What it means to be an executive director: A frank discussion with three nonprofit leaders

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Recognizing that the role of executive director is somewhat mysterious (and not always initially appealing) to those not in the job, CharityVillage wanted to demystify the role a little bit by talking with executive directors of varying experience and size organizations. We heard from first-time EDs, EDs who moved from a smaller to larger organization, and now three senior executive directors who can help us understand more of what the role might entail and what success looks like.

Tina Bennett is a brand-new CEO to a large organization, Thunder Bay’s George Jeffrey Children’s Centre, which specializes in care for children and youth with special needs, providing a wide range of therapeutic services.

When Bennett came to the organization as manager of client care in 2014 after 20 years in children’s mental health, it was in a time of change, with an interim CEO appointed only months later. Bennett had seen her new role as a lateral move and did not have her sights set on leadership of the organization until the interim CEO invited her into a mentoring relationship with the possibility of helping her eventually take on the CEO role.

As part of the mentoring process, the interim CEO invited Bennett to take his place at ministry-funded training for CEOs and potential CEOs through an executive program at the Rotman School of Management. Bennett had already recognized the value of further education, and in fact she had been considering a Masters program when she came to the Centre. Ultimately, she decided to do one with a leadership focus, a Master of Health Studies through Athabasca University with a concentration on leadership in health care. “Every day I apply something I learned through Rotman or Athabasca. I’ve often said I wish that when I got thrust into a management position I knew then what I know now. Tom, the interim CEO, used to say, ‘You wouldn’t have been ready for leadership back then.’”

Despite the mentoring, Bennett still had to compete for the job in a transparent competitive recruitment process.

In her first months on the job, Bennett says, “I was surprised how quickly I had to step away from operations because I was responsible for a wider profile of aspects of the organization. I also had to relearn my place within the organization: people perceive you differently when you are the CEO. It’s not bad but it is different when the decision rests with you.” Because the organization faced some atypical challenges, it meant that where Bennett’s preference would be to spend time talking with people and sharing her vision and engagement plan, instead she had to pivot to address issues quickly.

As a woman in leadership, Bennett says, “I was fortunate that around the time I came into leadership, a number of organizations in Thunder Bay had new female leaders so I wasn’t alone as a woman in a leadership role.”

Bennett is about to graduate from her Master’s degree, observing that pursuing higher education while working in management full time has been a challenge. “I’ve been ‘on’ for the past five years and my personal life has taken a hit. I’m looking forward to getting more balance now.” For Bennett, this includes playing hockey and fly fishing, two activities where she can shut off from everything else.

Mohini Datta-Ray has been the executive director of the North York Women’s Shelter since 2015. When she arrived, the shelter was literally (and somewhat figuratively) falling apart. Datta-Ray had risen quickly through the HIV sector in Toronto, going from being a frontline coordinator to a provincial director within four years. She had also been a chief union steward when the ED she worked with invited her into management at the provincial level. Several years in, a consultant who had worked with Datta-Ray in her HIV work and also with the North York Women’s Shelter suggested that Datta-Ray apply for her current position.

“I definitely didn’t know what I was fully signing up for – how bad it was,” says Datta-Ray. “The shelter had run out of space and was falling apart. The culture of the organization had also become toxic with a shift from operating as a consensus-based collective to a union-driven organization.” She says, “Truth be told, initially, the task was too much for anybody. I enjoyed big systems change but much of the operational stuff that had been left to fester seemed beyond repair. Some things I had to let go but other things needed to be addressed because they were at a crisis point.”

At the same time, Datta-Ray says, the organization felt like a fit, describing the state of affairs as offering her “the luxury of coming in and changing everything.”

Datta-Ray relied on the experience of mentors. “Especially with this kind of work, you are standing on the shoulders of giants. When I have to make big decisions, I call at least three women who have been in this movement decades longer, leading organizations.” Datta-Ray has also found it extremely valuable to read academic studies about the sector and its dynamics. She says. “We often forget all that has been studied and written about, but we have a lot to draw from. It was sometimes uncanny that what I was reading about was being replayed and was predictable. Knowing this was helpful.”

Coming in as an ED in an organization that had been through turmoil meant that Datta-Ray “got tested”: “People wanted to know where I would and wouldn’t compromise, and were figuring out what my strengths and weaknesses were. Setting the tone and not freaking out were important.”

It was also helpful for Datta-Ray that the consultant who had worked with the organization set good expectations for a new executive director. “You have to treat a new ED as new ED rather than throwing her under the bus. You get new blood and vision, but the trade-off is that she will need time and support.”

In her role at a provincial advocacy table in 2016, Datta-Ray learned about federal funding aimed at helping to repair and rebuild women’s shelters. Today, the North York Women’s Shelter is in the middle of a $12M rebuild.

Vanita Varma might best be described as an ED’s ED. Today the executive director of the Peel Leadership Centre (PLC), in 2003 Varma became the executive director of a large mental health and community support services organization after serving for several years as the organization’s senior program director. In 2013, she headed up the merging of her organization with another organization to reduce duplication of services and allow for innovative programming. After that, she decided to step down from her role to become a consultant.

“We talk about the importance of new leaders and putting time limits on leadership rather than being ED for life. I needed to walk the talk. My organization was in a strong place and it seemed like a logical point in the cycle of the organization to bring someone else in as a new visionary.” Varma adds, “My daughter was in grade 11 and I wanted to have more flexibility to spend time with her.” Varma also used the flexibility in her schedule to start a PhD degree. In 2018, Varma joined PLC as the interim ED, taking on the role fulltime in August 2018.

The biggest difference, Varma says, between leading a smaller and larger organization is that of support. “When my organization was small, I was bogged down in practical matters all day. You do it all with no extra help or with a lean functional team. In a bigger organization, you can delegate the practical matters and instead dedicate time to broader issues, meeting funders, sitting on advisory tables, looking at system-level change.”

While PLC is, in terms of budget and staffing, a smaller organization than Varma’s previous organization, it is a senior organization offering capacity-building to nonprofits throughout Peel Region. Varma says, “Many EDs connect with me looking for support and guidance, as well as a safe space and colleague to share issues with. I recognize that every organization will be dysfunctional in some way because we are all human with our complexities. I want EDs to know that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Varma also encourages less experienced EDs understand it’s okay to take care of themselves. “I’ve learned that I have to look after myself because I’m here to serve others. I bring my whole self to work and I need to be mindful of my emotional state, and to build my reservoir of knowledge and my leadership toolkit.” For Varma, this means adding in walking breaks, healthy lunches, conversation with friends and mindful meditation. It also includes continuous learning and being part of a learning network. She says, “How you handled a situation in 2015 may not be useful in 2019.” Varma also says, “My board are my employers but I feel very comfortable being transparent with them in sharing my concerns. They trust that I can handle operational issues but also recognize that I need support.”

Varma has been considering the idea that “women are over-mentored and under-sponsored” and considering how, as a senior leader, she can invite younger women, in particular, into positions of leadership.

“Once an ED always an ED,” Varma says. “Leadership is a calling to serve, a medium in which I serve my community.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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