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How leaders guide social sector organizations to achieve population-level results

By Michelle Heelan, PhD, Chelsey Thompson, and Kate Lambourne
Jun 18, 2020
4 MIN. READ

While most leadership development programs focus on leaders’ personal growth, some choose to help leaders transform the way their organizations produce results. This twist on leadership development requires that leaders integrate data-driven methods into routine work practices (e.g., using disaggregated data, fostering accountability throughout the organization and with partners). 

But what approaches do leaders need to learn and apply to create successful organizational transformation? How do we know that those approaches work? To answer these questions, ICF’s human capital and evaluation experts conducted a three-year evaluation of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Children and Family Fellowship® program (the Fellowship). 

The Fellowship, an intensive 21-month leadership development program, helps social-sector executives transform the way their organizations work on behalf of children in low-income communities. The Fellowship supports program participants (Fellows) as they refine their skills and help their organizations and partners make sure that their results “count.” They do this by adopting work practices that improve results for all and addressing factors that contribute to inequities.

How to evaluate intensive leadership programs

To evaluate the Fellowship, ICF’s evaluation research design went beyond using self-report data to include direct observation of Fellows and leadership assessments from the perspectives of their colleagues, external partners, and the Fellowship program faculty. ICF explored the Foundation’s Results Count® framework and assessed how well Fellows applied results-focused skills and tools to their organization’s work. Our evaluation experts also looked at how a leader’s organization collaborated with key partners, and whether the leaders and their organizations ultimately realized their desired changes for children and families.

A data-driven approach to leadership

Applying tools and skills from the Foundation’s Results Count® framework, Fellows were able to embed a data-driven approach into organizational strategies, work practices, and equity initiatives—and to extend that approach to their partners.

Evaluation results showed how leaders motivated other top leaders and key teams to adopt a results-focused culture, one characterized by data-driven decisions about target populations. Leaders helped their organizations first identify a result to which the organization could contribute, and then use data to illuminate what it would take to make that contribution. Successful leaders guided staff and partners to define goals in terms of how well the organization helps children and families rather than how much assistance they provide. Adopting this focus led most organizations to incorporate new practices into their operations, use a multi-disciplinary approach across organizational and departmental boundaries, and involve communities in solutions. 

When leaders encountered resistance from others as they implemented changes, they modeled data-driven practices and emphasized shared goals to defuse the resistance. Evaluation data indicated that when leaders showed colleagues and partners that using a results focus was not an additional task, but rather a mechanism to obtain coordinated results for children and families, resistance gave way to acceptance and, in some cases, advocacy for a results focus. 

Leaders as instruments of change

The Foundation viewed individual leader development as an important element, but not the focus, of the Fellowship program. Leaders’ personal development was seen as a means to bring about organizational transformation. 

The Fellowship used experiential learning cycles to build behavioral leadership competencies and immediately apply and experiment with new tools and approaches. Leaders used their increased self-awareness to adjust leadership behaviors across situations and to use tools that help everyone focus on results. 

As leaders applied and internalized one of the key Results Count competencies, called Self as Instrument of Change, evaluation results showed that leaders used their authority, their knowledge of how they affect others, and their self-awareness to build others’ capacity to achieve results. Most of the program emphasized key components of a results focus and how leaders could guide organizations to embed that focus into daily work.

Organizations and partnerships that successfully transitioned to a results focus faced some challenges along the way. They reported: 

  • Encountering an “us vs. them” mentality among some partners. 

  • Working to achieve buy-in for a new way of doing business. 

  • Needing to revisit decisions and plans based on data revelations. 

Candid dialogue about various parties’ needs and restrictions helped overcome these hurdles. Use of results-based strategies, when pursued with commitment and perseverance, also helped teams, organizations, and partners generate big results. Effectively collaborating with external partners and stakeholders required frank discussions about various parties’ motivations, constraints, and interpretations of data—thereby cultivating momentum around measurable results. 

Keep the focus on equitable results

The bottom line of ICF’s evaluation is that capable leaders make lasting impacts when a results focus becomes embedded in organizational strategies and work practices. Leaders’ modeling of results-focused approaches and their effective facilitation of events (e.g., with internal program teams and/or multiple external stakeholders) fostered meaningful examination of progress and outcome data. Further, such actions: 

  • Inspired the examination of disaggregated data to isolate disparate effects. 

  • Fostered organizations’ emphasis on equitable results. 

  • Sustained an equitable focus in the face of policy and environmental trends that could threaten the well-being of children and families.

In an era of increasingly tight budgets where social services organizations need to demonstrate their equitable contributions to target populations, a results focus can help provide the data and evidence organizations need to share. Workforce development programs, in addition to leadership development programs, can increase effectiveness by building such a skillset across the organization.

Learn more about ICF’s evaluation results and how organizations adopt a results focus by reading the full evaluation report here.

By Michelle Heelan, PhD, Chelsey Thompson, and Kate Lambourne

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