Leaders That Last is a series featuring interviews with seasoned nonprofit leaders on the practices and principles that helped them excel and maintain longevity in their roles.
Jeff Holsinger knows a thing or two about leading a nonprofit organization.
A Wyoming resident, Jeff has been managing and leading nonprofits for over 40 years. He cut his teeth running a nonprofit that provided alternatives to prison for children. He’s also worked for a mental health center, run his own business, and served as the CEO for an organization that served people with intellectual disabilities.
In 2001, Jeff was hired as the CEO of Volunteers of America Northern Rockies (VOANR). Under his leadership, VOANR has grown from a revenue base of $1 million to now over $50 million. In that time, the organization has also grown from 22 employees to 380 spread across Wyoming, Montana, and Western South Dakota.
As a nonprofit executive search firm, we relish the opportunity to learn from Jeff’s extensive leadership experience. In a recent interview, we asked Jeff to discuss the personal challenges he’s had to overcome in leadership, the resources that have helped him level up as a leader, the skills he’s had to grow in, and the practices that have helped him become a leader who lasts.
What are the disciplines or practices that have helped you thrive as a leader over the long haul?
There’s two things that come to mind. The first, is a balance of work and play. I think those get distorted for a lot of people, and it creates unhealthy leaders. It isn’t just taking two weeks off a year to go enjoy yourself. It’s really having other outlets, so that your life isn’t consumed entirely by the mission of the organization. I run programs that are 24/7, 365. I’m always on call. I’m a big outdoorsman, so I hunt and fish a lot.
The other thing I like to do is mix work and play when possible. Recently, I went hunting with the president of a company we do a lot of business with. We were sitting in a duck blind, and he was telling me about these “stay interviews.” Instead of exit interviews, he interviews people who have been with the organization for a while to learn why they’ve stayed. I loved the idea so much that we implemented it at VOANR. And the whole thing came out of a conversation in a duck blind.
The second discipline is really taking the time to build personal relationships, not just professional ones, with colleagues. In the long run, if you exist in a transactional space and everything is just professional, you’re going to have limitations. My entire career, I’ve believed in trying to build appropriate, personal relationships.
How can nonprofit leaders seek support and guidance in their role?
Three things are critical: having a mentor, some type of peer group, and executive coaching. I’ve done all three, and I’m currently doing all three.
Here’s what I’ll tell you: when it comes to mentorship, it goes two ways. You have to seek mentorship, but you also have to be willing to share wisdom. When asked, be a mentor to someone else. You learn in both capacities. If you’re a mentee who’s seeking a mentor, you have to be intentional. You have to seek it out and get their commitment.
I have two mentors, both older than me and very successful. I can call either one of them anytime day or night. There’s nothing they don’t know about me. There’s nothing that we haven’t processed, professionally or personally.
The other aspect is peer groups. I’ve been a part of Vistage. It’s a group of 10-15 CEOs who meet monthly for one day. Being in the group allows you to process and share your business experiences, problems, challenges, and you can have dialogue with other high-capacity men and women. I’ve also found business associations to be helpful. Three of our mergers have come from connections through an association. Peer groups and associations are exceptional ways for leaders to learn and gain resources.
Finally, executive coaching. There is no better vehicle for growth than executive coaching. I think a lot of nonprofit CEOs think there’s not enough return on the investment. It is expensive, and so a lot of nonprofit CEOs think that paying for coaching will take away from the mission. In fact, it’s fueling your tank and giving you access to other expertise. For me, the value has paid off so significantly over the years that I can’t put a price on it.
But executive coaching only works if you’re willing to be vulnerable. My first executive coaching experience was two years, and I wasn’t vulnerable enough. I held back, and I really didn’t get the experience I needed. It wasn’t until many years later when I had some real challenges in my life that I was able to go to a different level.
Is there a particular practice that has helped you deal with the constant challenge and stress of being a nonprofit executive?
My faith is critically important. As CEOs, we’re typically dealing with God-sized problems. A lot of times we feel like, even with all the coaching, the groups, the mentors, they need a God-sized solution. I have to go into prayer pretty frequently and really ask him for his help.
Whenever I do, the path, the barriers, they’ve opened up for me. It’s amazing. It’s when I try to control things, as so many of us CEOs do, that I suffer.
What’s one personal challenge you’ve faced in your leadership role and how did you overcome it?
There was a point over six years ago when I had gone as far as I could go in my current practices and thinking. All of us come with our own DNA, our own family of origin. And as men and women, whether you’re walking with Christ or not, we all have impairments. Those impairments influence your life and determine how far you go.
My impairments were limiting me, and I had to make some serious changes. I was able to get some support that really helped me understand where those impairments were affecting me personally and professionally.
What I learned about the recovery model helped me lean into my relationship with Christ differently. It was transformational. It allowed me to move from a space of living in black and white to living in color.
I had all these gifts that God had given me: the ability to communicate and get people motivated and enthusiastic and all this. But when it came to managing not only my personal life but the business as it was growing, my DNA was reverting me back to this need to control everything.
I had a breakdown, to be honest. I just could not function anymore because I couldn’t carry that. Thankfully, I came to realize I don’t have to carry it all. Don’t get me wrong—I have to project a certain amount of strength and confidence at different times and in different situations. But that’s only propped up by my faith and the knowledge that God’s going to sustain me through this. For me to lead from a space of deficiency and inadequacy allows me to constantly lean into God. Whatever it is, I’m not alone.
What kinds of skills were required of you in your leadership roles that you hadn’t used before?
I think one of the things a leader has to be able to do is delegate. It’s easy to fall back into a space of needing control, because that’s what’s most familiar or feels most safe.
The art of delegation comes in knowing when and how to do it. I had to learn that people require different levels of supervision. Let’s say you have a team of six individuals. One of them, because they’re new to the job, may need more direct supervision for a time. You may need to provide more direction, and they may not have all the expertise they need.
Once they get the hang of it, you move into more of a coaching role. Then you move into a consultative role when they get to a point where they know as much as you do, and you’re really working together to figure things out.
Finally, there’s the delegative role. This is the hardest one for CEOs to go to, because it means this person who’s reporting to you knows more than you do. They’ve become the expert, and you’ve made an intentional decision to delegate authority and responsibility. Your only job at that point is to be in a position of reassurance or understanding.
You come at it from a servant-leader perspective—how do I help them with whatever they need and not get in their way? Most leaders have to learn to do that. When you step into this role, you have to identify what level of supervision your team members need and then recognize when they’re ready to move to the next level.
Is there one skill in particular you’ve really had to grow in?
I was an okay writer and communicator, but I believe executives have a responsibility to be exceptional. You have to be able to orally communicate a sense of vision. You have to be able to rally troops. You have to be able to inspire. You can do it in your own style, but it needs to be something you are wanting to do and willing to do.
What are the three most important leadership qualities you look for in a team member?
The first thing I look for in a team member or board member is passion for the mission. They have to want to be here. Our work is too hard. We’re a ministry that is really serving the most vulnerable. The crises we deal with are constant. The dysfunction is constant. It’s no easy walk.
They also have to bring competencies. I’m willing to train people, but they have to have some competencies specific to the role. They have to be able to carry their water. I don’t think that statement takes away from the concept of servant leadership. They can pour half a bucket of water into mine or one of my leader’s, but at some point, it’s coming back. You’ve got to be able to carry the water, lead well, and serve well.
The other thing we look for is values. When we bring new staff on, their values have to be in alignment with ours: respect, compassion, communication, integrity, and excellence. These are the things we built our culture on.
What can organizations and nonprofits do to not only keep their top talent but help them succeed in their role?
Here’s one thing that just drives me crazy: people think because we’re a nonprofit, we can’t pay well, and we have to work at really crappy facilities. That’s just not true. If we do a merger and their buildings are inadequate, we leave them and go somewhere else. We build it into the business model, raise the money, or do whatever we’ve got to do. My facilities will compete with any for-profit center. My residential treatment center, my kids’ home, my senior living homes—they’re exceptional.
I look at compensation the same way. In today’s market, we’re competing with for-profit industries. So, I pay well. I pay my team members what they’re worth. And once you start doing that, then all the new business you take on is now factored into that business model.
Second, invest in their development. They need to know they’re going someplace, and they’re going to continue to learn. They want to be able to contribute and have a voice in a meaningful way. And then, get to know them personally. Get to know their story.
Also, you have to identify and build on their strengths. It allows them to be successful and contribute in a meaningful way. I’m not a big fan of investing a lot of money to build on weaknesses. I’d rather hire around that so that we can make up the difference.
There’s a real blessing in having people who are inspired, motivated, and with you for the long haul.
What’s one piece of wisdom, advice, challenge, or encouragement you would give to nonprofit leaders who are seeking to be faithful and fruitful in their work?
When I came back from my personal experience of brokenness, I was meeting with another gentleman who was in the same program as me. He was a pastor of a megachurch. I was fearful about coming back—about how the staff and board were going to respond. And he said, “Jeff, I’d follow a man with a limp any day before I’d follow one without.”
And that really helped me. Here’s what I would say: Don’t be afraid to walk with a limp. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. There’s a place and a time for appropriate sharing and conversation. I understand that. But my staff know where my heart posture is, and they trust that. They also know that I walk with a limp, and they love that.
At DickersonBakker Executive Search, we’re committed to finding leaders, like Jeff, who thrive in their position over many years. To learn more about our Executive Search Services, visit our Contact Page.
Jeff’s three critical hiring criteria of passion, competency, and values directly overlap with the Three Elements of Fit we look for in potential candidates: Missional Match (passion for what our clients do), Professional Acumen (competency), and Cultural Alignment (values). Click here to learn more about our executive search process.