Q&A with CEO Fred Blackwell: Coaching as a Tool to Bold Leadership

Q&A with CEO Fred Blackwell: Coaching as a Tool to Bold Leadership

Editor’s Note:  Special thanks to ABFE  for letting us share this article on Leadership Coaching from their August 2016 Issue. ABFE is a philanthropic organization focused on enhancing the philanthropic sector’s connection and responsiveness to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. 

Two years ago, ABFE began offering Coaching for Racial Equity to cultivate and support the capacity of leaders in philanthropy to be effective advocates for Black communities. In this article, Fred Blackwell, President of the San Francisco Foundation, shares his thoughts on the importance of executive coaching. Opportunities to join the program are now available; check out our website at www.abfe.org.

ABFE Magazine: How has coaching helped you with your leadership role at The San Francisco Foundation?

Fred Blackwell: When I came to the San Francisco Foundation, my mission was to take an organization that was already doing good work and try to make it even more impactful. Thinking about how we might tighten our focus after several decades of approaching the work in a very specific way presented a pretty significant leadership challenge. I sought out coaching to be able to bring the best that I could to all aspects of leadership and management. It involved board management, working with staff, and providing leadership for staff members who regularly interact with external stakeholders. Coaching has been helpful in that arena for me. Having someone that I can talk to about the menu of decision-making options available to me has been really great. It’s also been particularly valuable to have somebody to help me reflect and identify areas for growth.

ABFE Magazine: How long have you been engaged with your coach? What are some of the things that you are working on with your coach?

Fred Blackwell: It’s been close to a year that I’ve been working with a Leadership Coach. The focus has been on bringing everything that I have to offer to the work in the organization. Within that, there are a number of specific pieces: What’s the best and most effective way to work with the board? What are the things that we need to think through in terms of management at that level? How can I be a clear, transparent decision-maker in the CEO role, particularly as I work with my management team and the other staff at the foundation? How can I bring more clarity to what our organizational expectations are, and how I best manage to meet those expectations? I’ve also learned how important it is to combine the big picture vision and the nuts and bolts on how you get there.

ABFE Magazine: Does your work involve strategizing with a racial equity lens as you think about some of the ways to strengthen your role as the leader of the San Francisco Foundation?

Fred Blackwell: Absolutely. During the past two years since I’ve been at the Foundation my work has been focused on that. We have identified achieving a greater level of racial and economic inclusion at a regional level of scale as a goal. When I talk about things like vision, management, board management, and external stakeholders, it’s all with that set of goals in mind. I have placed a focus on leadership and management, but as a person of color, I also understand how important my role is in advancing our organization’s agenda to expand racial and economic inclusion.

ABFE Magazine: Why do you think coaching is important for Black leaders in philanthropy?

Fred Blackwell: Coaching is an extremely useful tool for folks regardless of the position they’re in or whether they are a person of color. Although I do think that Black leaders in philanthropy would benefit a great deal from coaching because of the sometimes unique circumstances that are associated with that. You are not always in the room with people who share your perspectives. Or, you can be the only African American person in the room from time to time. The Bay Area has been great for me because there are two other Black men who are leading community foundations in the region, but this is the exception, not the rule. I have also appreciated having someone to help me think about how to drive an agenda that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable – an issue that necessarily focuses on race. At the same time, we have to manage towards a vision that is also about inclusiveness. This takes balance. So, we are talking about a focus on race and equity while ensuring that we include others who don’t fall into those categories. It’s a tricky space to be in, but I’ve really appreciated having somebody who can be a sounding board and help me navigate these issues.

ABFE Magazine: Why would you recommend coaching to other CEO’s in Philanthropy?

Fred Blackwell: Being in the CEO seat can be isolating. I have a unique position within my institution. In philanthropy it can be even more so, because of the power dynamic between the CEO, the staff, and the broader community of people who are seeking funds to do their work. When you’re in this position, it can be hard to find people who will provide candid and critical feedback about the work that you are doing. I think it’s really important to have a space that is a combination of safe and supportive, but also very honest about what I’m doing well and where I can improve.

ABFE Magazine: Is it true that it is lonely at the top?

Fred Blackwell: In philanthropy, the CEO can be a little lonely, but the dynamics of philanthropy are also somewhat artificial – we are responsible for making decisions about how to use our institution’s and sometimes our donors’ money to improve the community.

ABFE Magazine: What’s your favorite inspirational quote? Why?

Fred Blackwell: My favorite quote is one from Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, former president of Morehouse College. He said, “The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. “ The reason that I like this quote is because the failure is in not being bold, not taking risks, not swinging for the fences for the communities that we are serving. Obviously, we always want to win. I think it’s very important and is a principle that I’ve always held that we need to set lofty goals. We need to be ambitious about what we are trying to achieve and we shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way. Fear of failure is no excuse not to try to do everything we can for the communities that we are serving.

Learn more about ABFE’s work advocating or responsive and transformative investments in Black communities.