Please lead your people right.

5 lessons from running a 50-person non-profit for a year

When you run a rapidly-growing team or organization, the biggest challenges are often non-technical. How you manage your time and your people is of paramount importance. CEOs/presidents can focus on getting things done as quickly and efficiently as possible (e.g. by hiring for ability), but I have found that the most effective strategy is to invest time and effort into your people and in turn, efficiency and speed will come.

Throughout my term, I was laser-focused on driving value for the thousands of students we served. In the hundreds of micro-decisions made to prioritize my time, I committed numerous obvious and critical errors in hiring, project management, and leadership in general that detracted from the organization’s overall success and culture.

Here are 5 things I learned. I hope they will enable you to build a community and better serve your customers.

  1. Just because you can do everything, doesn’t mean you should. Find help early and often.

When you care deeply about your customers, it’s easy to be a control freak and have your hands in everything. Remember that you have rockstars on your team. They are just as capable as you or can learn faster than you think.

You are the only one with the power to create learning opportunities for others and coordinate efforts to achieve your overarching vision. Every single rockstar is looking to grow and dominate something new, so let them free! If they stumble, be there to help them recover quickly.

2. Get to know your hires.

Like many small-company CEOs do, make time to meet your potential hires before giving them an offer. I have seen candidates with amazing resumes and the right abilities who were terrible hires. Character is more valuable in the long run as you can rely on an individual to be passionate about your mission and have the willingness to learn. Without good character, individuals with great resumes will produce better resumes for themselves without concern for the impact on your customers. Your team will screen candidates to meet your short-term needs, but you must identify the right people to build long-term elements like culture.

Once you have hired someone, coaching them is incredibly important. With a 50-person roster, I had a leadership team of 12 who led 5 squads. Meeting with my squad leaders individually helped them lead their squads better and provided me with valuable feedback. My peers at Nspire were way better at this and had 1-on-1 meetings with every team member at least once a month.

3. Don’t forget about culture. Create activities that will encourage desired behaviours.

What behaviours are valuable to your organization? In the army, discipline and obedience are crucial in high-stress scenarios. If you run a non-profit for students like I did, collaboration and initiative are important. We could encourage collaboration with team socials and initiative by supporting team members to develop solutions to shared challenges (e.g. creating a weekly email digest to keep our audience up-to-date).

Be sure that your hires will fit your culture and naturally exhibit these behaviours. You can’t change the way people are. If you try to shape them, you will put them under strain and consequently, stress yourself out when they don’t bend the way you want.

4. Set ground rules and clear guidelines.

Create a system that holds both you and your team accountable for your actions. It seems silly that a bunch of rockstars need to discuss etiquette, but it’s especially important for people who are constantly busy and run from meeting to meeting. The worst thing for someone to do is to disrespect other teammates’ time, but yet, it’s bound to happen.

When it comes to tasks, clearly define areas of responsibilities and what success looks like. Reserve time to followup. If things aren’t moving as agreed upon, fix it immediately. Some people prefer the formalities and documenting your expectations provides an objective lens on any issues.

5. When stuck, talk to people ASAP.

Get different perspectives from people you’ve worked with previously, those in a similar role, or really, anyone. It’s easy to think that other people haven’t been in the same sticky situation that you are in because they were smarter and acted earlier, but you would be surprised. You might not want to be judged for poor decision-making, but heck, decision making is all about seeking out additional information of value and then acting on it.

Having more mentors is always a good thing. The beauty of mentor-mentee relationships is that most of them do not have an official label. You can only have a mentor if you ask for advice. People will be helpful if you open up and make yourself vulnerable.


I’m Gordon, a 23-year-old, industrial eng grad and a Fellow with Venture for Canada. I’m looking to improve at managing teams and web development. I like food, being active, and tech.

I’d love to hear how this was or wasn’t useful! Please do respond below or follow me on Twitter.

This is the first of four weekly posts. Stay tuned! Please recommend & share below!