Hiring for the unique job of leading a collective impact initiative can be complicated. These tips and lessons learned from current initiative directors can help!

The Collective Impact #ToolBox is a series of blogs featuring simple, practical tools that members of cross-sector partnerships can use to support their day to day work.

Building a collaboration is much like raising a child - the process is exciting, complicated, messy and requires constant support and care. One of the key lessons we learned in implementation of the Working Cities Challenge, an initiative incentivizing cross-sector collaboration and leadership in smaller New England cities, is that hiring the right Initiative Director is critical to the success of any collective impact endeavor. To completely exhaust the child-rearing metaphor, it’s like choosing the right care-provider for that messy toddler to ensure they learn, grow, and eventually can stand on their own two feet. Despite the importance of this role in stewarding cross-sector partnerships, there’s a lack of literature and practical resources on this topic.

As we prepare to launch new rounds of the Challenge, with a dozen more winning teams soon looking to hire the right Initiative Director (ID), we wanted to share some insights from our first cohort of Directors about the challenges, qualities, skills, and supports needed to ensure success in this unique role while avoiding burnout. Below are some key themes surfaced by current IDs on this topic. We hope that other practitioners in the field can add their observations and perspectives to the discussion as well.

Defining the Role

Though this job is often described as a standard, day-to-day project management function, the Initiative Directors of our four WCC cross-sector partnerships are expanding this role to include other higher-level competencies like adaptive leadership, subject matter expertise, and community engagement out of necessity. When asked to describe their roles, some of the Directors chuckled and said, “on paper or in reality?” Their official titles range from Project Coordinator to Project Manager to Executive Director, but the core function is to coordinate planning, implementation, and communication across multiple partners and multiple strategies. More specifically, but less tangibly, the Directors focus on deepening the partners’ engagement and trust in the collaboration. They must ensure that stakeholders understand and follow through on their individual commitments to further their group’s shared goals.

In addition to managing and aligning the work of various subgroups within the initiative–such as the executive committee, steering committee, action teams, etc.–IDs have taken on other major responsibilities to support their team’s progress on the ground. In the WCC efforts, it is common for Initiative Directors to lead or assist with fundraising, data collection/analysis, program design, sustainability planning and other critical elements that energize this work. “It’s like being the jack of all trades,” notes Thomas Skwierawski in describing his first year as a WCC Project Coordinator.

While it’s clear that the nature of this role often requires the Initiative Directors to wear multiple hats, we learned that prior to beginning the hiring process for this position, it is important for members of the collaboration to reach consensus about the priority functions in the job description. Developing clear goals or metrics of success for the new hire may prevent the new Directors from being spread too thin and keep them focused on the critical factors that move the collective work forward.

Lessons Learned

As is true in most other collective impact efforts, the WCC Initiative Directors come to this role from a variety of different fields–ranging from community organizing to entrepreneurship to urban planning and workforce development. Given the complex and emergent nature of cross-sector work in general, there is a steep learning curve for newcomers. Additionally, directors are charged with mobilizing and motivating a network of diverse players who are used to operating in silos, and doing that well requires at least basic familiarization with the respective cultures and processes of the different partners. The list of challenges identified by the WCC Initiative Directors in our interviews can be divided into two major categories of issues: shorter-term onboarding challenges and longer-term structural challenges.

Below are highlights of the common struggles for this people stepping into this role, as well as recommendations for key qualities to look for in order to set new hires up for success:

Short-Term Challenges

Establishing trusting relationships with partners: The first task for new Initiative Directors is to build rapport with the partners and develop confidence in the Director’s leadership. Both community ”outsiders” and ”insiders” hired for this role surfaced the ”having to prove yourself” challenge, which often seemed like a catch-22. The fastest way to establish their credibility is through small victories under their leadership, but these wins are difficult to accomplish without significant engagement and trust from partners.

Understanding the power dynamics and history of relationships: For Initiative Directors new to the community, it takes some time to understand the subtext of relationships among people at the table, as well as their motivations, fears, and ”pain points.” This initial lack of knowledge can impact the Director’s ability to get stakeholders on the same page and facilitate a robust group process. In the absence of some local insight, new Initiative Directors may act on assumptions that end up being controversial or sensitive to partners and hurt their rapport with the team.

Clarifying the Initiative Director Role: As previously mentioned, it is important for all the players on the team to know and agree about the specific functions and priorities for this position. Establishing clarity about the boundaries of the role both empowers the Director to lead and support the collaboration in the way that partners envisioned, and also prevents them from overburdening the person that gets hired with noncritical assignments.

Long-Term Challenges

Multiple bosses: In some instances, the Initiative Director is housed by an organization other than the backbone agency for the initiative. Since the backbone’s supporting and strategic functions naturally overlap with that of the Initiative Director, the hire may find themselves in the position of having to report to both the host organization and the backbone leadership. The issue becomes direr if the two entities have different ideas about the goals for this position.

Time-management: Most of our Initiative Directors report often being so worn out by tending to the day-to-day programmatic and management aspects of implementing the work that they have little time to reflect and think about important big-picture questions about sustainability, systems change strategies, new partner engagement opportunities, etc.

Isolation: As noted earlier, Initiative Directors of collective impact efforts have one-of-a-kind roles in their communities. The uncertain, complicated nature of their jobs and the messiness of collaboration can be a lot to handle at times. Having an outlet to talk through the issues has proven to be an important support that helps people stay grounded. Whereas other stressful professions usually have networks that connect people and offer mentorships, the collective impact landscape in most places is too nascent to formalize local forums for peer-to-peer support and exchange.

Qualities to Look for in Prospective Candidates

Given the aforementioned challenges that are unique to this role, we asked our Initiative Directors to offer some advice to other collective impact teams looking to hire the right person to coordinate the effort. What are the key skills and qualities of effective IDs?

A candidate who :

  • Has previous experience in building consensus among diverse stakeholders working toward a common goal and motivate action
  • Can navigate different sectors and professional environments, as well as engage with various levels of leadership, from resident activists to corporate CEOs
  • Can lead from the middle and motivate the senior leadership to deliver on commitments
  • Is humble and understands boundaries- knows when to nudge partners and when stop pushing
  • Is comfortable working in an environment of uncertainty
  • Can communicate effectively- distill complex ideas into simple messages

As the Working Cities Challenge expands and grows its cohort of Initiative Directors, our staff will continue exploring ways to support the individuals in this role and deepen our understanding of the their challenges at various phases of their initiatives. In collaboration with Living Cities, we have pulled together a Initiative Director Hiring resource page with sample job descriptions and videos of two initiative directors discussing their role and their work. Check it out and share!