wage upon leaving the shelter recidivism rate for going back into homelessness. And some of those things are harder to measure the amount of money you spend. And so that’s where you have to kind of dig in and say, “How would we measure this? Can we track it? Can we incentivize people to do a tech survey? How do we see how we go?” But I think that that’s often what can be so thorny about goals is that you’re really trying to get at the heart of what matters most in our organization and then how do we measure it, which, sometimes, is easy to measure and sometimes is more difficult.
And so I’ll work too… sometimes leaders will say, “It’s really important to me that our school is a place where people feel happy and motivated, and adults and kids feel like they’re growing. And so we’ll design surveys to gauge perception because that can be a way to measure how people feel, even though, of course, by the nature of how people feel, it changes every day. And so how do you start to get some snapshots as a leader to say, “Well, if we give this quarterly survey, we can start to track trends over time to help us understand that actually our younger students feel very comfortable making mistakes, but our older students get really concerned about it.
And so we actually want to really think about how we can plan and create an environment where making mistakes is something that’s encouraged through our students throughout the entirety of their experience.” So I think it depends a lot on some of… sometimes people have negative experiences with past goals, or we don’t want to think about this, or the systems are funky and hard to track things, and that makes it difficult. But it really is about what we do matter most. How do we measure or track this, which might be through quantitative metrics, qualitative metrics, you know, perception surveys? And then how do we look at this over time as a team and think about how are our actions impacting this so that we can move in the direction that we want to go in?
Yeah, I think that’s smart. In fundraising, certainly, we talk about reporting on impact, measuring impact, not talking about the money, as you alluded to, but what difference is this going to make? And really that’s what donors want to hear, and that’s what nonprofits are set to do is to demonstrate impact and make a difference in the world.
So how are they doing that? This isn’t quite related to impact, but one of the things often when organizations come to us to talk about a capital campaign goal, they often have a big endowment goal in addition to a building or startup programs or infrastructure or technology or whatever they’re raising money for.
And frequently, donors give to endowment through planned gifts, and they come in over time. They’re hard to measure during someone’s lifetime. So we actually encourage lots of clients, if it works for their campaign, to measure number of new planned gifts, number of new request intentions, as opposed to trying to figure, right? Yeah.
Right. Exactly. Exactly. Because that can say, “Hey, we made some real progress this year with our number.” Nobody knows when these will come in.
But they will. One day, this will be great in the future. But I think development goals are really fun because, to me, so many parts of… number of donors or growing the pyramid or frequency, I liked it because it was so trackable. But you’re right. People… The donors don’t want to hear about that. They want to hear about the impact of those dollars.
And so I think that that is always why the mind of a CEO is always a little bit in a couple of different places. Our internal metrics, our external metrics, and then often it’s like:
“We have so many metrics, what do we focus on? Okay, how do we tier these? How do we focus on these? Who’s focusing on what?”
That’s all part of the challenges of leadership.
Secrets for Successful Nonprofit Leadership
Yeah. All right. I understand you have some secrets for successful leadership. What are some of your top tips for nonprofit leaders? What can they do to make change in the short term in the long term that they might really see a difference in terms of how they are engaging their teams every day?
Mm-hmm. So I think what comes to mind is that two things. One is that we as… research has shown that, as humans, we overestimate what we can do in a day, but we can do in a year. And so I think that the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant one bite at a time” is really… I used to say that all the time to my team because it did feel like one agenda item, one meeting, one action, step one email. But I think that as a leader, it’s important to be able to see, “Hey, here’s where I want to be in a year,” and my small actions today do actually help it.
It can sometimes lead to feeling frustrated when you didn’t get your to-do list checked off or you didn’t get to this thing, but it is about kind of that… it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And so, how do you kind of go towards that? And the other piece, I think, is that, we kind of alluded to this earlier, but I think it’s important to know what do you not know and where do you need help. I think sometimes there’s a sense of, “I have to do it. I’m the leader. I should be the person. I work a lot with nonprofits. Resources are always a concern financially. Should I be spending money on this when it could go to that?”
But it’s okay to invest in yourself. And I always tell leaders, “When I think about my impact, I just started working with a new assistant superintendent of a school district who works with six schools and who has 3,500 kids, right, under his supervision and his line of sight. And so this is not about a dollar amount for one person. This is about how are the 3,500 students going to benefit because their six principals are better equipped because their assistant principals are better equipped because their teachers are.”
This does really trickle down, and I think that sometimes people feel uncomfortable or unsure, like, “Will this make a difference?” And leaders underestimate their own impact. And it’s interesting because when I work with funders or when I work with boards, they’re like, “Absolutely, this is the right place to invest.” But, often, leaders themselves will be reluctant and say, “Ah, I don’t know. Is this the right thing? I could use it for my team. I could use it here.” And the reality is, if you want an organization to get further, faster by focusing on the leader, it’s the number one way to kind of supercharge that.
That’s so interesting. And I love you reminding us that you can probably accomplish more in a year than you expect, maybe less in a day. And so setting up some goals for the year and then really reflecting back and seeing how far you’ve come. Because I think organizations do move tremendously in a year if they’re intentional about it. And being able to put your finger to that and saying:
“Look at how far we’ve come over the course of the year. We’ve started new programs. We’ve expanded programs. We’ve served X number of people. We’ve changed lives in these ways.”
Whatever those measurable, tangible outcomes are that your organization is trying to have a year really makes a difference. So maybe give yourself a break on the day-to-day and keep your eye on the prize. All right.
More Insight from Beth Napleton
So I’m going to let you share some final thoughts with everybody in a minute. But first, where can people find you? And I understand you have some quiz or a free resource on your site.
So my website is my name, bethnapleton.com. And if you can put it in the show notes, all right, and like Nancy. That’s always helpful. And on that, I have a bunch of masterclasses that I run. Typically, every couple of weeks, I have blogs and videos. And I also have… at leadership-quiz.com, I have a quiz that’s less than two minutes that people can take on what you need most as a leader right now.
And so it’s a way to kind of take your temperature, see where you’re at, and think about what resources might help you best because we all need something, right. And it’s a hard job, and if it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. And so I think that being able to say:
“I recognize that this is challenging. I also am up to the task, and I may also need some additional support as I complete this as important.”
Great. So what are some final thoughts you want to leave listeners with?
Yeah, I think, often, as leaders, we are thinking about our team and our board and look at what all these other people do. And I think it’s important to, cheesy as it sounds like, look in the mirror and say, “What am I doing, right?” I am getting out of bed after getting my butt kicked to the school board meeting last night, right. I am offering the box of Kleenex to the person who’s crying across the table from me. I am calling it a day when I need to and going on a walk with my dog or going out to dinner with a friend. And so I think that I feel like I constantly trying to be a cheerleader for leaders and saying, “You are enough. You are doing enough. You are on this journey, and it is a marathon, not a sprint. And so there are going to be hard days.
There are things that you experience that you can’t share with other people or that are inappropriate to talk about.” How do you say, “Okay, yep. I get it, and I’m doing a good job too.” I think we’re sometimes quick to recognize other people doing a good job and not always ourselves.
And it’s really important to have [that] balance. You don’t want to only recognize yourself as doing a good job. That leads to a whole host of other problems. But I find in nonprofits, it’s everyone is… they’re quick to recognize others and not as quick to recognize themselves, which I think is important.
Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us, Beth. I think listeners learned a lot, and I appreciate you being here.
It was my pleasure, Amy. Thank you for having me.
All right. Thanks again for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.