A Guide for the First-Time Executive Director

1. The biggest shock is the change in constituency.  You’ve managed up–that is, managed your boss–before; if you hadn’t done it successfully, you wouldn’t be here.  Likewise with managing down.  So the skills are already in place.  The challenge is applying them to the multiple people on the Board of Directors.

The president of the Board of Directors is not your boss, though s/he may be your primary point of contact.  Your boss is the entire Board, and that means you have to multiply all those managing-up skills by 8 or 13 or 25.  Start with the most active members but sooner or later you’re going to need a working relationship with every single member, because if you have one enemy on the Board s/he can stop your entire agenda cold.  Board members don’t want to have to stand up for you against one another, and they usually won’t–this is their volunteer time, and they want to avoid conflict. 

2. The change in constituency above you is matched by a change of relationships below you.  It’s easy to forget about managing the staff while you’re absorbed with the Board, and it’s very easy to forget that managing the staff isn’t the same as being part of it.  The key difference?  As a staff member, you can mingle readily with groups of staff; as an Executive Director, you’ll be expected to give private time to every employee (at least, above a certain level). 

If you don’t spend time alone regularly with each of your managers, and/or if you don’t spend the same amount of individual time with each manager, no amount of group mingling will be an adequate substitute.  I was once inspired to have the entire staff sit in a hot-tub together for an afternoon, just shooting the breeze, as a team-building technique.  It was a howling failure: at the end of the day, everyone was sure that everyone else had gotten more attention from me, and no one was satisfied.  The fact that it was difficult for us to hear each other over the roar of the whirlpool was just the perfect metaphor.

3. Most important, HAVE NO CONFIDANTES.

If you need someone to talk to, find a more senior Executive Director (many funders will be glad to connect you with a mentor of this kind).  Don’t confide in a member of the staff; it gives the person untoward power over you while putting him/her in an untenable position with his/her colleagues.  And don’t confide in a member of the Board; like every other boss, Board members expect you to bring solutions rather than problems.

It really is lonely at the top!  Welcome.



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