What you need to know about becoming a nonprofit executive director for the first time

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What an executive director (ED) is can be somewhat mysterious to those not in the role. Despite an increase in nonprofit leadership programs, many younger nonprofit staff are reluctant to consider taking on an executive director role, often because of myths about what’s required of an executive director. At the same time, those who head up charities and nonprofits often describe themselves as having stumbled into their role.

We thought we would talk with a variety of first-time executive directors who were happy to be open about the process of stepping into the role for the first time.

How to know if being an ED is for you?

Rachel Gouin, ED, Child Welfare League of Canada says of her process of becoming an executive director, “I loved my former job as a director of research and policy but I felt ready for a new challenge.” Although she was afraid of making a mistake in leaving her job to become an executive director, she recognized that even if that were true, she could always find another satisfying role.

One of the big questions, according to Richard Kies, ED, Kinsmen Telemiracle Foundation is: “Do I want to be a leader or to stay focused on a craft such as writing or fundraising?” Mohini Datta-Ray, ED, North York Women’s Shelter agrees. “A lot of us get satisfaction in working closely with the communities we serve and at the end of the day knowing we’ve connected with someone or done something that might change someone’s life. Are you ready to let that go and instead make systems-level decisions?”

What people think an ED does, too, is not always reality. “The reality of an ED job is not just doing reports and administrative work,” says leadership coach Lianne Picot. “Instead it’s more about fostering deeper commitment to a cause, exponentially growing the passion for the cause by helping others work toward it.” Potential leaders, says Picot, need to ask the questions: do I want to lead others? Do I want to be in charge of others’ employment and development?”

Executive directorship also requires a willingness to learn. Amanda Macpherson, today the ED of the Chilliwack Restorative Justice and Youth Advocacy Association says, “As ED, you’re a one-stop shop. If you don’t know the answers to a question, you need to know where to go to find out.” Picot adds, “We think going into leadership is about being an expert but it isn’t. An ED is usually a generalist not a specialist. We know a little about a lot of things. It’s a next-level starter post and that can be hard for some people who are used to being an expert.”

Executive directors describe a number of personal qualities that are important in this ‘the buck stops here’ role. Macpherson says an ED needs to have “comfort both with ambiguity and with making hard decisions” as well as “a sense of adventure and the ability to see something and go for it.” Datta-Ray asks prospective executive directors: “Are you ready to be publicly accountable? Does networking feel like a job or a pleasure?” Picot also notes that in addition to keeping the big picture in mind, an executive director needs to have an eye for detail and the ability to make sure work gets done.

While ideally all prospective EDs are self-aware and motivated for the right reasons, it can sometimes be an appealing job for more complicated factors. Kies says, “I’ve talked with many people who wanted to do something ‘meaningful’ and I always challenge them to show me what they’ve done outside paid work to give back to their community, whether that’s through volunteer work, committees or boards.” Datta-Ray suggests all prospective EDs, even those who have worked in the sector, try on different voluntary positions and sitting on various committees before applying for a leadership role. Datta -Ray considers another complicated motivation when she says, “Personal ambition is important but the work has to sustain you.” Nonprofit leader “CM” agrees: “You shouldn’t apply to be an ED if you’re only after a power role.”

How to prepare to become an ED

“During a conversation with a career coach a few years ago,” says Kies, “I said I wanted to be an ED for a charity. She told me that once you set a goal like that, you focus your energies toward that target, often resulting in accomplishing that role sooner. She was right: within 18 months, I was an ED.”

But it’s not simply a matter of sending intention out into the universe. Kies says, “You need to prepare for role you want. I tried to think like an ED, research and prepare like an ED.”

One thing Kies did was to compile an “ED playbook,” a file of management articles that fit his style of leadership and that he later drew on in his interview process. He also began developing a network and learning about leadership by following nonprofit leaders on social media.

Datta-Ray encourages prospective EDs to build relationships with people doing work you find interesting. “This is more than just having a coffee with someone, but really connecting with people you can bounce ideas off and learn from.” Picot believes this is especially important for those considering a shift from other sectors in order to get educated about the sector and what leadership within the nonprofit world looks like. Similarly, Kies’ role came about because he had connected with a recruiter who had gotten to know his skills and abilities, and who recommended he apply for a particular role that suited him well. He also drew on mentoring relationships, with a past supervisor coaching him in his interview preparation.

Because the role of an executive director involves diverse responsibilities, Picot advises prospective EDs to be strategic in breaking down the role, figuring out what they know and what they need to learn. She suggests those working in the sector should ask for stretch opportunities within their organizations in order to learn aspects of an ED job which may have been beyond their experience. She also notes that rather than eyeing the job of your own ED, a prospective ED should plan to look to lead another organization.

The entire preparation process, says Macpherson, requires a fair bit of self-awareness and reflection. Janet Lymer, ED, Calgary Catholic Education Foundation also encourages prospective EDs not to be afraid of imposter syndrome. “Instead of listening to the voice that says, ‘you’re not good enough,’ listen to the other one that says you can understand or learn.” Gouin agrees, saying, “You want to find a situation where you can confidently use your strengths and make contributions right away, but also where you have lots to learn.”

How to know if an organization is a good fit for your first EDship?

All of the EDs we talked to for this article agreed with Picot when she said, “In your first executive director role, look for a small organization with a cause close to your heart.”

There are a variety of reasons for this. Macpherson says, “I knew as a first-time ED that I wouldn’t have been considered for a larger organization. Also, having worked with a large organization and having seen what the ED needed to do, I recognized I wasn’t ready for that.” Picot also believes, “It’s helpful to start with a smaller organization where you are responsible for the majority of the tasks so that you can learn them before having to guide someone else in those tasks.”

While a first-time ED may not have experience in leading an organization, working in a cause close to your heart allows you to bring passion, knowledge and past experience to the work.

There are also practical considerations that can be addressed through research. Gouin says, “When I looked at different opportunities, I did a fair bit of research. I looked at CRA to see the health of the organization so I could know what I was walking into. I also did a simple Google search to see what the organization had been saying, doing and writing. I read their websites and thought about how I might contribute. I took my time to explore different options and see what fit.”

Similarly Colin Tessier, now ED at Threshold Housing Society, suggests prospective EDs dig deep on the values and the longer term vision of an organization’s board of directors to see whether they align with your own. Gouin says, “If where you want to go is offside with the board, it’s not going to work.” Tessier suggests, “Try to get to know individual directors and to get clarity on their leadership model.”

How to prepare for interviewing with an organization

Because alignment of vision and values is more important with an executive director than with any other position in a nonprofit, the interview process for an ED role is often different from other interviews.

Gouin observes that few nonprofit staff have received coaching in preparing for executive interviews, and suggests that prospective EDs take time to work with a recruiter or a mentor to consider how to prepare for their interviews, where the questions are often about what an organization might look like with you as its head. Macpherson prepared by looking online at questions asked in ED interviews.

Just as with earlier steps in the process, interview preparation for a prospective ED involves both increased awareness of the organization increased self-awareness. Look deeper at information available about the organization – their T3010s, the budget, funding sources, board turnover, strategic plans, media reports, Glassdoor ratings, and annual reports. Where possible, CM has talked with colleagues who previously worked with the organization.

When it comes to a prospective ED’s own self-awareness, most EDs advise keeping in mind that you are interviewing the organization as much as they are interviewing you. Be clear about what you want from the role and what your expectations are, says Picot, recalling she wished she had asked for a coach or mentor when she began her first ED role. “For women there’s a lot of hesitation in negotiating,” says Gouin. “We don’t feel adequate or we feel nervous or braggy.” Gouin suggests finding an ally who has been through a negotiation process who can guide and coach through the process.

Once research and reflection has been done, Kies says, “The best advice I would give is practise, practise, practise.” Kies ran through his pitch a number of times, tweaking it and learning it until he was very confident.

Kies also advises that “the moment you walk through the door, the interview is on.” When he had to present a PowerPoint presentation, he prepared for a worst-case scenario of technology not working, by bringing two back-up plans – the presentation on a stick and a printed copy. “This demonstrates to a hiring committee that, if you become the ED and face a crisis, you are prepared to handle it.” He also made a point of memorizing names and faces of his interviewers in the first interview, greeting them by name in the second interview.

Picot advises listening to yourself as you go through the interview process, paying attention to any red flags, getting a feel for the organization. After the interview, Gouin suggests debriefing the experience with a trusted advisor to reflect on what you’ve learned and to consider what you might emphasize if you get a second interview.

“Some of my peers feel like they are ready to make this move but they agonize over whether they should put their name forward,” says Gouin. “I say, just do it. Even if it doesn’t work out, there’s so much learning in going through the process of applying for an ED job. It’s a good test run to learn more and to prepare for a future opportunity.”

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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