New (or not-so-new) Executive Director’s Survival Guide

Congratulations! You are the new (or not-so-new) Executive Director. This is an amazing opportunity for your professional growth and development. Being an ED is not an easy calling; you are the one to whom community members, staff, Board and other stakeholders are looking for leadership. It can be a lot to handle, but with thoughtful planning, intentional relationship building, organization and personal life balance, you can find your groove that will lead you and your organization to success.

Here are the things that helped me survive as a new Executive Director, and continued to guide me through my entire tenure as an ED.

Launch a “listening campaign.” Start your new tenure as an ED not just by letting others know your own vision for the organization, but by listening to theirs. When I became a new Executive Director, I had a goal of doing 100 one-on-one meetings with stakeholders (our clients, partners, elected officials, etc.) in my first 100 days. That’s really only one per day, which is totally doable. And in that time, you will learn amazing things about your organization, whether it a new place for you or if you’ve been working there for the past ten years. Ask what people see as strengths and weaknesses of the organization and where the most exciting areas for growth are. Let them share their vision, and it will surely broaden and shape the scope of your own.

Find a mentor. You need someone that is there just to support you in your professional development. Different from the support a Board member, friend or partner can offer you, a mentor is someone who knows exactly what you’re going through because they have done it too. Try and find someone more or less unconnected to your organization, so that they can be objective in their feedback and support (also having a mentor who knows the context of your work is helpful, too). You’re going to have many moments where you need to call someone to yell with, cry to, or process with, but then you can take those emotions and move forward together towards strategic decision making on how you should proceed.

Find Your Support Network. Seek out other Executive Directors who can relate to your challenges. Different from a mentor, a support group is a two-way street where you can innovate, brainstorm, and (let’s be honest) complain about the challenges you are all facing. Being a Director can be lonely since you need to be thoughtful about how much of your personal struggles you share with your Board or staff, so finding a group of other Directors will give you great support and likely a lot of laughter and relief.

Take courses to improve your skills. Find your local nonprofit association and see what kind of classes they offer. Take as many as you can in your new role to build up your learning and skills, but also to connect to like-minded professionals in the community.

Read! Books, articles, blogs, whatever it is, always keep learning! No matter how much experience you had doing this work before, becoming an ED means you just took on about ten new hats. Don’t feel silly for picking up a fundraising fundamentals book, or basics of bookkeeping. Learn what you don’t know and learn more about what you do. Stay on top of blogs, newsletters and resources in your field.

Delegate! (Thoughtfully). Really, you don’t have to do everything. Especially in small nonprofits, the ED takes on far too many duties because they don’t have a staff person assigned to them. Be thoughtful with how to delegate to staff, Board members, or even volunteers. When you delegate, make sure expectations and guidelines are extremely clear, and review the work that is being done. The training you give up front will save you time in the long run.

Learn a little bit of everything. If you are an ED with a support staff of communications specialists, grant writers, accountants and the like, be grateful! But don’t think this gets you off the hook to know how to do things like basic bookkeeping or fundraising. ED’s should have a basic knowledge of everything going on within the organization. Ask your accountant to give you tutorials on bookkeeping and financial reports, or take a class on web design to learn more about your communications strategy. Not only is it important that you have a grasp on these things to give feedback to your employees on ways to improve, but you’ll also need to know what the job consists of for hiring any future employees.

Hire Slow, Fire Fast. This is a management principle I wish I had learned earlier in my career. Take your time in finding the right person, but when you know they aren’t the right fit, make the cut sooner rather than later.

Invest in Your People. You have a team of committed folks who need to be your priority. Your Board and staff are your biggest asset, and they are relationships that need to be invested in. Take your Board members out to lunch every once in awhile and get their feedback on how they believe the organization is doing. You’ll be surprised at how much people have thought about the work but don’t express during once-a-month meetings. Do the same with staff – have them share their vision for growth or struggles in the job. Ask about personal lives when appropriate. Let your core group know that you care, and your whole team will function better because of it.

Disable Hierarchy. Just because you are the Director now does not mean you are off the hook for the gritty on-the-ground work that you used to do back in the day when you worked for program staff. As a Director, you will be overwhelmed with paperwork, phone calls and emails; you could sit in your office all day just doing admin work. But as a Director, do not become disconnected from your base. Attend resident meetings, show up to events, make yourself an honest and relatable presence in the organization. Let your clients/constituents know that you are available and want to hear their thoughts on the work. Don’t just wait for them to call with suggestions – go out and ask them. If you are to run a successful organization, you need to know if it is, in fact, successful, and the only way to do that is by getting back on-the-ground occasionally to observe and support the day-to-day work that is impacting your cause.

Network! Your organization grows when more people believe and invest in it. One of the best way to do that is by you, the Director, being present at community and networking events. You never know who you might meet – a City Councilmember who can help pass legislation that benefits your clients, a philanthropist who has connection to your cause and can give a large donation, a college student looking to do an internship, or a potential Board member just waiting to meet you and your work. With all the things you have to do, attending more events sounds impossible, but it will reap rewards with new relationships and opportunities.

Shadow Your Staff. The only way to really know how your staff are doing is to watch them do their work. Spend a few hours every once in awhile, but especially at the beginning, shadowing different members of your staff (particularly those who are engaging your clients or other stakeholders directly). Watch them in resident meetings or making phone calls. Let them know you are observing so that you can know more about their work style, and share your feedback afterwards around strengths and areas for improvement. It may be uncomfortable at first, but once shadowing becomes a practice in your workplace, people won’t feel intimidated but will realize it is an opportunity for learning and development.

Get Used to Disappointing People. Sound gloomy? In my first year of being an Executive Director, letting people down was a reality I had to get used to. Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t let them down due to lack of being in touch. I spent hours listening to a range of stakeholders, from our low-income Spanish speaking residents to staff, Board and partner organizations. And because of all that listening, I am certain that the direction we chose was ultimately well-rooted and sound. But it also meant that there were people who felt like I didn’t choose their way. This reality is a part of being an ED. So many people are looking to you and ultimately want you to take the organization in the direction that they want. You can’t please everybody, but you can make decisions rooted in extensive knowledge and feedback…and once you make those decisions, stick by them. Let the naysayers know that you appreciated and heard their feedback, but you’ve moved forward with X decision for reasons 1, 2, and 3, and now you need them to get behind the work moving forward. Mostly, they will. And if they don’t, then you may lose a person who wouldn’t support your new direction anyways and it may be best for the long-term to see them go.

Find Excellent Time Management and Organizational Practices. Seriously, you have SO much to do. All the time. I get it. It's amazing you even found the time to read this article.  Your inbox is always full, you are always behind on emails, you can never do everything you need or want. Organization and time management is crucial to your success as well as your basic mental stability. Find a routine and stick to it. And when you set aside time to do a task, turn your phone off. You will never get things done if you are always on-call. Look for time management classes from your local nonprofit development network. I took one and it revolutionized my work pace and efficiency.

Find your balance. Ask yourself a question – what makes you feel healthy and balanced? Be specific. Working out a three times a week? Gardening every weekend? Cooking four dinners each week? Whatever it is, right down three or four things that make you feel balanced and bring you happiness. Be very clear, and share this list with your Board President. It is in your Board’s interest for you to be successful and to stick around, so making sure that you have balance is not just good for you but for the whole organization. There will of course be weeks where you may not get to all of your healthy activities, but using that as a standard is important to check in with yourself and make sure you aren’t consistently over worked.

Take real vacations. Turn your phone off. Don’t check your email. The world really will survive without you.

Have some grace on yourself. There is so much to do and so many people to please, you are bound to let some ball drop somewhere. It’s OK. Really, it is. Even if that ball feels huge, it usually isn’t. You will make mistakes, and it’s important to move forward and learn from them.

Have I overwhelmed you? Let’s go back to that last point – be gentle on yourself. Take a deep breath – you can do this! Now turn off that phone, lay out some goals on what you want to do next, and get to work! Our communities need you to be successful.