The Accidental Executive Director

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 6th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Recently, we got a query from someone wanting to know the statistics on how many executive director tenures last 25 years. “Too many,” I thought. But that was a knee jerk reaction and not totally fair. Given, however, that the question fed into one of those items on my “to blog about sometime” list, I thought the stars aligned nicely.

Actually, what I wanted to blog about is a corollary to the idea of a quarter century executive directorship and that is: should you even be an executive director in the first place? Despite the fact that the nonprofit sector has, thankfully, a much more opaque progression to executive director than the for-profit’s linear path from bottom to top, too many in the nonprofit sector automatically assume that the pinnacle of their career should be at the top of the staff organizational chart. And too often that should not happen—at least for the betterment of the nonprofit and, most likely, the individual, as well.

One of the two most important characteristics of a good leader—be s/he leader in title or action—must go hand in hand: self-awareness and honesty. Being self-aware without the ability to be honest with yourself is useless; being honest without self-awareness questions the very basis of the honesty. And it is this lethal combination of one without the other that makes for an executive director who should not be.

Too many executive directors assume that position because it was the logical next step or they didn’t know what else to do. (Sort of like the perennial student who, rather than seek the right job, just keeps on finding new degrees to pursue.) Instead, it should be a very intentional decision that follows a soul-searching, reflective process that is all about answering the question: will the fulfillment of the mission of this organization, and all it serves, be better as a result of my leadership? (The question is not, and never should be, will my ego/status/pay be better as a result of my taking this position?) Rarely is this right question asked and the right process followed. Instead, people ask how financially healthy is the organization? What’s the board like? What is the organization’s reputation, track record,etc.? All fine questions, but still missing the point.

Here are several of the classic models of “executive director by mistake” that I see all too often; it is not an exhaustive list by any means.

It’s all about me.  This EDM (executive director by mistake) is the easiest to spot. Generally, s/he has a business on the side (or is a very dedicated hobbyist), related to the nonprofit’s mission or not, that supplements his/her income and detracts, often considerably, from time paid to the nonprofit. The job of executive director is convenient, and being the boss prevents challenges by subordinates. The board is often the last to notice, but staff pick up quickly. Frequently, too, this executive director isn’t into the “partnership thing” between the board and executive director, but is into the tail wagging the dog syndrome, keeping the board at bay, having impressed board members with the illusion that s/he is an ace and has everything under control. Sadly, there may be senior level staff enabling this executive’s behavior, getting the work done, keeping the ship afloat, not out of loyalty to the executive director but in the interest of on-going employment. These executive directors often get to stay along time.

The whiner who never gets off the pot. Maybe there was a time when this person was right as an executive director; maybe there was a time when s/he was advancing the mission. (Or not.) But then something happens and the organization runs into trouble. That trouble could be financial; it could be mission drift, rapid staff turnover, whatever. The trouble isn’t lethal—yet. But it will become so if something isn’t done. This EDM, frequently, is smart enough to recognize that s/he has to do something dramatic to save the organization. But s/he is incapable taking the right action, preferring to whine about things. There is enough honesty and self-awareness there to recognize that though s/he may not be the (sole source of the) problem, s/he does not have the capacity to be the solution. And yet s/he stays. Why? Love of the position, not the mission. These executives, too, get to stay a while, as the board embraces the whine, which too often blames “things beyond the executive director’s control”—the economy, funders, competition, etc.

The fixer.  This is the EDM who took the position because s/he was going to solve all that ailed the organization and then some. This was the executive director who was going to turn the board around, find the funders who would invest in the mission when folks hadn’t been interested in years, convince potential partners that the organization could be a player, etc. But six months in, it was apparent that there was not enough there there to warrant trying, or the organization or the board didn’t want to be fixed. They loved the problem just as it was. Twelve months later things are the same; and that’s where things are 36 or 48 months later. Get out after 12? No; it isn’t about the mission, because then “strategic alliance” talks would have started; it is about the person who wants the position no matter how much there really shouldn’t be an organization there and that person’s lack of honesty to call it as it is. And that person, too, loves the problem more than the solution. Talk about lack of self-awareness!

It’s not me; it’s them. This is the serial EDM who stays, at most, a couple to several years at an organization and then moves on. Not by choice as much as by necessity. Sometimes there will an outright “fire” internally, but never externally; mostly, it is a “mutual” parting of the ways. But at each placement, there is something there that prevents this executive director from making it work—the board president, staff not liking my style, unrealistic goals, the economy (that’s a current favorite). But the one constant, organization to organization? The executive director! This is never about the mission and can I push it forward; this is always about the me.

None of these types ever gave a thought to how they could advance the mission. After all, it never was about mission; it was about the position—the power, the prestige, the control.

The question that drives the decision to become an executive director is the one that should also drive the decision to leave the position: am I (still) able to advance the mission? That decision should not be based on years on the job, age of the person, salary, convenience, personal satisfaction. It should solely be a consideration of how well the mission is being served and furthered. And celebration should never be tied to years in the job, but rather mission-related accomplishments, which is never about one person, but about the whole organization.



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