For Executive Directors Only

Finding Support for the Loneliest Job

I’ve been one. I’ve reported to one. I’ve overseen one. And so I can honestly say this about the executive director position.

It’s tough.

I mean am-I-crazy-for-doing-this? tough. And, when done correctly, it’s also very, very lonely.

As many of you know, I equate the ED job to the center of an hourglass.

You as the ED are right there in the middle, trying to meet a mission effectively, overseen by the top of the hourglass, your board. At the bottom are your other stakeholders, and there are many: staff, volunteers, clients, funders.

Everyone has an expectation. Everyone needs you now. Everyone merits attention.

You must be responsive to every message and fully present for every meeting, completely grasping all of the various programmatic, fundraising and financial components of the organization, giving away the credit and taking the blame.

And through it all, you must have the finesse, the savvy and the grace to make it seem like it’s all under control, that you like every single person you come across and that your passion and commitment are unwavering.

That’s the reason it’s hard. The reason it’s lonely is because you can’t really tell anyone how hard it is. 

You put yourself in a terrible position if you complain to your board or bring them problems without solutions. You put your organization in a terrible position if you complain to the rest of your stakeholders.

So how do you keep yourself both effective and sane throughout this rewarding, challenging, lonely ordeal?

Survival Tip #1: Create your own version of a SWAT Team

You need a team of people who are there for you, but who are not part of the hourglass.

It takes strategy. Don’t choose your SWAT team arbitrarily. Friends and family members with the best of intentions can be overly critical, competitive, judgmental.

And don’t create a team of advocates who all think you can do no wrong.

You need a mix of people who are on your side, who you can trust with your vulnerability and who will give it to you straight.

You need to think it through – not just when putting it together, but as you get ready to reach out to one of them for a specific purpose.

My SWAT team includes the following:

  • When I need an advocate to whine to and who will always be on my side: my mother
  • When I need someone who respects me, gives me the benefit of the doubt and will objectively tell me the truth: my husband
  • When I need someone who will take a very critical eye to my actions and sometimes harshly tell me the truth: my friend Joe
  • When I need someone to give me an opinion but will do so very kindly and gently because I’m particularly vulnerable: my coach
  • When I need legal advice: my lawyer
  • When I need financial advice: my accountant

Beware of those who seem like your friend but are competitors. And also be careful of one-uppers.

Your SWAT team is your sacred circle. They need to be on your side.

Stick to your SWAT team when you can – even telling them that they are a member.

Trust me – pick the right individuals and they will be flattered.

Survival Tip #2: Find other EDs you can trust

Another method I found helpful when I was an ED was to reach out to others in the same position, again who I really trusted, and just talked shop.

As we talked about our issues and shook our heads in amazement at the absurdity of some of the things we were dealing with, we couldn’t help but smile a bit.

Just knowing there are others who are going through it as well creates a validation unmatched by anyone else.

We had “ED Survival Lunches” every other month, scheduled ahead of time. I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to them.

Survival Tip #3: Get a Coach

Coaches and mentors have the benefit of being objective and, hopefully, skilled at helping you draw out your needs and the solutions to your problems.

They also help you figure out your own personal and professional goals, in addition to the ones at your organization.

Because coaches are there for you – as opposed to consultants hired to help your organization – they will be your advocate and confidante. They will provide resources and ask questions without judgment.

Often, my first job as an executive coach is to tell the executive that they are not crazy.

My second is to tell them that everything they are going through is perfectly normal and also quite common, and that we can find solutions.

It’s amazing how just these first two points can create a whole new perspective for an ED. Just think about what might come after that.

Survival Tip #4: Get Away

Understand this: your organization is not the sun. The world does not revolve around it.

Yet when the messages and the tasks pile up and it seems like you’re drowning,  it’s hard to remember this simple fact.

How can you remember this, and even believe it? Get away.

Get on the outside looking in instead of the inside looking out, feeling like the whole world needs something from you right away. It doesn’t.

Yes, plenty of people do need you, but when you talk to others on the outside, when you see how other cities, states and countries function…when you spend quality time breathing in the air, eating exotic foods, listening to different languages, you can’t help but get perspective.

How do you keep this perspective when you get back? See Survival Tips#1-3.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

p.s. want to find concrete examples of programs that offer support? Check out my Executive Solutions program at

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