Where Do I Go Now?: Reflecting on My Early-Career Executive Director Transition
I always knew that I wanted to be a leader. I wanted to build great programs and impact lives. I was driven by my passion for innovation, desire for system changes, comfort with challenging the status quo, and love of creativity. So during the recent economic boom in Alberta many young people, like me, saw an opportunity and seized it. In pursuit of my mantra, “be the change you want to see in the world”, I became the executive director for a small nonprofit in Fort McMurray at the age of 26.
The role offered many rewards, but it was fraught with challenges. It is best summed up by The Editors at Nonprofit Quarterly in the article, “Life ‘at the Top’: Reflections on Being a Young Executive”,
“You are the one who completes all necessary tasks.” In my case, I soon found that I was responsible for creating and setting budgets, cleaning out rain gutters, organizing fundraisers, negotiating contracts, navigating complex staff personalities, fixing the dishwasher, compiling statistics, understanding every charity regulation or law, completing payroll, paying bills, creating policies, navigating renovations…and the list goes on.”
Throughout my career I have lead several organizations and I’ve experienced many of the challenges faced by executive directors; whether it’s managing multiple personality types, sometimes driven by ego, navigating the pervasive politics of partnership development, or constantly striving for sustainability. At 28, I was managing a team of 16 employees with an annual budget of $2 million. Having to raise $2 million annually was exhausting. This, coupled with a sense of isolation can lead to burnout, prompting many executive directors, like me, to leave the role or the sector altogether.
At 36 I decided to transition out of the role. The greatest gift but biggest challenge of this transition was asking myself, “what do I do now?”. My first thought was to look to the sector for a new role. I soon found out that the opportunities were not there for me. I discovered that only by downplaying my experience did opportunities become available. Former executive directors are perceived to be overly qualified for staff positions, even if that’s the route they wish to take in their career.
I took a leap of faith and started consulting with an arts organization through a model I call, “immersive consulting”. The way my practice unfolded was exactly what I was looking for, leading me down the path to consulting and coaching.
However, being an executive director had been central to my identity. Rebecca Fishman Lipsey sums it up best in her article, “No One Told Us! The Unspoken Challenges of Being an Executive Director”,
“As an ED, you can never truly “let go” because you represent something that is bigger than yourself, and your actions are tied to an entity whose reputation is yours to protect. The line between personal and professional blurs, and it can be hard to tell which relationships are authentically yours, and which are tied to your work.”
After I transitioned out of the role I was faced with a sort of identity crisis. I was asking myself, “who am I?”. Everything I thought I was had changed overnight. I could no longer be defined by my job. I took the opportunity to reflect on my skills, talents, strengths, experiences and who I wanted to be, and reinvented myself.
Loss is a recurring theme when we talk about transitions. We lose opportunities and lose parts of our identity. But nothing is as bad as losing our friends. The life of an executive director can be isolating. Often, we will rely on other executive directors for support. When you leave the role, you can end up leaving so many of your relationships behind, whether you want to or not.
We often characterize transformations and transitions in our sector as metamorphosis. We are a sector about creating change. I was an executive director for 10 years and what I learned in that time was invaluable. I have taken that learning and coupled it with my coaching skills and now I have the unique privilege of serving and supporting executive directors, boards and staff teams to provide the best possible services to communities in need.
Our career paths in the nonprofit sector may have twists, turns, successes and disappointments but if we remember who we are, focus on our strengths and still feel that call to be of service, we may be able to find or create the right opportunities for ourselves.
This blog was written for Peel Leadership Centre.