At least a few times a year, I find myself saying that the hardest job in the nonprofit sector is that of the new executive director following the founder. Having been one (with only limited success), having supported some through different consulting engagements, and having worked with founders and executives at every point in the organizational life cycle, I know that the chief executive role in nonprofit organizations is under appreciated by everyone (not funders, not donors, not staff, not spouses, not society at large). And I do believe that the added layer of immediately following a beloved, or in some cases even not-so-beloved, founder is damned near impossible.
In the following reprise post from March 2010, I offer an open, encouraging letter to new executive directors. If I were to rewrite it today, I might be a bit more specific about some of the tasks — like, figuring out early on whether your task is fundamentally turnaround, transition, or transformation. Or I might lead with a handful of the unspoken, impatient, fearful, and lonely shared questions. Certainly, I could describe some specific stories of new Executive Directors who actually succeeded against the odds — and offered some practical tools that worked.
But the encouragement, the commiseration, the belief in possibility and the desire to help new executive directors feel capable, confident, effective, powerful, connected as they build better organizations that can change everything? That stays in, for sure.
Dear Executive Director Following a Founder,
If this were easy, it would be easy. The job of serving as the first Executive Director after a founder–in any situation, in any organization, in any economy–is probably the hardest job in the nonprofit sector.
Taking it on requires tough skin and an iron stomach. And somehow, through it all, being steadfast in exhibiting excellent management skills, strategic vision, an ability to generate excitement and bring in partners, and more. One person, even a strong leader, alone cannot accomplish the job. This job is big. And probably, typically, best designed as an Interim Position.
If the situation presented to you by the board upon your employment was anything like typical, you’ve had to generate fresh programming and refresh the institutional identity on not much more than spit and duct tape.
And if you’re feeling discouraged, it’s because you’ve been trying things and the results aren’t as dramatic as you’d hoped. Probably you’re looking at financials that haven’t much changed.
It’s reasonable to get tired and to feel discouraged and burned out, which happens anytime you try and give everything and the early results suggest it didn’t matter.
Don’t give up. Together, you and new, trusted board members can examine the remaining problems with straight up honesty and integrity. You need to be “critical friends” (emphasis on both) to each other and to the organization. You need to develop (with key allies) an energizing vision and a credible plan for turning things around and moving everything ahead. The beautiful thing is the potential impact a renewed organization can have.
Good luck, and my sincere wishes for inspiration, wisdom, courage, friendship, and creative expression,