What Good Looks Like: Inside the Mind of the Social Justice and Global Development CEO

Leadership StrategiesSuccessionSocial ImpactBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search
min Report
September 27, 2017
12 min
Leadership StrategiesSuccessionSocial ImpactBoard and CEO AdvisoryExecutive Search


​In a period of marked political turbulence, global development and social justice organizations everywhere face uncertainty that threatens to destabilize funding and undermine many of the assumptions about public policy that have long guided the nonprofit sector. In response, many organizations are experimenting with new and innovative business models while simultaneously facing amplified donor scrutiny regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of their work. To succeed in this increasingly complex and results-driven context, organizations working in the field of human welfare require leadership that is capable of navigating complex micro- and macro-economic forces; their CEOs must be flexible and responsive while staying focused on long-term goals.

To understand what differentiates the most effective humanitarian CEOs and enables them to succeed in this complex environment, we enlisted 31 best-in-class CEOs from leading global development and social justice organizations to complete an in-depth series of well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on behavioral characteristics relevant to leadership roles. The results were aggregated and compared with results from the same assessments for a group of 34 best-in-class corporate CEOs and a group of 20 global development and social justice C-suite executives from Russell Reynolds Associates’ proprietary database. These comparisons allowed us to identify the psychometric scales in which the global development and social justice CEOs were statistically unique, creating a comprehensive psychometric profile of the best-in-class humanitarian CEO.

Social justice and global development CEOs: Spanning the head and heart to drive results

Previous Russell Reynolds Associates research, conducted in partnership with Hogan Assessment Systems, has underscored the importance of flexibility, or “span,” among the best leaders—that is, their ability to operate at both ends of a competency spectrum. Evidence shows that the most effective leaders are able to effectively span across seemingly opposing competencies as business conditions require rather than being strong on just one end. In contrast, leaders who are overly dependent on their primary strengths and rely on an inflexible leadership style are particularly vulnerable to failure in our current fast-paced and uncertain economy. For example, leaders must know when to engage in blue-sky thinking that could disrupt the business versus taking a more pragmatic approach and building upon current organizational capabilities.

We see this principle of dichotomous leadership styles play out among our best-in-class global development and social justice CEOs, who demonstrate proficiency across several attributes that might at first glance appear divergent (Figure 1). On one hand, our CEO group, when compared to corporate CEOs, demonstrates strong “head skills”—that is, a keen aptitude for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. On the other hand, these CEOs also showcase significantly more “heart skills” than their for-profit peers; personally motivated by their organization’s mission, they  are collaborative and empathetic leaders, attuned to others and open with their feelings. With comparatively high scores across measures of intellectual and emotional intelligence, the best global development and social justice CEOs exhibit the strengths of both “head” and “heart,” thereby eschewing the “either/or” trade-offs that traditionally define leadership profiles and enabling them to drive results in the unique context of their field.



Confident and creative problem-solvers

Given that nonprofits invariably operate with limited resources, their CEOs have historically had to be creative problem-solvers. Current political and economic uncertainty has further heightened this need for leaders who are able to think outside the box and challenge orthodoxy. Funding gaps necessitate new business models and innovative donor engagement strategies, while the lack of real-time, hard data to support decision-making (compared to the private sector) calls for a leader with the confidence to trust their intuition. We see these dynamics play out   in the profiles of our best-in-class humanitarian CEOs, who demonstrate the attributes of confident and creative problem-solvers (Figure 2).


Pragmatic critical thinkers

Global development and social justice CEOs make decisions that have the potential to save or significantly improve the lives of millions of individuals. The weight of this responsibility requires leaders who are pragmatic and able to critically and analytically evaluate information to produce the best possible decision, even when it may not be the easiest one to make (Figure 3). For instance, several prominent foundations have recently streamlined program areas in order to maximize the impact of their limited resources across fewer issues. Leaders of these organizations demonstrate a capacity for pragmatic decision-making by choosing to focus on their organization’s ultimate objective, identifying limitations and, if necessary, making the difficult decision to cut funding to initiatives that may be determined to be outside of their primary scope.

In addition, many of these leaders operate in highly regulated contexts, often requiring the navigation of complex bureaucratic systems. As a result, it is imperative that they be able to anticipate problems and focus on objectives rather than procedure in order to drive results.


Collaborative and empathetic team players

Humanitarian CEOs are also differentiated from their corporate counterparts on measures of collaboration and empathy (Figure 4), which makes sense given the highly matrixed organizations within which they tend to operate. Since global development and social justice nonprofits often require consensus-building across a range of stakeholders and constituencies, they benefit from leadership that is capable of navigating complex inter-personal dynamics while keeping the entire organization engaged. Similarly, leaders who are receptive to others’ views are more likely to build consensus and therefore to succeed in a multi-stakeholder environment.

In this regard, the advantages of the complementary “head” and “heart” skills become even more apparent, as leaders must constantly balance the need for confident, pragmatic decision-making and consensus-driven collaboration. The most effective leaders identify when their organization, and its mission, will be best served by employing a confident and decisive leadership style and when to tune in to the perspective of others in a more collaborative approach.


Personally motivated by the mission

In our experience recruiting leaders from across sectors into the nonprofit realm, personal commitment to the organization’s mission ​is an overwhelmingly consistent predictor of success in the role. It’s therefore no surprise that our CEO group was most differentiated from their corporate counterparts on these dimensions of connectivity (Figure 5), which tie into sources of personal motivation. Indeed, CEOs cannot deliver on operational responsibilities and motivate their teams if they are not visibly and openly committed to the mission themselves. Moreover, the significant pay differential between comparable roles in the private sector requires that global development and social justice leaders be motivated by more than financial gain.


CEOs & their C-suite: Yin & yang


Not only do the most successful global development and social justice leaders differ significantly from their corporate counterparts, they also diverge from other C-suite leaders within their sector. In comparing our CEO group to the profiles of 20 humanitarian C-suite executives, we identified four attributes of significant differentiation that suggest that the most successful CEOs are often supported by a C-suite with very different but complementary styles (Figure 6). 

Humanitarian CEOs are more likely to leverage their own experience and intuition in problem-solving and decisionmaking, complemented by a C-suite that may be more “in the weeds” and data-oriented. CEOs in this space also tend to consider priorities within a broader framework and potentially changing landscape versus a C-suite that is more likely to be deadline-conscious and persistent in following through on responsibilities in a fixed order. Taken together, these differentiating attributes suggest that the best CEOs—naturally inclined to be pragmatic and creative problemsolvers—are allotted the latitude to focus on the big picture, while their C-suite leaders attend to the details. Working in tandem, global development and social justice CEOs flexibly turn their attention to a variety of priorities, while those with narrower functional mandates provide them with the data to back their intuitive decision-making process.


While this specific dynamic of complementarity may feel familiar to many working in the sector, the other two differentiating attributes that emerged from our data were much more surprising and suggest that many who ascend to the CEO position may do so in spite of characteristics that would make them seemingly ill-suited to such a role.

As compared to their C-suite, our CEO group was significantly more likely to prefer smaller, low-key or informal social settings, a quality that would seem to stand at odds with the extremely public-facing nature of the chief executive role, which often involves significant time spent at large, formal gatherings of donors, regulators or other stakeholders. Similarly, our CEO group scored comparatively high on measures of sensitivity to criticism, which may represent the bittersweet counterpart to their empathic nature and the high degree to which they are invested in their organization’s mission.

The tendency toward these seemingly incongruous characteristics relates back to the concept of leadership “span.” If many nonprofit leaders actually have to overcome their natural predisposition in order to fulfill certain aspects of the chief executive role, it therefore makes sense that the most successful leaders will be those with a proclivity to stretch across competency spectrums and embody multiple seemingly contrary traits.


What does this mean for CEOs and the organizations that hire them?

Organizations looking for a new CEO should consider the following…

Context matters: The best leaders can span across both ends of a competency spectrum, but organizational context will impact which end may be more important. Consider the specific opportunities and challenges your CEO will face: Organizations in need of transformation should prioritize a more confident and decisive leader, while those having to negotiate multiple stakeholder groups should over-index on leadership candidates who can empathize and collaborate.

Strive for balance: Understand the competencies and profiles of the C-suite that will be working with the new CEO. While the chief executive should not be retrofitted to the existing management team, it’s important to reflect on the probable dynamics and look for opportunities to balance competencies and skill sets wherever possible.

Get on the same page: Collaboratively establish a framework and shared language for onboarding the CEO that takes into account the unique nature of the organization, team and strategic context.

CEOs looking for development opportunities should consider the following…

Know your blind spots: Psychometric testing, conducted by independent, organizational psychologists, can help reveal leadership strengths and potential blind spots. It also offers an opportunity for those leaders to reflect; in our conversations with this group, we were struck by the fact that they felt this was a rare chance to focus on their leadership approach in this way. Consider using these tools to identify your own opportunities for growth, as well as to understand the dynamics, complementarities and potential gaps of your support team.

Ask for the 360-degree view: Concurrently, or alternately, consider soliciting 360-degree performance feedback from peers. Such evaluations help increase self-awareness: In hearing a comprehensive account of how they are perceived by others, individuals gain an understanding of how their own preferences and motivations may impact their colleagues, donors and other stakeholders.



CLARA DESSAINT is a Knowledge Associate for the Nonprofit sector. She is based in London.

GARY HAYES is a Consultant in the Leadership & Succession practice. He is based in New York.

JAMIE HECHINGER is Head of the firm’s Social Justice and Advocacy practice, and co-leader of the Diversity and Inclusion practice in the Americas. She is based in Washington, DC.

SIMON KINGSTON is Head of the firm’s Nonprofit sector and leads the Global Development practice. He is based in London.

JACOB MARTIN is an organizational psychologist and core member of the Leadership and Succession practice. He is based in Atlanta.

EMILY MENEER is the Global Knowledge Leader for the Nonprofit sector. She is based in Boston.