Annual Report 2011: Marla Cornelius

Annual Report 2011: Marla Cornelius




Marla Big

Marla Cornelius
Senior Project Director
CompassPoint Nonprofit Services

As a Senior Project Director at CompassPoint, Marla Cornelius led the Next Generation Leaders of Color cohort leadership program (NGLC) and the Daring to Lead research project in 2011. In her work, she sees how CompassPoint helps nonprofit staff connect their experiences to their skills, their organizations to new ideas, and to issues that are happening across the sector. 

NGLC was a response to a need that CompassPoint observed among its clients: managers were challenged to connect management and leadership practices, and to explore how those practices emerge through various cultural lenses. Marla says, “It’s an interesting juxtaposition—you wouldn’t always expect to find those together, but we believe that learning to be a leader in a multicultural environment and learning to run an organization are intimately involved. For each cohort the experience is rich, personal, and meaningful. We talk about issues around race, identity, leadership–how one shows up and defines the contribution they want to make. We talk about how to put your values in place. It’s very intimate content in the context of learning hard skills like finance and people management.”

NGLC is more than just delivering content and curriculum to a group of emerging leaders. Instead, the participants are a part of program creation. “CompassPoint brings content concepts and frameworks, but then our staff and the participants make meaning out of it together. As trainers we say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about, learning and experiencing (as a nonprofit staff ourselves), now how does this relate to your work, to your organizations and to your experience as leaders?’” These conversations continue over the course of the program, and participants bring the ideas they discussed to their organizations, try them out, and report back to the NGLC group: “then together we bring the learning up to another level of understanding. It’s a very generative and iterative process that creates deep connections between the cohort members and us. The connections that happen in the NGLC program happen conceptually and intellectually, but also emotionally, and in a tangible way between people and organizations. CompassPoint has the pleasure of being the designer and convenor of the NGLC experience, but we are also absolutely participating in it ourselves.” These connections are maintained and nurtured by a burgeoning alumni group of past NGLC cohort groups, who continue to lean on each other for professional and personal support after the year-long program has concluded.

For Marla, the program stretches beyond the confines of NGLC’s monthly cohort convenings as well. “I like to say, ‘Once a CompassPoint client, always a CompassPoint client.’ When we work with someone, we’re so excited about their career and where they’re going to go next.” For Marla a great example of this is a current NGLC participant Jamie Brewster. Jamie knows that his next career step is to be a financial leader, and he is currently seeking the necessary experience to take that step. “When we learned that finance was a priority for him, we wrapped our services around his needs and made connections for him in a variety of ways. His coach is pushing him to understand financial concepts better. He’s getting one-on-one tutoring from another CompassPoint staff member on finance, and he’s getting support from his peers in the program around some management challenges he’s facing. We even connected him to our Excel instructor, on staff here at CompassPoint, for an hour of private instruction! We want to do everything we can to help him draw the connections between where he’s at and where he wants to go, then help him get there.”

With the Daring to Lead 2011 research report, Marla also sees CompassPoint drawing connections for nonprofit professionals in meaningful ways and contributing to the national nonprofit dialogue. “What we wanted to communicate wasn’t so much, ‘Here’s what we think.’ We listened to others in the sector—our clients, our partners—and said, ‘These are the themes we’re hearing from you.’  We sincerely value the notion of listening and observing, then putting into place a mechanism to help us learn more, explore issues more deeply, frame questions more acutely, and translate that back for the sector in a way that’s useful for nonprofit work.”

Marla has seen how Daring to Lead resonates with individuals, organizations, and the sector. We hear that the report has helped individuals feel connected to a larger environment, and cope with feelings of isolation.” For organizations, there is a set of recommendations for executive directors and boards to consider and implement at their organizations. On a sector level, “the data from the research helps frame communication about leadership issues in the sector. There are message points in the Daring to Lead studies that reverberate because others pick them up and share them. Our research offers helpful anchor points for the sector to engage in the evolving conversation of leadership.”

As an organization, Marla sincerely values CompassPoint’s investment in the learning process. “We’re a learning lab ourselves. We’re open to being self-reflective and self-aware of how we operate; we’re not in any way distinct from the clients we serve. And because we’re a learning organization, I know I’ll never get bored and I know it is okay to make mistakes.”

She also appreciates that in her role she can live her commitment to social justice. “When I left my last job 12 years ago, it was because I was looking for an organization that had explicit social justice values and I found that at CompassPoint. Good management and leadership are means to an end, and that end is working on social change agendas. I love helping others figure out how to manage better and connecting clients to what they need so they can free themselves of the things that are dragging them down, and be more expedient and effective towards the end goal. Our organizations need strong management in order to do the work that they’re doing. I think that social justice efforts are often fueled by well-led, well-managed organizations.”