Successfully Navigate the Transition into a VP or Chief Development Officer Role

by Richard Tollefson

When a long-time major gift officer, annual fund manager or advancement services director steps into their first chief development officer or vice president role, the transition can be rocky, the learning curve enormous and the expectations overwhelming. “The skills you mastered moving up the ranks are not always the ones that are relevant as you move into a first-time CDO or VP role,” says Gregory Leet, a consultant at Aspen Leadership Group. “It can be a profound shift.”

Yet, at other times, new leaders thrive as they take the reins and unleash ideas that have been bridled in their minds for years. This article explores that dichotomy and offers insights from those who strategically prepared and successfully navigated the challenges and obstacles they faced as first-time senior executives.

Plan Ahead, Build on Strengths, Overcome Limitations

Moving into a CDO or VP role means a rapid shift in the number of constituencies and stakeholders with whom one must authentically engage. There’s not a lot of time to “ramp up” one’s skills. At the same time, it’s important one shows competence to reassure others that one is confident of being the right person for the position.

For Kimberly Valentine, chief development officer for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, experience gave her the confidence to know she was ready to take a leadership role, but she also quickly recognized her limitations and found ways to use them to excel in her job. “Experience is what brings us to these leadership positions,” says Valentine. “You can want to be a leader, but experience allows you to be a leader. Time management was a challenge for me. There are so many things thrown on your plate. You have to be skilled at delegation and allow others to step into leadership roles. You need to be that spoke in the wheel that passes responsibilities on to others to allow them to grow in their positions.”

Even those who are knowledgeable and skilled in fundraising may find the details of managing those finances could trip them up, as Jason Geiken, vice president for advancement at Arkansas Tech University, found when stepping into his role. He advises getting some basic finance knowledge before taking the leap. “It seems like there are hundreds of endowment management decisions every week that come across my desk,” says Geiken. “That was challenging for me. I would encourage others to spend time with the back-office team and attend a conference or webinar on endowment management, financial management or advancement services to help you wrap your head around the type of financial decisions that will land on your desk.”

Exercise Emotional Intelligence

The common business phrase of “managing up” is a solid guidepost to follow. So is the concept of “emotional intelligence,” which in this case means moving from working with donors or development teams to working with stakeholders with real power and influence over plans and goals.

“It can feel like being hit by a tsunami,” says Leet. “Each constituency or stakeholder feels they are your top priority when you must find a way to balance them all.” So how do successful leaders do it?

They find their center. For Mike Remedi, chief development officer at the Desert Botanical Garden, that center is a five-year strategic planning document that serves as the organization’s guiding manifesto. “Everything centers back to that document,” says Remedi. “It helps everyone stay focused on what we’re trying to do. Even with a large board like ours, the board and senior leadership keep each other in check on organizational engagement and performance. It all gets rolled up into that strategic plan and helps avoid distractions or reactionary decision-making.”

In the case of a university campus, where competing constituencies can be overwhelming for a first-time CDO, one’s center must be the university president, says Geiken. “Make sure your agenda is the president’s agenda,” he advises. “Make sure the president knows you are his or her biggest cheerleader.”

Staying true to oneself is an important part of the process, according to Valentine. “So much of this is about being yourself even from the first interviews for the position,” she relates. “The more you show you are sincere and passionate, and even stating that you are going to be the cheerleader, the greater the chance for success.”

Be Confident, Competent

From navigating conflicts to understanding analytics to building consensus, the skills needed for a CDO or VP role are varied and extensive. The role may require non-traditional training and skillsets. For those up for the challenge, it can be rewarding and fulfilling. However, becoming a CDO is not the only path to success. One should seek the job if it’s desired, but it’s important for one to be open to other roles that better fit one’s skills and personality.

Key Takeaways for First-Time CDOs

  1. Strategically prepare for the transition. Having a basic knowledge of finance, accounting and analytics can go a long way in helping to prepare for this leadership role, as well as many other skills learned from previous experience. It’s important to have the desire to take on management responsibilities and know how to negotiate and find consensus.
  2. Self-assess strengths and weaknesses. One should play to one’s strengths to demonstrate competence and confidence in this new position. At the same time, on should listen respectfully to others in the organization to build relationships and work to meet them where they are. If this self-assessment leads one to the determination that one is not ready for a leadership role, one should take a step back and find a mentor to help in strengthening those weaknesses. A leadership role is not for everyone, and that’s OK, too.
  3. Don’t be afraid to share. When the tsunami hits (and it will), one should not be afraid to ask for help. More than likely, others in the organization will appreciate the opportunity to help accelerate the new leader’s learning curve or step up and take on new responsibilities under the new leader’s guidance. Seeking help is not a sign of incompetence, and knowing one’s limitations can demonstrate that one is at ease with one’s colleagues and confident in one’s team.
  4. Set performance expectations early. The relationships between the CDO, the CEO and the board of directors are critical to management and fundraising success. These relationships fail most often because of misaligned expectations, unclear metrics and a lack of communication. Knowing how to measure success is an important first step when starting a new position, and it’s even more critical in a CDO or VP role where one has multiple bosses with varying ideas of success.Managing expectations and exercising emotional intelligence are key to finding work-life balance.
  5. Stay true to oneself. Right from the first interview, it’s important to be honest and true to oneself. One should show one’s true passion for the job, commitment to supporting the mission of the organization and dedication to advancing the priorities of the CEO or president. And it’s critical that one surround oneself with the right people to help one learn, build good relationships and provide support when one needs it.

Richard Tollefson is founder and president of The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists.

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