I Dare You

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 11th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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The rule “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is, fortunately, defunct.  At least in the military.  I think, however, it is alive and well in the culture of too many nonprofit boards:  if we don’t ask, we don’t know; if we don’t know, we can think everything is still great; if we think everything is still great, we don’t have to do anything.”  And so it goes.

This practice was the subtext running through my mind as I looked at the results of our survey checking in on executive directors’ departure plans.  This survey was prompted, as similar versions have been in the past, by CompassPoint’s release of Daring to Lead 2011.  In 2006, when the last Daring to Lead was released, we checked to see how our local picture compared with the national one; and so, in a much more down and dirty version, we did the same this time.

Though the results of Daring to Lead are interesting—

  • 67% of executive directors anticipate leaving their jobs within five years; people’s plans have been delayed by a shrinking job market, loss in retirement savings, no perceived successor;
  • only 17% of organizations have a formalized succession plan—and scary, our results are far more troublesome.  Actually worrisome is more correct, not because of the numbers but because of what is causing the numbers and the seemingly disregard by boards of directors for the situation at hand.  The “don’t ask” syndrome at work!
  • Of the 80 executive directors who responded to our survey, only 12% said they have given very little thought to leaving their current position.  Yet 18% know they will be leaving by the end of 2012 and another 21% say they don’t have a specific departure date but will definitely be gone by 2016 at the very latest.  Another 36% say they have no time frame for leaving but seriously thinking about it.  Okay; nothing too scary there.  If we lose approximately 40% of our executive directors in the next five years, we will be ahead of the national numbers.

It is, however, the reasons executive directors give for why they will be leaving and are giving more and more serious thought to leaving that should give all of us in the sector great, great pause.  The number one reason given for leaving is retirement:  46% of respondents said it will be time to retire.  Nothing we can do about that except send them off nicely and wish them well.  But the next three cited reasons no one can ignore, not even those with a retiring executive director as I would bet large sums of money that these reasons may have contributed, for some, to a sooner rather than later retirement.

The second and third reasons for why executive directors will leave are separated by a mere percentage point and little difference in content:  40% will leave to achieve better work-life balance, something they do not feel they can do in their current position, and 39% will leave to reduce the amount of pressure they feel from their current position.  There is no surprise here, as these were the number one and two reasons we heard back in 2006.  And while it is no surprise that nothing has been done to alleviate this situation, it is extremely disappointing that nothing has been done to alleviate the situation.  But, if you don’t ask, you can’t know.  (Just like that rule in fundraising:  if you don’t ask, you can’t get!)

The fourth reason given for eventual departure really startled me, but not because of the message and only because the executive directors were willing to deliver the message outside of a private conversation.  The content I’ve heard again and again, but always in that private conversation or in a group of fellow executive directors.  The fourth reason—ranked only a percentage point below the third reason (38%)—is that executive directors are tired of trying to get their boards of directors to do their job!  Among many things that make this confession notable is the fact that fundraising fatigue in this economy ranked fifth with 31%, while overall fundraising fatigue was cited by only 29%.  In other words, board fatigue way outscored fundraising fatigue!  What does that say?

Boards, by their inaction, are pushing their executive directors out the door.  And that is their worst nightmare!  Without an executive director, the board really must step up to the plate!  So, why aren’t boards working on redressing the work-life imbalance?  Why aren’t they working on ways to reduce pressure for the executive director?  Why aren’t they learning what they are supposed to be doing as a board and stepping up to the plate?  That would be far, far easier than having to hire a new executive director that may have far less patience for the onerous conditions in the workplace and be out the door before the board settles back into complacency and has to repeat the cycle!

They aren’t working on it because they don’t know about it.  They don’t know about it because they haven’t asked.  Without the ask, the executive director isn’t telling.  So boards continue on, oblivious to the reality that awaits them when their executive director does eventually leave—which they all do, in case you haven’t figured that out.  They will not be able to simply hire a replacement, but will, instead, need to restructure that top tier of the organization, they will need to raise more money to cover the increased salary costs and they will need to be more board like and work–yup, I said it, work—in partnership with the new executive director.

CompassPoint’s title of Daring to Lead is quite appropriate.  It takes a lot of guts to step up to the plate as an executive director, particularly in these times.  But the challenge extends beyond the paid leader; the glove must be dropped at the feet of boards.  And so, I dare you to ask your executive director about her/his work-life balance? the pressure felt? the level of frustration with the board.  I dare you to give your executive director the space and comfort to answer these questions honestly without fear of reprisal and retaliation.  In other words, I dare you to lead!

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