Executive Directors have a sense of confidence that we are doing good and important work. We don’t expect everyone to “get it” as that would require more knowledge-seeking and depth than most people are willing to explore. In short, we believe we are special – and we like it that way.
A large part of every ED’s job is to participate in meetings and calls outside the office. In some, the ED’s role is to inform/educate funders, partners, and policymakers about the issues and trends we observe from our clients/customers. In others, we attend for environmental scans – to learn what is happening at the federal, state, and local levels that will affect our organizations, our vendors, and our clients/customers. In all cases, our presence at these meetings signifies to the convener that XYZ nonprofit “showed up.” This visibility is important in building relationships for future collaborations and fundraising.
When we attend a conference (sponsored by big companies) where the hotel is luxurious, and the food and spirits are plentiful, Executive Directors often start doing some quick math. How many housing units could I renovate with this conference budget? How many families could we help? How many children could we serve? I know some EDs have refused to go on such trips based on their principles. I respect their decisions. I also know that all of commerce, including nonprofit work, functions around relationships. A function of being an Executive Director is that of the chameleon. For the survival of the organization, the leader must adapt to her/his environment. Part of that role includes relating to people where THEY are most comfortable. And donors want to feel comfortable with the charities they support. They also tend to support those with whom they have solid relationships.
If I can get one great idea that I can bring home to my organization, then I considered the conference or meeting a success. Often, more was learned through discussions with colleagues than the keynotes. Each meeting tends to add items to the task list. Figuring out how to delegate and when to get the work done is an ongoing challenge. My team would lament my attending a conference, saying “She’ll come back with something new for us to do.” Usually, I shared modest tweaks to our system that could enhance our efficiency or strengthen a program. This helped build a culture of a learning organization. When we can embrace measured change and experience how it improves the customer’s experience and our work experience, then we can learn and grow together.
I often felt that when I came into the office, staff practically lined up to talk with me. The importance of their issues varied in my mind, yet each item was important to whomever came into my office. As a servant leader who desired the daily operations to function smoothly without my involvement, there was a continual exercise of being aware of the activities, empowering staff to problem-solve, and find agreement on what types of issues required a decision or intervention by the Executive Director.