2015 Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives Kickoff Explores Servant Leadership

February 10, 2015
| by Editor |

Leaders need a strong network of peers they can engage in the dialog they might not otherwise be able to have inside their own organizations. GCN’s Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives helps them learn servant leadership principles as they foster peer relationships. 

Held at the offices of King & Spalding in midtown Atlanta, our fourth annual Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives kickoff event welcomed program alumni along with our 2015 cohort of 23 executive leaders.  Over the next several months, they will participate in a series of activities – centered around the theme of servant leadership – through a curriculum of six executive sessions, facilitated roundtables, and individualized coaching, all designed to sharpen their capacity to lead.

In the course of helping executive directors ramp up their leadership skills, Peerspectives delivers an important added bonus: participants also use this program to cultivate a group of their peers that can act as a sounding board and a source of encouragement.

“Sometimes you need a pat on the back, a person to go to … some different kinds of opinions,” said GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor. “That’s why I felt so strongly that we needed to create a network, a group of trusted friends we can go to for advice and counsel. That’s what this is about.”

Unique program helps leaders tap into “the wisdom in the room”

To date, Peerspectives has facilitated lasting relationships among 105 Georgia leaders who work on a wide assortment of issues. Several alumni were on hand to offer insight to newcomers on how this program has helped them forge mutual friendships and develop as leaders.

“We still get together for breakfast,” said Clarkston Community Center executive director McKenzie Wren, a 2012 Peerspectives participant. “This cohort is what you make it. Talk to each other. The wisdom in the room is what makes it all work.”

“You’re a compilation of leaders trying to make an impact in the community,” Beavor added. “By extension, you are part of the family. You have people you can call on.”


Keynote: How Nonprofit Servant Leadership Creates Transformational Change

The 2015 Peerspectives kickoff event featured a keynote presentation by Dr. Bob Thomas, Professor of the Practice and Director of Leadership Education at Georgia Institute of Technology's Scheller School of Business and Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Thomas addressed a management philosophy that has stirred the imaginations of leaders in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors for decades.

“There is confusion around the term sometimes,” Thomas explained, adding that Greenleaf never defined servant leadership expressly in the 38-page book that he penned in 1970. However, the concept of servant leadership has two primary components:

1.       Serve by identifying and meeting the legitimate needs of those entrusted to your care.

2.       Create or change structures, systems, behaviors and conditions that raise the performance of the institution as a servant.

How do leaders know when they are accomplishing both of these? According to Greenleaf, the test is whether a leader has raised the capacity and performance of the institution to better serve. “Leaders say, ‘follow me’ and take the risk of failure,” Thomas explained, adding that succeeding as a servant leader takes vision, persuasion and time.

How three Peerspectives Alums Apply Servant Leadership at Ground Level

Following Thomas’ remarks, Camp Twin Lakes CEO Eric Robbins, moderated a panel discussion of fellow program alumni on applying the principles of servant leadership, featuring Future Foundation CEO Qaadira Abdur-Rahim, Refugee Family Services ED Emily Pelton, and Goethe Zentrum German Cultural Center Atlanta ED Miriam Bruns.

During a period of intense growth and strategic planning at Future Foundation, Abdur-Rahim encountered resistance from the board and staff when she proposed changes. It was then that she realized creating change started with instilling servant leadership values. “We signed the staff up for everything GCN had to offer,” Abdur-Rahim recalled, “so they could learn and see the larger environment and why we had to change. They started to understand why change was important, why we had to start thinking about improvement. And that turned us around.”

Pelton navigated her organization through radical change when it worked through a merger with another nonprofit in the sector. “We approached the merger by asking ourselves, ‘What is the best long-term outcome for our clients?”, she explained, adding that the merger might not have been as successful if her message to the funding community had not been anchored by the principles of servant leadership.

Funding cuts presented an immediate threat to Bruns’ organization. So she brought dynamic changes to the German Cultural Center, working as a servant leader to get others to believe. According to Bruns, “We had to do something different. We tried to learn from the community. We sought out GCN for guidance.” Bruns described how her organization’s culture changed over time from “why are we failing?” to “why are we succeeding?”

Peerspectives Creates Strong Support Network for Georgia Nonprofit Leaders

This year’s Peerspectives group will participate in roundtable discussions, networking activities and executive coaching sessions. From these activities, participants ramp up their leadership skills while also cultivating a group of peers that can act as a sounding board and a source of encouragement.

Peerspectives is about investing in you and our community,” said Eric Robbins, the Camp Twin Lakes CEO and panel moderator, in closing. “We’re in this forever together. Welcome to the club.”


Brian Carr is a Communications Consultant for GCN.

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