Saving the Sector

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 1st, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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This is a message for all executive directors, from one to another.  If you don’t stop right now and look at your own performance, you run the risk of not only scaring off and pushing away all of the emerging leaders in your organization but in the sector as well.

For several years, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with and collecting data from emerging leaders from across the sector in terms of organizational mission, age, size, tenure of their executive director, etc. I have been listening closely to what they have to say–about everything.  For the most part, with few exceptions, they not only are NOT impressed with their executive directors.  In fact, they are downright critical.

There is not one piece of criticism that isn’t shared by too many, not one piece that isn’t absolutely valid (if looked at juxtaposed to a list of best leadership and manager practices), not one piece that doesn’t make me shudder and roll my eyes.  And these are smart, savvy, confident young women and men, not cocky and arrogant by any means.  And they are not happy with what they are seeing at the top of the sector, that very sector which they think—or thought—they want(ed) to serve.

So, executive directors, take note of some of the key observations your direct reports are making, mulling over and then deciding whether to stay or go.  And then get in touch with yourself and see what needs to be done.

Executive directors are supporting the myth that to work in a nonprofit means you must personally sacrifice:  earn insufficient compensation so that you must constantly choose between a better place to live or having a car, buying a car or having real food in the cupboards and refrigerator, going out with friends or watching your non-cable connected television, etc.  Too many executive directors continue to spawn this false notion that to be a nonprofit employee means sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice.  And they aren’t as understanding of year after year of no raises.  They aren’t seeing their friends in the for-profit world suffering the same fate.  Any wonder that too many parents think that working for a nonprofit is the worst decision a child can make and that too many of these emerging leaders are getting messages from parents to the effect of, “When are you going to get a real job?” or “I’ve gotten you an interview at XYZ corporation” or “Okay; you’ve had your fun and tried to save the world.  Now it is time to grow up and get a serious job.”  (All of these are quotes from emerging leaders with whom I’ve spoken, and are but versions of similar messages other emerging leaders have received.)

Executive directors who continue to wear this hair shirt are the very ones who willfully accept their terms of employment:  overworked and underpaid.  The ones who think it shows their importance and their necessity by always being in the office after everyone has left, staying connected even when on vacation—if they take vacation at all, nonstop working from their sick bed or that of a family member. This is anything but a positive.  I always tell boards who will someday face the task of replacing an outgoing baby boomer as their executive director that they better start working now or be prepared for a huge challenge.  Start working now to expand that organizational chart and divvy up the job of the executive director who is, no doubt, doing the work of three for the salary of less than one.  Otherwise, the challenge will be finding one person willing to continue that practice.  Most emerging leaders are too smart to be that person.  They have a much, much stronger need for work-life balance and aren’t willing merely to talk about wanting it but will seize it.  My hat goes off to them.

Emerging leaders are exceedingly frustrated, and rightfully so, by their executive directors’ inabilities to be a leader, as demonstrated by a number of inexcusable (according to me) behaviors.  For one, they are deeply bothered by their executive directors’ lack of perception and understanding as to the toll the current economy has wrought, as fewer staff are being asked to do more work for less money.  They lament the executive directors’ failure to use any of a number of creative ways for releasing stress, showing appreciation, diffusing burnout, such as reduced hours during an organization’s slow time, rotating extra days off, flex time, etc.  They bemoan the fact that executive directors are not the staff’s advocate with the board, failing to present their case, their issues, their needs.  And they are particularly aggrieved that executive directors can say no to them—no raises, no flex time, no early Friday closings—but cannot say no to funders’ push for “new, new, new” without sufficient funds attached to hire more staff.

And they are exceptionally annoyed by executive directors who emasculate their boards through manipulation, the withholding of information, the sidestepping, and the intentional keeping at arms length.  Emerging leaders recognize that a well composed board that understands its duties can enhance the performance and position of a nonprofit and want a partnership built on mutual trust with their boards of directors. Executive directors who do otherwise are held in very low regard.

Our future leadership is smart and willing, confident and very able.  They will change our world, thank goodness, if underperforming executive directors don’t push them away first.

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