For some reason, many of the leaders in the nonprofit sector that I talk to suffer from what I like to call “martyr mentality”. They keep their phones on 24/7, work 50+ hours/week and rarely ask for any help even when they feel like they’re going to have a nervous breakdown. To be fair I do understand WHY they do this – they are, after-all, devoted to their cause and are passionate about helping others; however, with the rate of executive director burnout going no where but up, I think it’s time to re-examine this “service” strategy.
More than almost any other complaint I hear about nonprofit leadership from my Executive Coaching clients (other than money worries of course) is how lonely they feel in their role. These Executive Directors admit to me that they feel like they can’t be vulnerable with their Board, they can’t show doubt to their staff and volunteers, they can’t admit weakness to their competitors and their friends and family just don’t understand. As a result they consistently feel estranged in their work fighting huge battles they should never have to deal with alone.
During two conversations with experienced EDs this week, I asked them what they had done as a new nonprofit leader to help them develop their personal support system. Although they both ran different organizations in different parts of the country, they each had the same answers. If you feel alone in your work, take a good look through this list and determine which idea you can use to start putting your mental, emotional and physical health first (instead of dead last as most new, passionate CEOs do).
- Nonprofit community resources. Most cities have a nonprofit resource center overflowing with nonprofit management training tools and live people to help answer your toughest questions. Many such organizations host workshops and seminars that you can drop-into for a minimal fee. These guys are here solely to support you as an ED – do a Google search and find the one closest to you.
- Network with other CEOs. We are all in this together and we’re all facing very similar challenges (if we’re honest enough to admit it). Find 3-4 other EDs that you know, like and trust and set up a mastermind group where you meet up once/month for coffee just to chat about what’s going on these days. You’ll make friends for life and get lots of new success tips (for free!)
- Hire an executive coach. If your organization can afford it, find yourself an executive coach to work with you one on one. More than any other professional development strategy I’ve invested in over the course of my career, working with a personal coach has had more impact on my level of growth than anything else. There is something about working with someone who is there for YOU, to listen to YOU, to focus on YOU. Huge stress reliever!
- Join a LinkedIn group. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re working away by yourself most of the day but in today’s day of online networking, thousands of other EDs ready to connect are right at your finger tips. I love seeing an ED post a question to my group and then get dozens of responses from others who have successfully navigated a similar situation. Huge time saver!
- Say no. I know this is easier said than done but it is critical to your organization’s success that you’re honest with yourself about how much you can really handle and fight the good fight of protecting your sanity. A broken down, stressed-out ED is of no help to anyone and will probably get you fired. Be on the offense and be very strategic about what you commit to doing (and not doing).
- Get back in the field. Make sure that you’re taking the time to reconnect with your clients at least once/month,. It is very easy to get disconnected from why you’re doing what you’re doing if you’re not out there doing it on a regular basis. Get out of your office and talk to your clients. Reconnect with your passion and be reminded of the great work your organization is doing.
This morning as I was sitting at my desk sulking because of not having slept well for the past month due to insomnia, I took a look at my to-do list and sighed. I had an exciting list of ideas and projects in front of me that under normal circumstances I would have been thrilled about starting; however, the lack of sleep was weighing on me and I pushed my day planner aside. I told myself that as soon as I had at least one good night’s sleep I would be able to focus on my important tasks and be able to accomplish more in a day than arranging and rearranging the papers on my desk.
Does this sound familiar? You come home after a full day of solving problems and are unable to shut your mind off. Nagging thoughts about your staff, your clients, your finances, your kids and the overdue items on your to-do list hijack your brain and cause you to feel like you can’t face anything more than the next hour (let alone long term planning) . I know that I regularly ask myself how can I possibly focus on business growth when I feel like I could come undone at any moment.
Have you ever felt like that? The last thing you feel like doing is focusing on the big projects that will move your organization ahead yet intellectually you know that unless you prioritize your high-energy required projects they’ll never get done and you’ll be stuck in this same spot forever. What do you do? Do you wait for the illusive day when things “get better” or do you bite the bullet and get started regardless of how tired you feel in that moment?
After having run my own business for twelve years, an expression I have learned to hang onto when I feel like this is “I can’t do everything but I can to do something.” I ask myself “what small thing can I do today that will enable me to take a small bite out of an important, high-impact project?” Sometimes as I’m mapping out my day after another night of tossing and turning I laugh at the seemingly insignificant items I have written on my list yet (surprisingly) at the end of the week I look back and see that a good chunk of work I needed to do had gotten done after all.
As leaders it’s so easy to want to wait around for better circumstances before getting started on that high-impact project. The truth is that if we wait for a sunny day, we’ll be waiting forever. Before we know it a year will have gone by and we’ll still be waiting for “the right time”. We may not be able to do everything but we can do something.
What have you been putting off? What small think could you do today?
Do you often feel overwhelmed by the task of managing all of your contacts, your calendar and the online content you love to read?
Would you love some tips on how to make all that stress disappear?
Check out today’s training video where I go through the exact process I use to organize all my professional relationships, stay 100% in control of my schedule and to always be up to date on what’s going on with my network.
By following this advice, I guarantee you that the result will be you looking like a networking genius and everyone asking how you always stay so on top of things while looking so calm. It’s all here. Enjoy!
Looking forward to your comments : )
When you think of leadership in the nonprofit sector, you don’t usually think of the word ‘ruthless’ at all. Being harsh and sharp doesn’t work with people but it does work well when it comes to simplifying your schedule.
I was challenged earlier this year by my business coach to take a close look at my schedule and automate, delegate or eliminate as many things from my schedule as possible. He encouraged me to seriously consider every task I do and ask myself how I can turn it into a system that would significantly simplify my work efforts.
In talking to a first-time ED friend of mine yesterday I asked him how he was doing and his response was “I feel like I’m a ticking time bomb. I work from the moment I wake up and my job is always on my mind.” I would love to say this response is unique; however, this is all too common among young nonprofit leaders. You know how they say that your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness, well in this case, my friend’s drive and passion for his cause was driving him into the ground and he was on the path to complete burnout within the next 12-24 months.
As we chatted I reminded him that his ability to do his job (physically, mentally, emotionally) is his biggest asset. Without his ability to get up everyday and lead his organization, all the work that he has done to build it will be lost and he will let down those he has dedicated his life to serve.
What can be done? Some ideas we talked about:
Burnout. Stress. Overwhelm…all common complaints of today’s nonprofit executive director. Research shows that the turnover rate in the CEO role is incredibly high with EDs staying in one spot for only 2-3 years with the reason for leaving most often attributed to stress.
In my work with nonprofit leaders, I have no doubt that the job takes a toll on you emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually but also contend that planning to quit your job because the work load is too much may not be your only option. When was the last time you took some time off? When I say time off, I don’t mean just take a long weekend but when did was the last time you took a week or two off just to reflect and refresh?
If I had to rank some of the most stressful jobs in existence today, I would say day-care worker (anyone with kids would understand), stock broker (speaks for itself), marital-counsellor…and being a nonprofit Executive Director. There is not a job I can think of (except for being a parent) that pays less, requires more hours, and has more responsibility than the CEO of a NPO. That being said, Executive Directors are some of the most amazingly passionate, dedicated, service-oriented people you will ever meet who unfortunately usually burn-out of the job sooner than they’d like. What can be done?? How can we help these leaders who want to impact social change but can’t handle the work-load for more than a few years at a time?
While I agree that the whole Executive Director role is in desperate need of an overhaul, here is a great stress reducing tip about managing expectations from the awesome team at Harvard Business Review.