Leadership Institute Reflection: Michelle McSweeney


Michelle McSweeney, a member of the 2016 Leadership Institute cohort, shares her experience participating in the program and discovering her growth potential as a leader in the nonprofit field. Applications for the 2017 Leadership Institute will be available on our website on October 17th and are due by 5:00pm on November 18th. 


I started my career in the nonprofit sector as an unpaid intern with the American Red Cross, and today serve as the Manager for our Service to the Armed Forces and International Services programs. My goal is to ensure that our refugee communities and military families in Chicago are not only prepared for an emergency, but also can find and connect with their loved ones across the globe when disaster strikes.

I applied to the Leadership Institute to take responsibility for my own professional growth in a setting that offered structure and required commitment. It is difficult to prioritize your own career development when you could be spending time assisting more clients, finishing that last email to an important partner, or spending quality time with loved ones – and it’s hard because all of these are really valid priorities! What the Leadership Institute offers is the permission to disconnect from work for three hours per month during your workday to focus on fantastic guest speakers, a professional mentor, an amazing community of 12-15 other nonprofit professionals, and facilitators who work hard to make every session more engaging than the last.

The Leadership Institute helped me become comfortable and confident with my own voice as a leader. In an early session, every member of our cohort took the ‘StrengthFinders’ test. My results were Relator, Positivity, and Developer. I felt stressed initially that I didn’t have any themes like ‘futuristic’ or ‘ideation’. How could I be a leader if I may not always be the one with the inspiring new idea? The following month, a guest speaker led us in a practical discussion called “How to Mold an Effective Team.” It brought to light that no leader can be everything, and developing a well-rounded team that complements you is critical to meet the mission of your organization. I am now no longer trying to change my core strengths, but rather embracing what I naturally do best.

I also found myself humbled and motivated by how much I don’t yet know. The Leadership Institute offered two sessions in particular centered on nonprofit governance and finance operations. What I thought was a reasonable understanding of how to build a board and the process for drafting an organization-wide budget turned out to just barely scratch the surface. This now gives me the insight to purposefully seek out internal and external learning opportunities around these specific functions after the Leadership Institute concludes.

I feel exceptionally grateful that I had the chance to spend time each month with courageous people who allowed us all to experience their struggles and successes in real-time. We tackled very complex issues together that became the cornerstone for our collective learning, understanding, and personal growth.

The Leadership Institute is a rare opportunity in the nonprofit sector to have access to a mentor, experienced facilitators and a built-in peer network that will help you navigate unforeseeable challenges and bridge new concepts learned back into your organization. It is also a unique chance to have fun getting a little lost in the trajectory of where you think your career should go — and perhaps reshape the vision for your future.


Michelle McSweeney is the Manager, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services for the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois.
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