Author: <span class="vcard">Robert Acton</span>

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5 Archetypes of Great Board Members

20Board Service, CauseKit, Leadership January, 17

By Robert B. Acton, Principal & Founder at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

What makes a great nonprofit board member?

We spend a lot of time mulling over this question at Cause Strategy Partners – a consulting social enterprise that recruits, places, trains, and supports board members from top companies for the Boards of Directors of nonprofits in NYC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Our nonprofit partners look to us to identify committed, passionate, talented professionals who will demonstrate in their board service the same high performance they bring to their day job.  

Because this question is central to the success of our work, I regularly reflect on the many years of my own board involvements.  As a nonprofit chief executive, what board member characteristics proved to be most important in performing governance work and ensuring that we accomplish mission?  As a board member, which of my board colleagues demonstrate a standard of full engagement?  What do they do that sets them apart as high-impact board leaders?

“What board member characteristics proved to be most important?”

Great board service drives mission impact.  There is a direct correlation between how a board member engages week in and week out and his or her overall contribution to mission achievement.  Because of this, BoardLead – our signature program that has placed more than 120 high-performing professionals from top companies on to the boards of 56 nonprofit organizations – culminates with a four-part governance learning series by defining 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members.  We encourage our newly minted BoardLeaders to find the archetype that uniquely fits them and commit to model those behaviors in their service.  


The Pensive Sage:  Reflective.  Thoughtful.  Respected.

In board meetings, Dan Wilkening – a senior executive at a major financial institution in Chicago – would sit quietly for the lion’s share of the meeting.  He would listen carefully, take notes and nod occasionally, but rarely speak.  Yet when we were at the crossroads of a contentious discussion on an important strategic issue, Dan would lean forward in his chair, put his elbows on the table, lift an index finger, and wait to be invited by the Chair to jump into the conversation.  When he did, we listened.  Experienced, committed and wise, upon sharing his perspective, invariably the conversation would begin to move in the direction of Dan’s contribution.

The Pensive Sage actively listens more than he speaks.  He looks for ways to think about issues differently.  He asks good questions to ensure thoughtful debate.  And when he makes a point, it counts.  


The Trusted Advisor:  Available.  Honest.  Reliable.  

You know the saying:  leadership is lonely.  It’s true.  It really is.

The Trusted Advisor, usually an accomplished leader in her own right, understands this and forms a special relationship with the chief executive.  She invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.  She serves as a sounding board, providing a safe space for the CEO to express frustrations, share concerns, or test ideas.  She provides encouragement, of course, but also artfully provides private and candid feedback when the chief executive has missed the mark.  

The Trusted Advisor “invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.”


The Opportunity Seeker:  Enterprising.  Creative.  Solutions-Oriented.

After listening to the Executive Director’s report at a board meeting and learning that staff morale was particularly low, board member Adam Stanley spoke up.  Looking around the room at his colleagues, he said, “There is something we can do to help.”  Adam spent the next month organizing board members to hold a Staff Appreciation Day for the dedicated staff team.  He gathered gifts from each board member (tickets to sporting events and concerts, airline miles, art work), organized a celebratory party, and asked board members to personally prepare words of praise for each staff member.  On the day of the event, a chartered bus picked the staff up for a tour of the city while the board transitioned the drab office space into a party setting.  When the bus returned, staff members entered the office to a New Orleans style band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as board members stood on both sides of a rolled out red carpet, cheering and applauding the team.  Thanks to one board member, a dispirited staff had the opportunity to feel valued in a tangible way by their Board of Directors.  

The Opportunity Seeker looks for problems to solve, and acts.  He is eager to apply his time, talent and treasure to advance the organization.  He lifts burdens off of the Chief Executive and makes them his own.  The Opportunity Seeker often contributes more outside the boardroom than in it.


The Technical Expert:  Skilled.  Willing.  Accessible.

Lisa Dietlin is an expert in fundraising who years earlier launched her own consultancy, The Institute of Transformational Philanthropy.  As a board member, she delivered her expertise to the nonprofit she served, chairing the Development Committee, helping shape fundraising strategy, and serving as a critical thought partner to the Executive Director.  Lisa delivered tens of thousands of dollars in expertise from her seat on the board, all pro bono.  She knew her sweet spot and stepped in as a board leader to drive impact.

Nonprofit Chief Executives are asked to be all things to all people.  Want evidence?  Visit and look at an Executive Director job posting.  The list of desired competencies is extensive: shape strategy, supervise staff, oversee and evaluate programs and services, raise funds, guide the work of the board, advocate with governmental leaders, etc.  The list goes on and on.

The Technical Expert “acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.”

Board members generally bring deep expertise in one or more professional skill sets that they can contribute to the organization in meaningful ways.  The Technical Expert leverages her professional skills to bring about results.  She acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.  She takes a leadership role on topics in her wheelhouse.  She envisions pro bono engagements, helps develop a scope of work, and taps her professional network to source the project.  Always maintaining appropriate divisions in board-staff responsibilities, The Technical Expert helps the organization understand and accomplish gains in her area of core competency whether that is strategy, HR, marketing, legal, real estate, technology or any other professional capability.


The Pace Setter:  Fully-Engaged.  Driven.  Leader.

Political leaders use the phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” to describe how a growing economy will benefit all participants in that economy.  The aphorism is also helpful to understand the effect of fully engaged board members serving a nonprofit board.  I’ve seen it over and over again:  a couple new high-performing board members take their commitment to drive impact from a governance seat seriously and, before long, other board members are responding to the upward pressure to be more meaningful contributors.  Why?  Sometimes it’s because leaders don’t like to be outpaced.  Sometimes it’s out of respect for the individual’s impressive level of involvement.  Maybe it’s because effective board leadership just needed to be modeled.  Occasionally it’s good old-fashioned guilt:  “If he’s doing that much, I’m embarrassed to do so little.”

The Pace Setter – perhaps the most desirable of the five archetypes – raises the performance of other board members through excellent board service.  He shapes the culture of the board by modeling a high standard of contribution.  The Pace Setter makes it uncomfortable to be disengaged and, in doing so, positively influences the overall contribution of his colleagues around the boardroom.  


Which Board Member Are You?

Every nonprofit board member should be fully-engaged.  Effective board service is marked by what we at Cause Strategy Partners describe as The BoardLeader Way:

  • A perfect or near perfect meeting attendance record
  • Robust participation in board meetings
  • Service on at least one board committee
  • A personally meaningful and sacrificial annual contribution
  • Active participation in all fundraising efforts
  • Leveraging your skills and network to drive impact
  • Completion of each elected term

Fully engaged board service like this should be the norm, not the exception.  Beyond that, each board member should find his or her path.  Uncover ways to uniquely contribute as a member of the organization’s governing body.

Reflection:  Consider a few questions as you reflect on your board service

  • Which of the 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members fits you best?
  • How do you currently model these behaviors in and outside the boardroom?  
  • Jot down three specific ways you can drive impact by doubling down on your approach to great board service.


Robert Acton
Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting
fish lead

Be the Leader They Need You To Be: The 5 Leadership Essentials

90CauseKit, Leadership October, 15

“The greatness of an organization will be directly proportional to the greatness of its leader.”
– Henry Blackaby

Leadership — as authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out — is the art of mobilizing others “to want to get extraordinary things done” in an organization. Great leadership starts with the personal attributes of the person at the helm and cascades from there.

So what matters most? What leadership characteristics does your team need to see in you in order to enthusiastically choose to follow? Since you can’t be all things to all people, what must you be in order to ensure that your team is well-led?

More of an art form than a science, great leaders are recognizable by an admirable collection of personal traits and professional abilities that compel us to follow. For example, check out the YouTube video of Admiral William H. McCraven’s 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas which (to date) has been viewed by more than 3 million people. Most would agree that there is “something about him” that forms the immediate impression that he is a great leader. Yet agreeing on a formal definition of leadership is tricky. It’s a bit like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s awkward attempt to articulate a concrete definition for what qualifies as lewd material under the 1st Amendment: “I know it when I see it.”

My firm, Cause Strategy Partners, recently tackled this challenge by asking a wide network of LinkedIn members a simple question: What one quality or characteristic do you most need to see in your boss? A whopping 14,301 professionals have responded to date, sharing the most important characteristic that they expect to see in their leader. We have received responses from individuals across professions, across ethnicities, and across the globe. This research provides an eye-opening insight into what it takes to be the leader they need you to be.

Of the 300+ unique words offered in response to the question, 90% fit into 18 core leadership qualities. Even more notable, nearly two-thirds of the responses fall into the top five leadership qualities. We call these The Five Leadership Essentials:

Integrity / Honesty 27% of all responses
Support 12%
Leadership 11%
Visionary 5%
Inspiring 5%

If you ask a member of your team what they hope to see in you, more likely than not the response will be one of these attributes. These are the traits that compel people to choose to follow. These are the characteristics that inspire others to believe in their boss. They are leadership essentials.

Interestingly, we saw gender-based correlations among the top 18 responses. A significantly higher percentage of women chose Communication and Appreciation as their selected characteristic. Men were more likely to choose Fair and Humble over their female counterparts. Of The Five Leadership Essentials, there was gender parity with the exception of Visionary which was a more common response for males (65%) than females (35%).

Taken as a whole, the top five leadership characteristics are even more striking when we consider the laudable qualities they beat out, in many cases by substantial margins: characteristics like Transparent, Open-Minded, Determined, Courageous, and Loyal.

The Five Leadership Essentials are mission critical for a leader. More important than the meetings you will attend, the emails you will return, or the plans you will devise, these are the things you must both be and do.

Lead with integrity and honesty in every word and deed, every day.

Support your team. Invest personally in each one, helping them optimize their performance and potential.

Provide leadership with a point of view. Show your grit and be courageous.

Be visionary. Paint the picture of a better tomorrow that you’ll reach together. Show them how to get there.

Inspire. Let your passion for the mission be an irrepressible, contagious force for good.

Real Talk. How are you doing on The Five Leadership Essentials? Are you the leader they need you to be? Take a personal audit.

  • If someone were to ask your team members to score you A through F on each trait, how would you fare?
  • Which leadership essential comes easy for you? Which is the least natural?
  • Are there one or two that need your personal attention right away?
  • Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice that partners with foundations and corporations to help social good organizations achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting
    white smile woman

    4 Keys to Engaging Millennials in Board Service

    20Board Service, CauseKit, Millennials October, 15

    I’m always leery to paint an entire people group – for example, Millennials born between 1980 and 2000 – with a broad-brush stroke. I look at my four nieces and nephews, for example, all of whom fall into the Millennial generation, and often see more differences than similarities. Yet it’s clear that generational commonalities have emerged. I’m confident we could fill the three buildings of the Library of Congress with the management, human resources, and “how to” books written about this force within the workforce.

    You’ve heard it all before, right? But let’s recap. According to Lydia Abbott, Millennials are:

    • Connected: they stay actively engaged with a vast network of friends
    • Purpose-Seekers: they need to work on important things
    • Collaborators: they are team-oriented and enjoy building friendships with colleagues
    • Opinionated: they have a point of view and believe it should be valued
    • Tech-Savvy: they taught their fathers and grandmothers how to use social media
    • Cause-Oriented: they believe in institutions that demonstrate a cause orientation

    Sounds like a good profile for a nonprofit board member, doesn’t it? Most nonprofit CEOs I know would pursue candidates who offered even four out of the six.

    In my last post, I attempted to make the case that earlier-career professionals are a potent, though largely untapped, pool of talent for nonprofit boards. I described how our firm, Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, is recruiting and placing next generation board candidates on to nonprofit boards in collaboration with three top companies in New York City. Through this work, we’ve learned a good deal about what motivates an earlier-career professional to engage in board governance and what makes it stick. Here are four key insights:

    1. Be Strategic with the Ask

    A key tenant of fundraising applies to board development, as well: send the right person to make “the ask.” Who is the ideal person to recruit a high-performing Millennial? There is a good chance that it’s not Chair of the Governance Committee or Board. Who in your organization can best relate to and connect with the individual you are recruiting? Who on your board is from a similar station in life and can candidly respond when asked the question, “What does this really involve?” What leader in your organization can paint a compelling picture of how board service will be personally meaningful to the candidate at this stage of life?

    As a part of this first conversation, help the candidate assess personal readiness. It does nobody a favor to downplay the responsibilities of board service, at this stage or any other. When we recruit earlier-career professionals at Cause Strategy Partners, we double down on the tougher topics, candidly discussing in great detail the commitment required in time, talent and treasure. Your mantra should be this: no surprises down the road. Make sure candidates understand in great detail the expectations – most especially, the financial and fundraising commitments. Like in a marriage, money matters are a common issue that transforms a fulfilling board experience into a sour one.

    2. Give Them a Meaty Challenge

    Millennials have no interest in downsizing their service to just a few board meetings a year. They want to work on important things. Give board recruits a specific challenge that directly relates to their core skill set and experience. Tell them you need them on the board, in part, to help fix this pervasive problem. Give them a sense of how they will make meaningful impact from their board seat.

    I recently introduced a highly successful television producer to an organization in NYC that I support. This nonprofit does critical life-saving work, but I’ve often heard board members refer to the organization as “the best kept secret in the city.” During the introductory meeting that I brokered between the candidate and board leadership, I sensed my producer friend wasn’t feeling moved by the opportunity. The mission fit his general interests to be sure, but I sensed he was struggling with the idea of signing up for six meetings a year, plus committee meetings, plus a financial commitment, in light of his uber-busy professional life.

    Eventually I interrupted the conversation, sharing the “best kept secret” problem that I’d heard mentioned over the years. I shared my perspective that there was a clear opportunity for this organization to be the nation’s leading voice on the issues we address. Based in our country’s media capital, I wondered aloud why we don’t regularly see our CEO on cable news shows when incidents occur that are at the center of our impact area. My producer friend’s face visibly lit up. He quickly moved from a passive listener to a problem-solver. Now we were talking his language. He began to list a number of strategies that he would pursue as a board member to elevate the profile of the organization. In short, he’d found his meaty challenge.

    3. Broaden the Definition of the Word “Give”

    Giving to a nonprofit involves more than cash, checks or credit card numbers. Immense value can be delivered to an organization through in-kind contributions, pro bono projects, board-led initiatives, and the like.

    I had the good fortune of meeting Adam Stanley while I was running a Chicago legal aid organization many years ago. A mutual friend insisted that we become acquainted, and within 45 minutes over morning coffee at his office, I knew why: although earlier in his career at the time, Adam had the background, skills, values, and characteristics we needed on our board. Thankfully, when asked to serve, he said “yes.”

    During one particularly difficult period in our organization’s history, staff morale was very low. Seeing an opportunity, Adam raised his hand in a board meeting, offering to organize and lead a Staff Appreciation Day. He said to his colleagues around the boardroom, “We’ll do it together.” For weeks, Adam worked with each board member to gather a dizzying array of gift cards, airline miles, sporting event tickets, pieces of art, special experiences, and the like. When Staff Appreciation Day arrived, a charter bus pulled up outside our office to take the team on a short drive around the city. When we returned, the members of our board were lined up alongside a rolled out red carpet. A marching band – yes, marching band! – was playing as the staff walked in to the thunderous applause of the entire board. We ate together, opened gifts, received individual awards, and socialized as a full board-staff team. The value of that effort – entirely led by one earlier-career professional on our board – went far beyond the size of any contribution he could have made that fiscal year.

    4. Ask Your Corporate Partners for Candidates

    Cause Strategy Partners works closely with corporate social responsibility (CSR) and HR/talent development teams at top companies, and one thing is very clear: earlier-career professionals are asking their employers to help them find a seat on a nonprofit board. While the CSR team is inundated with requests for their c-suite leaders, few nonprofits are strategically asking for earlier-career professionals who can fill skill gaps, enhance diversity, and strengthen ties to the corporate partner. Moreover, many Fortune 200 companies have board support programs in place that include governance training for employees, access to best-in-class BoardSource resources, matching gift opportunities, and dollars-for-doers giving programs.

    Have you asked your corporate partners about high-talent, high-potential professionals who might be interested in serving on your board?

    One Last Thought: Post, Like, Share

    I sometimes joke, “If it’s not on my Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, it didn’t happen.” And I’m old.

    Play into the prominence of social media among earlier-career professionals by sharing their significant contributions as members of your board. Ask permission to do so, of course, but think of the goodwill you can generate by tagging your next generation board members in posts like this:

  • Thanks board member Adam Stanley for spending weeks on today’s staff appreciation day. We’re refocused as a team & ready to go.
  • Board member extraordinaire Jill Johns invested her day today building a marketing plan for our organization. She’s a pro bono champ!
  • You get the idea. Public recognition and appreciation like this – especially when posted in a board member’s network – has the power to generate even deeper engagement, many times over.

    Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that partners with foundations, corporations and social good organizations to help nonprofits achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at

    Citation: A special thanks to Lydia Abbott for her terrific post, “8 Millennials’ Traits You Should Know About Before Hiring Them.” It was reassuring to read a Millennials’ take on her own generation. I sourced from Lydia’s piece at the beginning of this post.

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

    3 Leadership Lessons Learned Over a Latte

    60CauseKit, Leadership May, 15

    In light of my five coffees-a-day cravings, there are few things I know more about than the way dozens of Starbucks stores operate around New York City. I can tell anyone needing a Grande Americano where to expect to wait ten minutes, where your dog will and will not be welcome, where you’ll find artists sitting around chatting, where the bathrooms are particularly clean, and where there isn’t enough room to hold a comfortable conversation with a friend. In short, I would modestly submit that I am a Starbucks expert in my city.

    Because of this carefully honed expertise, when I moved to midtown and started daily visiting a new Starbucks location I immediately and instinctively knew that something was very different. From the staff’s hearty “Good Morning!” the moment a customer opened the door, to the short lines reflecting efficient service, to the authentic smiles that shaped the faces of each employee – each day’s visit was remarkably pleasant. Even the condiment bar – that scary nook in every Starbucks where it generally appears a small world war has just occurred on its granite surface – was organized and clean.

    Morning after morning refreshingly surpassed my expectations so – as a student of leadership – I began trying to figure out who was running the show. It didn’t take long to realize it was the youthful looking guy taking on every task from barista to cash register to cleaner. Everyday he would buzz around the floor wearing a Starbucks ball cap, his face most notable for his regal nose and radiant smile. He seemed to be talking constantly: greeting customers, praising his staff or offering them direction. After months of observation, I couldn’t resist. I had to know more. In an awkward exchange, I gave him my card and asked him to call me. With some degree of skepticism on his face, I promised that I was just hoping to ask him a few questions about his leadership style. I would later learn that his name was Branden Gallia, the 28-year-old store manager of the Starbucks on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan.

    Gallia’s first management job was as an electronics department manager at a Walmart store in Texas. He left there to take an assistant store manager position at Starbucks before moving to New York City. Branden is one of the most impressive team leaders I have ever witnessed in action.

    I was anxious to understand Branden’s leadership approach, so after hounding him for weeks he finally invited me to meet with him in the backroom of his store. We sat down at a relatively unruly desk positioned amidst a dizzying array of shelves holding rows of paper binders, mountains of empty cups, and countless boxes of product. An hour and a half passed as though it were ten minutes.

    Peppering Gallia with dozens of questions that morning, three themes emerged that capture his leadership philosophy. Each serves as guiding principles that inform Branden’s day to day approach. Let’s call it The Branden Way.

    First, understand what your customers need and then build a team to deliver it to them.

    When Gallia took over the store two years ago, he fired the staff he inherited in its entirety. After giving them all a chance, not one employee survived. I asked why.

    “They couldn’t give me what I needed.”

    As we explored this further, it struck me that Branden has perfect clarity on what his customers need and, in turn, what he needs out of his team.

    “In New York City, I hire for three things: speed, the ability for me to show you how to do something once and you’ve got it, and then friendliness. At my store in Texas, what mattered most was how employees would engage with people. That’s de-prioritized in this store because 90 out of 100 of our customers here don’t care if you smile at them. They just want to get in and out in less than two minutes. They don’t want their routines messed with. Unlike in Texas, they don’t come in for experiences. They find those on their personal time.”

    So personality doesn’t matter in your hiring?

    “Well, we try to give our customers speed and personality. But speed matters most.”

    With clarity around the competencies he hires for, I asked Gallia how he identifies these characteristics out of a batch of job seekers. The short answer is that Branden essentially throws out the script. “Starbucks has a set of behavioral questions we are supposed to ask. Honestly, I don’t use them. Instead, I start with a conversation. I get to know them. ‘Hey, I’m just a regular guy and we are having a chat, so don’t be nervous.’”

    But a chat can only go so far. How do you identify strong applicants who will be able to deliver what you need for your customers?

    “That’s easy. I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ If they communicate that they want a job, they need x amount per hour, etc., they’re wrong for my store. If they make me feel like they appreciate people, they’re in.” Branden continued, “Look, the pool of applicants we get is the same one as those applying for fast food restaurants. We have to develop our team into people who care about our customers.”

    Pushing a bit further, I asked, “If forced to narrow it down to the one most important characteristic you look for in a hiring decision, what would it be? “

    Branden paused – smirking a bit out of the side of his mouth – and then responded, “All of my peer store managers think I’m crazy. They say I hire the misfits.” He then went off the record, sharing his very personal story and the difficult challenges he has individually confronted. “Look, I know what it’s like to struggle in life. I like to help people get their lives on the right track.”

    Branden shared the story of one team member who came into the store looking for a job while she was homeless, literally sleeping on a bench. The applicant caught Branden’s attention because she was smiling and seemed really eager. “I made her jump through hoops.” He continued, “Look, everyone will say, ‘I really want this job.’ That’s a line. I made her prove it to me, coming back multiple times before offering her the job despite a very long commute from her neighborhood.”

    Branden then added, “But Mark is my biggest claim to fame. I hired him before I opened the store and trained him myself: from barista, to barista trainer, to shift supervisor, to assistant store manager. He’ll be a store manager within a year. He was a misfit too. I look at him now and think, ‘Wow, he’s just like me.'”

    Second, develop passion in your employees. Help them tap into a deeper motivation.

    In the social good sector where I’ve spent most of my career, passion for the work is largely built-in. Even when performing the most mundane of tasks, employees can reflect for a moment on the question, “Why am I here?” and quickly tap into the motivation behind their work.

    The same is not always true in the for-profit sector. The linkage to purpose is often much less clear. As my good friend (and former boss) Aaron Hurst argues in his book The Purpose Economy, in the new economic era “value lies in establishing purpose for employees…through serving needs greater than their own. It is driven by connecting people to their purpose.”

    Gallia inherently gets Hurst’s point. Branden explained, “I have always been able to get loyalty out of people who work for me because I build in a sense of pride. You get loyalty by creating passion within your employees.”

    I asked, “What does passion at work look like for a barista?”

    “If it’s just about that cup of coffee you won’t get your people excited, so I tell them, ‘I need you to make somebody’s day today.’ If I can help them make a connection with our customers, it will give them a sense of pride in their work.”

    Branden’s core instructive to his team: “We’re going to help people today. We’re not just going to serve them a cup of coffee.”

    While that is clearly Gallia’s clarion call to his team, I believe Branden’s motivating passion – his imperative, as Hurst would call it – is different. For Gallia, it’s about helping people get their lives on the right track and then growing them into their fully actualized selves.

    Third, model for your employees what you need them to be.

    “As a leader,” I asked, “what do you consider your secret sauce?”

    Branden’s response reflected what I had observed day after day from the other side of the counter at his store. “It’s got to be about people and modeling what I want to see in them. Everything I ask them to do, I do and show them myself.”

    The idea of training a new employee through onboarding materials, instructional videos, or a training department would be foreign to Gallia. He believes in an up-close-and-personal approach. “My boss once asked me to go to other stores in the district. He wanted me to talk to their employees to help them elevate. But that just doesn’t work. They can’t do what they’re told. They have to see it.”

    When I asked Branden to tell me his biggest moment of pride as a leader, without hesitating he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Actually, I think that just happened yesterday. One of the guys at my last store called while I was working and left me a voice message.” He pushed play:

    “Hey B. I just wanted you to know I got assistant manager. I wouldn’t have got itwithout you, man. Every day you coached me to do the right thing, play by the book, be the best I can. You’re one of the main reasons I got that job and I wanted to say thanks.”

    I asked Branden to tell me more. “Oh, he was a barista – very shy but very talented. His mom was one of our regular customers and asked me one day if I’d hire her son. I sat down with him and decided to give it a try. Obviously he was a good bet.”

    At that moment – perhaps with a bit of serendipity hovering in the air – Mark, the assistant manager who Branden reference as his claim-to-fame earlier, walked in:

    “What’s up, Mark?”

    “Just got a $40 tip.”


    “Yeah, the customer gave it to me but I put it in the tip jar.”

    “Was the tip for you or the team?” Branden asked.

    “He said it was for me, but I put it in the jar.”

    “That’s awesome. You’re a good man!”

    As Mark walked out, Gallia continued his thought, “My ultimate goal is to effect change in people. It gives me a sense of pride. If I’m a worker bee, I won’t feel a sense of contentment at the end of the night. Filing the right paperwork just doesn’t do it for me. But if I can help someone get to another level, my job is completely fulfilling.”

    Final Insight

    With time having run out 30 minutes earlier, I fired off one last question. “In your view, what makes your Starbucks different from every other Starbucks in New York City?”

    Then — silence. Branden sat quietly thinking about the question. The phone rang and he ignored it. The stillness went on for at least 90 full seconds. He even chuckled to himself at one point, but said nothing. It dawned on me that he wanted to get his answer just right.

    At that moment – mercifully breaking the silence – another one of his team members walked in. He shot the question to her: “Asia, what makes us different from every other Starbucks in the city?”

    Without hesitation, Asia fired back, “We’re fast.”

    He replied, “There aren’t other fast stores in the city?”

    “They’re fast, but we’re faster. Plus, we’re more friendly. We’re pulling customers from other coffee shops in the neighborhood. They come over and complain about the other stores: not fast, not friendly, don’t smile.”

    Building on Asia’s comments, Branden was finally ready to offer his own. “It’s bigger than that. There are other stores that have some of those things. Here we have a level of commitment to doing our best, even when we fall short of it. We have intrinsic motivation behind our service. The training is the other big difference.”

    Asia nodded in agreement and headed back to the front to make the day of yet another busy New Yorker.

    Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice headquartered in Manhattan.

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

    What Makes a Great Leader?

    30CauseKit, Leadership April, 15

    I am inspired by great leaders. They are rare. There is no objective measure for great leadership, no certificate or title, but when you’re in the presence of one, you know it.

    The handful of great leaders I’ve interacted with have a set of characteristics in common:

    • They are obsessively passionate about the mission they are leading. Their commitment to its success is unwavering.
    • They inspire people by telling great stories. Their scope of knowledge is both deep and wide, but they really connect when they tell stories.
    • They are both confident and humble. Their confidence engenders loyalty to their cause. Their humility engenders loyalty to them.
    • They are wise. They have experienced a great deal of learning over the years and know how to synthesize and apply it to new and changing circumstances and environments. They make good judgment calls.
    • They invest heavily in others. Without anything to gain, they carve out quality time for high potential people who can learn from them.
    • They experience life with unfettered enthusiasm, even joy. Each day is an adventure. A day without a hill to take is a day wasted. They live life with the accelerator pressed to the floor, every day.
    • They are easily moved. They laugh and they cry.
    • They are guided by deep-seeded values. They know they can’t fake it and wouldn’t want to anyhow. Their core is firmly in tact.
    • They love people. Actually, they are obsessed with people. They are usually the last to leave a room if there are interesting people to meet and conversations to be had. They always make time that they don’t have for people.
    • They have a masterful base of knowledge. They know their area of expertise, of course, but that’s the easy part. More impressively, they know three important things about your area of expertise, as well.

    A few such leaders I’ve been privileged to know well: Charles Middleton. Tony Campolo. Sylvia Reynolds. Laura Truax.

    Some I’ve observed briefly, or from afar: Tim King. Sterling Speirn. Bill Clinton. Ken Chenault. Cathy Trower.

    What great leaders have inspired you? What characteristics would you add?

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

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