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Faces of Leadership

John Estrem

When he was the CEO of Catholic Charities, and later the executive director of Episcopal Community Services, John Estrem was able to combine his passion for community work with an education in nonprofit management.
Now, as CEO of nonprofit Hammer Residences, Inc., he brings that experience into play once more, leading his organization toward growth while still maintaining a mission for service.
Hammer provides services for adults and children with developmental disabilities, and Estrem took the helm seven months ago. He shares some of the insight on the leadership he's cultivated in the past few decades, and the lessons that will lead him and Hammer into the future:
Recognize the need to create opportunity: As a Catholic priest for 23 years, Estrem took on numerous community issues, from hunger to housing development. He was involved in the founding of two nonprofits, and got an M.B.A. in nonprofit administration. When he decided to step away from the ministry, his career may have changed, but his mission never wavered.
"Throughout my life, I've felt that I've had tons of opportunities, and I've seen so many people who didn't have any," he says. "So, it's become my passion to create pathways of opportunity." Estrem notes that acknowledging the imbalance inherent in our culture is important for a leader, because it creates a mindset of opportunity creation.
Good leaders care about developing other leaders: Estrem feels that it's imperative to find and develop leadership talent as part of his role as a CEO. In delegating tasks, he shows those at Hammer that he trusts them, because he's a firm believer that everyone has leadership qualities that can be fostered in a supportive environment.
He says, "The success of an organization depends on everyone in that organization. It's not just about the top layer of management: you need to create leadership at every level. Personally, I don't have the skill or energy to make every decision, and I shouldn't be doing that anyway."
Give people space to exercise leadership: As part of a drive to develop leaders, Estrem does one thing that he believes is challenging for any CEO or executive: he "leaves the room."
"Part of the process of leadership development is to give people space while letting them know that they're supported and encouraged," he says. "If something goes wrong, you reflect with them and figure out how to prevent issues in the future."
Estrem admits that the strategy can be tough. He jokes that when he was a kid, he hated bedtime because he thought he'd miss something good, and he still feels like that sometimes when handing over responsibility. But it's beneficial for everyone to have robust leaders in the organization, and so Estrem is willing to deal with the discomfort of delegating control.
Turn everyone into a potential fundraiser: For a nonprofit that relies on government funding, fundraising provides an opportunity to weather cutbacks and economic storms. But, Estrem notes, disability services in general don't tend to have a fundraising culture.
He addresses this need to be proactive rather than reactive by emphasizing to all of Hammer's 500 employees that they're involved in fundraising, even if they're not directly asking for donations.
"Often, a potential donor's point of contact with us is not through me or the development office, it's probably with someone who works in one of our homes," he says. "These potential donors pay attention to how they're being treated, how services are being delivered, and the overall feeling they get through the interaction." Training employees to see themselves as fundraisers in this way can be hugely beneficial for gaining more control over funding sources, Estrem notes.
His leadership strategies seem to be working well--Hammer was growing steadily in the past few years before he became CEO, and Estrem has kept that momentum going. Through development of internal leaders, and fostering more commitment among staff members, he's able to live out the passion that's driven him since he began volunteering as a teenager.

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.
"I'm thrilled to be able to give people more opportunity, and to lead an organization that is working to be more creative," he says.
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