My first role as an Executive Director was for a social innovation movement in Durham, NC. Bull City Forward was started by the visionary Christopher Gergen. The mission was to innovate for the greater good. I took over as the organization was going through its transition from a firebrand for Durham’s social entrepreneurial spirit to a movement brand. My job was to move the remaining assets toward their highest and final goal: ensuring that those in Durham who were cut out of the fast entrepreneurial ecosystem had access. We passed along resources to those who needed them, shut down the organization, and celebrated the way forward.
I fantasized a version of that story ending differently, but years out I realize that moving forward with a plan that gave tobacco money to black entrepreneurs was the absolute best result. Five years later, I am seeing the positive result of our decisions, even if I didn’t see them then. Moving forward often means leaving things behind to sort themselves out without you. In the moment, that is hard truth.
Fast forward, I am the CEO of a faith-based nonprofit organization that serves the people for whom I have a truly broken heart. Today, I have the supreme privilege of supporting a staff of nearly 20 experts in reversing poverty. My role as an executive director of an organization that needed to transition its mission set me up to understand the leadership requirements of an organization that is just beginning its fight. I led an organization that satisfied its mission. I now lead one that has a mountain ahead that seems impossible for anyone other than this team.
Creating a community free of hunger and homelessness seems like an impossible mission. For better or worse that is my job description. In my first two years, we’ve doubled and tripled our services – effectively taking a $1.7M annual budget to a $3M operation. That’s a lot of growth but it barely scratches the surface. We will serve 7500 people in Atlanta this year. That’s less than 8% of the people who need us in this city. We are just starting our work.
Once you’ve looked upward for guidance, inward for the gut check of whether you’re cut out for the work, and outward to gauge whether your community is ready, you have to make a decision to call it like it is and move forward. Your path may not be comprehensively informed by the upward, inward, outward, forward plan I’ve sloppily laid out over the last week or so, but if you’re making a step toward a better version of yourself and your community that is informed by humility, introspection, and a reliance on feedback, your path forward is likely to succeed.
The hard part about moving forward is moving onward – a process of grueling mistake making and improvement. Forward is one thing. Onward is another.
Forward is decisive. Onward is iterative. Just remember that an inch off at launch is a mile off in orbit, so make sure you’ve done the work that looks toward the goals you want to achieve and is laser focused toward achieving them. This takes constant course correction and fidelity to mission.
Start by looking upward. Take time to look inward. Incorporate outward perspective. But don’t waste time. Now, it’s forward. It’s onward. If you’re doing it right, the mission will continually be brought back into focus.
That steady focus is what makes you visionary and the right person to move forward.