Sunday, December 14, 2008

Are we asking too much of our Executive Directors?

Sadly, Darian Rodriguez Heyman Executive Director of the Craigslist Foundation is moving on. For those of you that don't know about the Craigslist Foundation--it is an amazing organization that "creates community in the nonprofit arena by 'helping people help', regardless of cause or sector." Craigslist Foundation serves many people entering the sector by "educating and empowering nonprofit leaders and connecting them with their peers, potential supporters and valuable industry resources." Darian has created awesome programs like their annual Nonprofit Bootcamp and spearheaded the development of an entry point website for all the resources and links in the nonprofit sector, a "craigslist for nonprofits".

I am sad about Darian leaving his position, not because Darian is one of the most amazing entrepreneurs I know (ok maybe that has a little to with it) but I am sad about his departure for another reason, because I believe the nonprofit sector expects too much of Executive Directors and causes them to leave their positions and in many cases the sector.

Let me explain:

If you look at a typical job description of an Executive Director we expect them to be visionary, strategic, the face in the community, raise a lot of money as well as manage the staff, and make sure everything is running smoothly within the organization. There are competing responsibilities of Executive Directors to be all they can be both as internal managers and external visionaries. For example Darian is an awesome entrepreneur, he is a visionary and has created amazing programs that reach thousands of people each year entering the nonprofit sector. However, he admits that he is still developing as an internal manager.

So I want to ask the question, are we asking too much of our Executive Director's to be as amazing leading the organization externally as they are managing it internally? It seems to me that is asking too much.

As a sector we should work harder to support the strengths of our Executive Directors rather than asking them to be all things to all people. One might say the solution is to train Executive Directors like Darian to be better at internal management, but I can speak from experience that is possible but difficult. For example, my strengths are in internal management and operations but it is taking years to develop my external visionary and fundraising skills. We can't expect someone to just change overnight. As a sector, we must be willing to meet our Executive Directors where they are at especially when they are superstars like Darian.

Another thing I am disappointed about is the fact that many amazing Executive Directors that leave their positions end up leaving the sector. I don't have statistics on this, but let me explain. Darian assures me that he will not leave the sector. Thank goodness. But he is leaving for six months to travel the world. I am happy for Darian and his travels but this will be six months without his voice being part of crucial conversations about the nonprofit sector. See Darian is on a variety of committees and doing work to better the nonprofit sector. He like many Executive Directors that leave their positions don't realize how important their voice is in the coalitions and committees they serve on. So they not only leave their organizations, they leave their voices out of crucial conversations in the sector. Don't get me wrong, I think turnover in some cases is healthy but not all instances.

Note: The thoughts and comments in this blog post do not reflect the thoughts of Darian nor the Craigslist Foundation in fact they do not know I am writing this post.


Don Currie said...

It is very hard for me to support your position. The nonprofit leader took the job. That is what is required of the person doing the job. They are able to see what others are doing before they take the job. It is a self-imposed headache or paradise.

All of the things you listed are the things entrepreneurs must do. I agree entrepreneurs are pretty amazing folks. They are broad generalists. They are also driven. They are passionate. They inspire followers. They find away when others quit. Nothing stops them. That is why they are successful.

Those who quit are not entrepreneurs. They took the test and decided it was not for them. I applaud them also. They have the wisdom to guide their careers in a more fruitful direction.

The entrepreneurs are the folks I want as leaders of nonprofits or for-profits. If we make it tougher rather than easier for the executive we will have stronger nonprofits.

Emily said...

I don't think this issue is specific to the nonprofit sector. How do CEOs of major companies handle internal and external affairs of running a business? The key is surrounding yourself with good people. Just like the President doesn't know everything about everything, he appoints experts in each field to lead in that area. He has to know a little bit about everything to make sure it's moving in the right direction. So I think the important part is being able to lead and inspire your staff to want to make the organization (and in effect you) look good.

Kenrg said...

RE: "...many amazing Executive Directors that leave their positions end up leaving the sector. I don't have statistics on this, but..."

Check with CompassPoint. A few years back they did some research on ED tenure, and had some amazing stats on the percentage of EDs who vow never to repeat that position. I'm not sure how recently it's been updated.

Lauren Girardin said...

As someone who, like Darian, recently left a leadership position (though not ED) at a successful nonprofit to travel the world and take a breather, I agree that we expect too much of our nonprofit leaders.

Over the last 5 months that I have been traveling and meeting people from other countries, I have been shocked to hear what those outside the U.S. think of our work schedule and stress level. Simply, they think we work to hard and get too little for our effort.

These opinions are coming not from your hippie nomadic backpacker types either - most of the people I've met on the road have successful business careers or are entrepreneurs. But, they put equal value on their work and their play, something Americans often do not allow in our definition of "entrepreneurial."

It's a difficult challenge for nonprofits to envision how we will change our work-life culture when the problem is pervasive on a national level.

David M. Patt, CAE said...

In your description of Executive Directors, you didn't mention they are often expected to be saintly individuals willing to work for dirt wages.

Some Executive Directors would remain if they were better paid and didn't have to deal with Board members who interfered in management when they should be focusing on governing.

eliza ollin said...

I absolutely believe EDs should focus on their strengths and surround themselves with stellar people whose strengths compliment their less developed areas to fill in the gaps. They should maintain excellent communication with their support staff, so they know, and understand, everything that is going on, but they shouldn't have to *do* everything. Besides setting people up for burnout, expecting someone to excel in an area that they are not strong in is just plain inefficient.

Alan said...

I think comparing for-profit and nonprofit leaders / entrepreneurs doesn't work. A for-profit can hire additional people with the skills it needs and build those costs in to the price of its product. Nonprofits don't usually have that same ability, so we ask our leaders to do it all, do it well, and do it all the time.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, most people who become EDs are really not trained to be organizational executives. As such, they are often legal liabilities in terms of managing staff, and some, unfortunately are just as big bullies as can be found in the for profit sector.

EDs should have at least a graduate certificate in managing organizations to cover legal, HR, finance, accounting, and IT. Otherwise they blame their Peter-Principle results on staff who in fact are often very qualified in their area of expertise, but yet...

due to ethics or the law, they go up against one of these "visionaries" whose got the BoD hoodwinked, and then the staff person is toast.

At my current job, I am the 5th person in my position in 8 years under the ED and I am exceptionally qualified, yet I have been iced out by the ED for raising questions of improper spending on Federal contracts.

This is the second time this sort of thing has happened and I am re-thinking being in a role that is unsupported by the Board: Only the ED is supported unless they egregiously break the law. I've even seen where the ED has broken the law but the Board has got rid of the staff who whistleblew to avoid big lawsuits.

So, where do you really think the problem is here? As a trained person, I think that there should be a role for the visionaries, but they should not be in charge of the agency as a whole - they should be called Executive Visionaries, but in NO way should they be allowed to be in charge of people.