As Executive Director for DC SCORES, Bethany Henderson shares her perspective on leadership
A nationally recognized social entrepreneur, Bethany assumed her leadership role with DC SCORES in 2014. An Echoing Green Fellow and a White House Fellow, Bethany’s career has spanned the social, for-profit and government sectors. While in the White House, Bethany coordinated the 2013 Youth Jobs+ initiative and participated in developing My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership focused on helping boys and young men of color get and stay on track, cradle to career.
In 2008, Bethany founded City Hall Fellows, an award-winning, nonpartisan, post-college, local government service corps, raising more than $4M to launch and build the organization during the recession. City Hall Fellows uses service-learning principles to prepare young people to take active civic leadership roles in their own hometowns.
Tell us about your leadership style and how this contributes to your organization’s success.
I believe in the wisdom of a well-known African proverb: “if you want to go far, go together.” My leadership style is shared leadership. To me, shared leadership means empowering all members of a team by giving each an opportunity to assume leadership and ownership over their area(s) of expertise. It does not mean I abdicate responsibility for setting a clear organizational direction or strategy or for making difficult decisions. Nor does it mean that I have created a work environment of a bunch of individuals running around doing their own thing.
Rather, my style involves intentionally empowering both our organizational departments as a whole and every member of our team to operate to their maximum potential and capacity, both individually and together.
Shared leadership is not something I simply talk about, or even just model, it is an ethos baked into the way we operate. For example, our team (staff and Board) together developed, and now utilize, a structured strategic decision making tool to inform significant decisions. That tool expressly requires input from all staff with specific, relevant knowledge, regardless of that staffer’s job title, tenure or “level.”
Likewise, we’ve built a teamwork culture that not only values all people speaking up and managing up, down and across, but also that empowers them too. I’ve instituted the practice that all new staff members go to “managing up and across” training and new supervisors go to “managing staff” training (we’re partial to The Management Center’s trainings).
All staff members are trained in the leadership compass, which creates a common language for communication that makes it easier for them to both express their needs in the workplace and meet others’ needs in ways that keep any feeling of personal attacks or affronts out of it. In fact, we all (me included!) display our compass points on our office doors or desk nameplates.
Another example is that we have an open calendar policy – every single person who works at DC SCORES, from the intern to me, can see everyone else’s calendars. We aggressively and consistently document notes from team meetings, Board committee meetings, project meetings, and more in a Google Drive structure that allows all relevant staff and Board members 24/7 access to materials and institutional knowledge they need, while still allowing senior management to control access to specific documents or document collections for privacy reasons.
Another example is that staff is invited (and actively encouraged) to attend the first half hour of every Board meeting and have dinner with the Board. At each Board meeting, different staff members stay to share their work directly with the Board.
Finally, while I often sit in on various department and event planning meetings, my public role in those environments (and at our major events) is as team member not project leader. The project or event leaders publicly lead the department meetings or events.
I could go on, but these examples at least give you a flavor of how I operationalize shared leadership. This contributes to DC SCORES’ success in myriad ways. First, it keeps me out of micro-managing situations where other staff have far more expertise than I do, while ensuring that staff come to me when issues that impact our organizational, financial, or governance strategy arise. This ensures organizational activities move forward efficiently without bureaucratic bottlenecks, while at the same time ensuring we keep our strategic focus.
Second, it allows us to do much more with fewer people than would be possible if staff felt compelled to go through laborious hierarchical decision-making processes for routine activities.
Third, it has empowered staff to experiment within their areas of expertise – resulting in important new initiatives for us like the “Our Words Our City” poetry series (featuring our most talented spoken-word artists), and far more efficient and effective site-management protocols that leverage technology and data (instead of just informal “boots on the ground” observations) to improve program quality.
Finally, it has allowed staff to be comfortable speaking with Board members directly, and vice-versa, without me in the middle. This has resulted in Board members feeling more connected to the organization, staff feeling more valued, and a greater comprehension by both Board and staff of what the other group does on behalf of DC SCORES.
What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders?
Effective, efficient, usable infrastructure really matters. Solid infrastructure coupled with clear north stars for which staff are held accountable keeps the team mission-focused, provides early warning signals about potential challenges, increases efficiency, facilitates being a learning organization, and smoothes personnel transitions by retaining institutional knowledge. However, at the end of the day, it’s all about the people. Without passionate, dedicated, curious, committed people at all levels of a nonprofit – people who wholeheartedly buy into the cause, who feel part of the team, who feel ownership over the impact – even the best systems will fail.
I urge nonprofit leaders to spend as much time on your people as on systems and fundraising. To me, spending time on people means being very intentional about building the right team when hiring; empowering staff to be successful leaders in their own specialties/functions; supporting staff when they stumble; keeping abreast of individual staffer’s strengths, growth opportunities, and career goals; openly taking responsibility for your own mistakes or missteps and setting a public example for how to handle them; and meaningfully engaging staff in constructively tackling organizational challenges.
What does this award mean for you and your organization?
As DC SCORES approaches our 25th anniversary next year, this award would be incredible public validation and affirmation (not just for me, but for our entire team) of years of hard work to turn around an organization that means so much to many, and to set it up for success for the next 25 years.
Six weeks into my tenure, at the beginning of a new fiscal year, DC SCORES experienced the unanticipated loss of a significant funder (due to the funder’s unannounced shift in focus away from children). This was not a problem I created, nor was a turnaround that I had been hired to do. After much deliberation, I decided to take a chance on leading DC SCORES through that crisis and, after much deliberation, the Board decided to take a chance on me doing so successfully.
Four years — and countless difficult decisions and long days later — I’m very proud that DC SCORES not only survived, but is thriving with stronger infrastructure, better financial controls, a highly-engaged governing and fundraising Board, much-improved fundraising capacity and success, and as high-quality programming as ever. In that time we’ve also grown substantially and, as importantly, sustainably – serving nearly 70% more children/year (nearly 3,000 total) at 40% more sites (65 total), and launching multiple new program streams (including Jr. SCORES for K-2 students; a rec center soccer league co-run with DPR; and enhanced spoken word and soccer programming for uniquely talented children).
It also would be meaningful external affirmation of DC SCORES’ commitment to be not just an impactful, but a sustainable, trustworthy long-term presence in the neighborhoods we serve and in kids’ lives. Our waitlist continues to grow, even as we add new sites to our roster. This award will validate for prospective funders that DC SCORES is an investment worthy of their resources – which we hope will ultimately allow us to serve more kids who need us.
Finally, but no less importantly, this award will be a morale boost to our 200+ community-based coaches. Approximately 80% of our coaches are schoolteachers or school administrative or support staff doing second shift with us. While we do pay and train our coaches, they don’t coach for the money. They coach because they care about kids, because they care about their school community, and because they believe DC SCORES’ unique model significantly improves both individual child outcomes and, at the same time, significantly strengthens the entire school community. As I publicly tell coaches at every opportunity, they are the real heroes, they are the real change-makers here, not me, and my job is to make sure our coaches have all the tools, infrastructure and resources they need to focus on the kids without distraction. Knowing that the Center and other “outsiders” recognize the intentional efforts we make at DC SCORES to put coaches and kids first will feel uplifting to our coaches, reinforcing that “outsiders” value my commitment to them and their commitment to DC’s most vulnerable kids.