Kids and EDs – What’s the Matter with Them?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 16th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I have had a song swirling in my head for a couple of days now.  It is a song from “Bye Bye Birdie” which the parents, and one younger brother, sing when they believe their teenagers are off doing the kinds of nefarious things teenagers might have done in the days (1958) of “Bye, Bye Birdie.”  It is titled “Kids!” and the lines in my head are (and be glad you can’t hear me singing):  “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?”

Fast forward to late 2009 and my song is a bit different.  “Why can’t they be like other regions, perfect in every way?  What’s the matter with Delaware Valley executive directors today?”

When we talk to our sister organizations in other parts of the country, or read what is happening in their service areas, we see innovative, exciting offerings to help executive directors—and other senior managers—stay fresh, supported, inspired, and work as effectively and as efficiently as possible.  So, why don’t things like that work in the greater Delaware Valley?  Surely, our executive directors and other senior managers are just as smart as those elsewhere?  surely, they are as interested in capacity building—both their own and that of their organizations—as those elsewhere?  So, what gives?

We offer  CLEAR (Cultivating Leadership Excellence and Responsibility) Circles, small groups of executive directors who meet once a month for two hours of facilitated, peer-to-peer problem solving.  Over the last six years, we’ve gone from having eight circles to two.  We listen to what executive directors want—ways to learn in groups of just other executive directors about things that we as executive directors really need to know, understand and about which we should be thinking.  So, we created EDU—Executive Director University—and end up cancelling the vast majority of sessions because we had one or fewer people registered.  So, what gives?  In our  follow-up research, where we probed what we should have done differently, we were repeatedly told, “It sounded great.  You didn’t do anything wrong. “

We frequently hear a couple of things.  First, “Oh, I couldn’t ask the board to pay for that and I can’t afford it on my own.”  Say what?  Of course you can ask the board to pay for the executive director’s professional development.  What develops the executive director develops the organization.  Does the board provide for professional development for other staff?  (Meaning, is there a line for professional development in the budget?  And I certainly hope the answer is yes, though we know it is the first line in the budget to disappear during tough economic times, though it should be the last.) And do you use that line when you—or another supervisor—identifies an individual who could benefit from—and/or be rewarded  with—professional growth opportunities?  I certainly hope so, as that only makes good management sense.  So, why not the executive director?

And we hear, “I couldn’t ask the board; it would reveal my weaknesses!”  Well, who thinks you are perfect anyway?  Human, yes; perfect, probably not.  Besides, seeking out professional growth and stretch opportunities is a sign of strength, not weakness.  For one, it shows that you are an evolving leader, open to new ideas and opportunities, which is what boards should want of their organization and, therefore, of their leader.  And they should be willing to support that evolution.  (After all, my bet is that many, if not all, on your board have taken/are taking advantage of professional growth opportunities at their day jobs.  At least I hope so.)  Does it increase the chances that the newly enlightened and evolved leader may move on?  Perhaps.  But for the time that s/he remains in the organization, the organization will benefit.  For another, it models the correct and best behavior for staff.  By engaging in growth behavior, the executive director says:  stretch; move; evolve.  And for another, it says to the board “I’m worth investing in.”  That is a message antithetical to the opening fear of exposing weaknesses.

Finally, they will say that they simply don’t have the time.  This speaks volumes about why executive directors burn out and why the millennial generation doesn’t want to become executive directors.  How can executive directors think they are effective leaders if they don’t invest in their own capacity?

Logic absolutely points to executive directors seeking out growth opportunities right and left.  Yet, that is not what we are seeing.  Now, I recognize that not everyone finds evolutionary and growth opportunities in the same format.  Just as some people are visual learners and others verbal, some people like group experiences while others prefer the solitude of reading. But with few exceptions, I’m not hearing executive directors chatting up their latest great professional read anymore than we are seeing them storm the halls of organized professional development opportunities.

And yet, we know that happens elsewhere.  So, I remain stumped:  what are Delaware Valley executive directors doing for support, rejuvenation and stretching?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.