Investing in Leaders Through the Brilliant Leaders Fellowship

In fall of 2023, the Steelcase Foundation launched the inaugural cohort of the Brilliant Leaders Fellowship, which invests in the professional development and social and emotional growth of local community nonprofit leaders to elevate their voices, power, and impact, and to support the mutual goals of navigating and transforming systems. This initiative addresses the need for emerging nonprofit leaders to have time and structured opportunities to learn outside of their day-to-day work environments, build supportive relationships with systems and community leaders, reflect on their work and purpose, and re-energize from the emotionally heavy work they do. 

Hear from Jennifer Headley-Nordman, executive director of First Steps Kent as she shares her experience in the fellowship.

Name: Jennifer Headley-Nordman

Organization Name: First Steps Kent

Brief overview of your organization and what you do.

First Steps Kent is an independent, public-private partnership that leads community efforts to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services in Kent County, Michigan. This is accomplished through administration of the Ready by Five millage and the Mainspring Early Care Alliance. These efforts provide families with knowledge, skills, and opportunities to ensure young children are healthy and developmentally on track for kindergarten. I serve as President of the organization.

Please provide an overview of your experience participating in the Brilliant Leaders Fellowship to date.

Participating in the Steelcase Brilliant Leaders Fellowship has provided me with an opportunity to connect with other local leaders passionate about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. I’ve gained insight regarding my own implicit bias and how it affects organizational leadership decisions.

What I’ve loved most about this experience has been the evolution of our cohort. What started as a group of acquaintances and strangers quickly blossomed into a space of affirmation and strength, and mutual understanding of the inherent challenges of existing within the leadership space. My fellow leaders have been vulnerable and brave throughout our mutual quest for stronger and better leadership skills.

What do you hope to learn through the remainder of the cohort?

The power of collaboration and connection has been at the core of each session. I’m looking forward to better understanding how to combine both with advanced leadership thinking, such as strategic planning, during the remainder of my Fellowship experience.

How has this experience benefitted you as a leader of a nonprofit? How has this experience impacted your organization?

Since joining the Brilliant Leaders Fellowship, I’ve worked to foster a more inclusive and welcoming space within my organization. I’ve benefited from expert coaching and collaborative guidance to push my own thinking further and reflect more deeply about how my actions or inactions affect organizational culture and community interactions.  As a result of this work, I’ve created an Impact Team to ensure mission alignment and monitor quality and performance. Our new goals embrace our mission of validating the lives of children and their families while intentionally disrupting barriers to systems’ access for disadvantaged groups. Secondly, I’ve incorporated employee self-care as a priority. First Steps Kent now has a dedicated self-care virtual space and library in addition to two self-care days per year. Lastly, I increased the number of parent leaders to reflect the community more authentically we serve.

The fellowship has included review of historical documents, essays, poems, and other literary devices that are interwoven with structured facilitation and guided questions. These interactive experiences serve as catalysts for deep conversations that continue outside of the learning space. I strongly recommend this fellowship for leaders seeking authentic reflection on current skills sets and identification of growth areas.