Coaching Non-Profit Leaders to Find Their Strengths

by Alex Carter

New non-profit leaders generally bring to their new positions a deep knowledge of and commitment to their organization’s mission and goals, as well as specific skill sets in programmatic work. However, their tool kits often lack specific executive skills such as strategic thinking and personnel management. In addition, some new leaders lack confidence in their ability to perform at a high level in their new positions.

I’ve found that the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment can be a valuable tool in helping new non-profit leaders identify and develop their unique talents as they grow into their new roles.

New leaders face unique challenges

New non-profits leaders face the same challenges as their more-experienced colleagues: fundraising and resource development (even more of a challenge in the current economic climate); programmatic oversight; and communications, among others.

But new leaders also face additional hurdles. Primary among these are managing the staff and board, and the transition from “rowing” to “steering.” While they were once task-oriented in a specific program area, now they need to be more focused on the overall organization.

Coaching new non-profit leaders

New non-profit leaders are especially well placed to benefit from coaching. A good coach offers a new leader tools for growing into the job, helps the executive director (ED) develop and pursue her or his personal and organizational goals and serves as a sounding board for processing events, interactions and crises.

This last function is crucial. The coach is often the only person in the ED’s professional life who wants nothing from them other than their success. In a recent six-month check-in about our work together, one of my clients said that the space to process and “vent” was probably the most useful to him now, when stresses are many and growing. He also noted that my ability to provide a “reality check” helped him feel less isolated.

The StrengthsFinder assessment

One of the first things I ask my new ED clients to do is to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. This tool builds on massive research by the Gallup organization on workplace productivity. Gallup identified 35 “strengths,” or areas of natural talent, ranging from “Achiever” (driven to succeed) to “Woo” (very social, great at winning others over). Gallup found that employees who were able to work from their strengths were significantly more productive than those who did not.

This was a major finding for corporations, who typically spend much time and energy on addressing weaknesses, rather than strengths. Gallup also found that developing an individual’s strengths was much more likely to result in increased productivity and worker satisfaction than any amount of time spent redressing weaknesses.

It’s useful to think of strengths as “default settings.” For example, someone with the “Context” strength will approach a problem wanting to know its origins and history before acting, whereas someone with “Strategic” strength will be more apt to see the forward implications of how the problem is handled.

Precisely because strengths are “default settings,” we tend to downgrade their importance or uniqueness. But no two people possess the same strengths configuration. And an awareness of their strengths, and how they interact to shape their ways of working in the world, gives my clients a unique way to shape their particular leadership styles. We can also identify those areas where they might need more support, or should consider delegating, as they grow into their new positions.

Outcomes of StrengthsFinder for non-profits

When Abby was appointed as ED of a youth advocacy organization, she was not at all sure she was up to the task. She was following in the footsteps of a strong founder, and doubted she could replicate his successes. Abby took the StrengthsFinder and found that she has significant Strategic strength. She has been able to draw on this strength to lead her organization to significant legislative victories, including securing funding for her constituency during a statewide budget crisis.

Other clients have increased confidence in their ability to function at the senior level. Dan, who had extensive mid-level management experience, had some difficulty with the transition to leadership of a transitional housing organization. Dan’s Connectedness strength actually became an obstacle to effective management. He had such a strong sense that all humanity is connected and that each person is of intrinsic worth, that it was difficult for him to exercise authority in situations of conflict. Once we were aware of this pitfall, Dan and I worked to develop an understanding that conflict need not involve disrespect. His ability to manage situations of conflict has improved, along with his confidence in handling them.

Dan was so enthused with the StrengthsFinder that he asked for me to do a training workshop with his entire staff. This was a fascinating afternoon, in which we discovered that most of the staff shared a Connectedness or Belief strength, reflected in a deep belief in the organization’s mission and the high staff morale and retention. The training also revealed an organizational need: there was a noted lack of Communication strength. The staff all knew what they were doing was important, and why, but had trouble communicating outside the organization. That led the group to enlist a volunteer marketing and communications expert, which in turn led to improved fundraising results.


A strong and confident ED is perhaps the most important element in the success of a small- to mid-sized non-profit organization. And non-profit leaders need support as they make the transition into their new roles. The Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment has helped my ED clients gain insights into both their strengths and limitations as leaders and managers. In addition, entire teams and organizations have achieved similar positive results using the assessment.


Alex Carter, Your Nonprofit Coach, specializes in helping new Executive Directors become outstanding managers and leaders, while keeping their sanity. She can be reached at

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