Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ready for Insanity

"My executive director's insane...is that where I'm going to be in 30 or 40 years? Is that where I'm headed, to be burnt out and working long hours and not seeing my kids grow up? But at the same time, where else do you pursue what you want to pursue?"
Marla Cornelius, Parick Corvington, and Albert Ruesga, Ready to Lead: Next Generation Leaders Speak Out (pdf)

I must have seemed insane at times, or at least possessed. And this is how I started in the nonprofit field. Running two small nonprofits -- community development corporations (CDCs)--was the most challenging management work I've ever done. One was a start-up and the other a turnaround. Executive Director's (EDs) do everything -- fundraising, board development, personel management, R&D, communications, accounting, building management, and so on. The list is endless and sometimes depressing. I had to come down to our building in Baltimore in the middle of too many nights with a baseball bat because our alarm system went off.

But the learning was immense; these experiences have been the touchstone for the rest of my nonprofit and public sector career. All the big management ideas applied, writ small, making the job intellectually stimulating as well as physically and emotionally exhausting. I certainly had great staff along the way, but I couldn't hide behind a well-rounded executive team that compensated for my weaknesses. My weaknesses were front and center. Luckily, I was self aware enough to know that there were problems even if I couldn't muster answers or personal transformation. Both times I left nonprofit ED jobs I swore I would never do management again, even though I had come to appreciate how critical good management/leadership was if a nonprofit or any organization, for that matter, was to become high-performing.

A few weeks ago I visited a CDC in Chicago for the first time in a decade or more. I've known some of the staff for 25+ years in different capacities. Their office was in an old industrial district. Talking with them, seeing their engagement with old and new issues, I felt that old urge to be on the ground doing something really concrete. I have such admiration for new and old leaders who make a career, or maybe just a long career visit, in the nonprofit sector. And the EDs who stick around for 20+ years, reinventing themselves and their role and making room for others, are truely awe inspiring.

One reason I wrote Nonprofit Leadership is because there is a growing crisis in the transition of executive leaders in the nonprofit sector. One study suggests a 75 percent turnover of executives in the next five years. Ready to Lead? analyzes a survey of about 6,000 nonprofit leaders and their attitudes about nonprofit leadership. We probably need to change the ED job description and support system as well as cultivate new leaders. Insane jobs with a burnout trajectory only attract and retain so many people. I'm a casualty.

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