I like to think that I am a very tolerant person, and that I can listen to people complain again and again, even about the same thing. But I have reached my limit with one group of people and one of their constant complaints. I am tired, and I mean really, really tired (think Madeline Kahn as Lilly Von Schthupp in Blazing Saddles), of hearing otherwise capable and competent executive directors—and I am only talking about them, not the others– complain about being over-worked, never getting to the bottom of their lists, stretched too thin, and so forth. Truth is, they have no one to blame but themselves, (and perhaps their boards, to a degree).
When I hear a capable and competent executive director repeatedly, month after month, year after year, offer up this refrain of “I have too much on my plate; I am not getting to it all,” I immediately think one of two things: either you are doing things wrong or you love wearing a hair shirt?
If you love the shirt, I cannot help you with that. That is a psychological issue, and I am no shrink. If, however, the hair shirt is not your style, perhaps the following can help.
More often than not, an overworked executive director is an indication of an organization trying to do too much with too little. A wise and smart executive director will opt to rectify that situation rather than denying the reality and continuing to tread in the rat wheel. Rectifying the problem generally requires choosing between two options: hiring more staff or cutting back on programs, services and/or clients served. For nonprofits, neither is an easy choice. Hiring more staff means finding money to pay for the new position(s), and boards rarely like to go out and find more money, preferring, instead, to ask the executive director to do so. This adds to her/his full plate, the stress, etc., which means nothing will change, and the executive director will continue to complain—but never to the board.
Cutting back on programs, services or numbers served means making some tough choices about what and who to let go, and accepting the fact that doing less isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, in this case, it is a very good thing. If an organization cannot ramp up staff to fit the work being done, then it must scale back the work to fit the staff it can afford. There is no glory or benefit in having a staff standing on their last legs. (And, yes, if the executive director is at her/his limit, odds are very good that so is the rest of staff.) In fact, a staff that is that tapped out will struggle to deliver a quality product or service. So while on paper it may look like the organization is impressive, running multiple programs with so few staff, reality is quite different. Balls are being dropped, employee satisfaction is poor and quality of services is hurting. And, truth be told, the future of the organization is at stake, because who in his or her right mind would want to work in an organization such as this?
And before you say, “Oh, plenty, let me caution you against that position. While campus proclivities do seem to have shifted a little in the direction of college students of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there is yet a strong interest in decent compensation and work conditions. There are not as many with the prehistoric mindset of giving it all to the mission, who are willing to have their work priorities change day to day or week to week based on the most urgent need of the organization. They like mission-based work, but they also want the ability to have a life. And the same holds true for those who graduated a decade plus or so ago and who are our leaders of the future. Fewer of them think a hair shirt is a good fashion statement or are willing to accept the perpetual dysfunction of trying to do too much with too little.
You don’t get kudos for being constantly overwhelmed by what your job asks of you. In fact, if that is your state of being, then my opening qualifier of “otherwise capable and competent executive directors” does not apply to you. You do get kudos, however, if you take charge and change the dynamic. So, stop complaining! Use the energy to take control of the situation, make the tough choices and do the hard work.