The Key to Success for Seasoned Leaders

Apr. 7, 2016

Mary Wheeler

 At a time when many longtime nonprofit leaders are approaching retirement age and preparing to transfer governance to their successor, other seasoned leaders are electing to continue leading their organizations.

As a consultant with more than three decades of experience working in retained executive search in the nonprofit sector, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting other veterans whose visionary leadership continues to rise past retirement. Though retirement is inevitable in most fields, it’s interesting to see how leaders navigate this pivotal stage in their careers.

For more than 30 years, Sr. Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a leading youth development, education and family service agency in New York, has played a central role in developing the organization from a small nonprofit serving vulnerable youth to one of the city’s most successful multi-service agencies.

A dedicated humanitarian, Sr. LoMonaco, who is beyond retirement age, received the inaugural 2007 New York Times Nonprofit Excellence Award for her exceptional management practices. She is the recipient of the Robin Hood Hero’s Award and the Lewis Hines Award. She remains just as committed to Good Shepherd Services’ mission to protect at-risk children as she was when she joined the organization in the late 1960s.

Having worked with Sr. LoMonaco on two critical executive searches for Good Shepherd Services more than 10 years ago, I immediately recognized that she possessed the wisdom, experience and diligence that were also necessary to properly assess top candidates that were being considered for positions at the organization. I reached out to Sr. LoMonaco to get her thoughts on the lessons she has learned as a seasoned leader and her advice for other longtime CEOs who plan to lead beyond retirement age.

Shepherd Services Executive Director Sister Paulette LoMonaco.

Shepherd Services Executive Director Sister Paulette LoMonaco

1. What are some of the challenges that you faced as a leader and how did your experience or wisdom help you to address them effectively? Could you have handled those issues early on in your career?

One of the greatest challenges facing nonprofits in human services, the area in which I work, is the pull towards standardization and compliance rather than innovation and responsiveness when working in partnership through contracts with government. The siloed nature of public funding, together with the changing priorities of each administration, requires enormous skill to navigate-particularly for a large multi-service agency like Good Shepherd Services.

To lead in the midst of enormous complexity and competing needs for limited resources without losing focus, a sense of hope and personal equilibrium is the challenge that I and other leaders in our field face every day. This is also where wisdom and experience pay the greatest dividends. The skill of leading in these situations requires recognizing the challenges, pressures and tensions in the work itself, while also inspiring others to overcome them, stay true to the mission and keep the focus on always finding new and better ways to address the needs of our program participants. Finding this personal equilibrium has been a life-long task for me. As a younger leader, I did not handle this level of complexity as competently as I am able to do today.

2. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about leadership and age?

I would say that a real misconception is that an older leader will have an old-fashioned approach, or one that has become stale or stagnant. For me, as I would imagine for other seasoned leaders, there truly is a real challenge to continuously embrace change, be a lifelong learner and stay in tune with the rapidly changing world in which we live. This can mean adapting to new technologies, welcoming the use of new communication methods (although I must confess I don’t Twitter!) and embracing the modern sensibilities of our younger colleagues. From my experience, though, I have found that with an openness to innovation and change, the combination of fresh ideas and the wisdom of experience, make a powerful team!

3. What motivates you to lead [past retirement age]?

First of all, as it is often said, 60 is the new 40. In all seriousness, there are countless examples of leaders throughout the world who effectively lead organizations beyond age 60, leveraging wisdom, energy and life experience in ways that are invaluable. At 60-plus, developmentally, one has generally learned from one’s experiences, gained a steady footing and a greater measure of personal stability. My love of our mission has inspired me to lead beyond 60 and I feel a fresh motivation every day to continue to create new, innovative programs, move into new neighborhoods and find new, innovative and more creative ways to meet the unaddressed needs of our program participants.

4. How has your intention, needs or goals as a leader changed over the years?

As Good Shepherd Services has grown and as I have grown in wisdom and experience, I have a stronger sense of my own limits as well as where my strengths are and, perhaps more importantly, where they are not. With a firm grounding in this knowledge, I am better poised to work through others-hopefully continuing to grow in mastering the art of delegation. I am learning how to let go, trusting the wonderfully competent and skilled teams at Good Shepherd Services to take charge. [I’m] learning how to be patient and understanding when mistakes are made (both by myself and others!) and using them as opportunities for mentorship, growth and learning.

I have taken real pleasure in coaching and growing the capacity of others to take on greater responsibilities as they mature in their leadership roles. I also have a deeper understanding of the importance of agency culture. With this understanding, I use my time differently and hopefully more strategically. I spend more time now thinking about strategic questions and our direction as an agency. For example, thinking about our mission driven culture and the steps we need to take to maintain and continue to foster it as we grow. I want to create opportunities for staff, which will insure fidelity to our youth and family development and strength-based approach and use performance metrics in our quest for excellent program services.

5. What advice would you give to a longtime CEO who wants to continue leading?

One of the real challenges is to think we have seen it all and become stagnant. My advice is to be open to new ideas, always to set new personal goals and to listen intently to the ideas of those working directly with our program participants. The second and very important advice I would give is to embrace the important responsibility we have to speak out for the needs of the field. While attending to the daily needs of the agencies we lead, there is a special call to articulate the needs of the field that comes with age, experience and wisdom. Important professional relationships and friendships are developed over time in which there is trust established. This provides a critical opportunity and ability for us to be truth-tellers to our government leaders, to our funders, and to our peers and colleagues in the field. Age and experience gives the leader over 60 a unique voice and the opportunity to advocate for the best policies, practices and funding needed by the field.

A version of this interview was originally published in DRG’s November 2015 newsletter.