My transition to an executive director of a non profit was anything but traditional. I originally joined my former organization as the Corporate Development Director. I had raised money before in the educational world and had run my own business. I was confident about what I could bring to the organization. I had a fairly straightforward task - build a corporate giving program that would bring volunteers and donors to serve our mission with their time, treasure and talent.
Less than a year into this position, a series of unfortunate events led to the board to make a leadership change at the top of the organization. Naively, I raised my hand to serve as the interim Executive Director (ED). I suppose you can say I have always been a risk taker when it comes to my professional life. Way before Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, I was raising my hand to give myself every new opportunity that I could grab. My philosophy has always been to go for it. In my opinion, it is important to try doing things that you don’t love to do, as well as things about which you are passionate. Serving in a leadership role is one of those things everyone should take for a test drive.
I found myself seeking a very important leadership job, Executive Director of a local affiliate of an international non profit. The board conducted a full search for a permanent ED and I was honored when they asked me to formally serve the affiliate in this role. At some point during that first year, I attended a state conference hosted by the international “mother ship”. Lots of great presentations and great information, on lots of topics about which I knew nothing! And these “topics” all pertained to the major components of the daily workings of my affiliate. Fear quickly took over. I remember at the end of that conference feeling like a deer in headlights. Other ED’s were incredibly supportive. No problem, they said. You will get a handle on all of this after about three years! I took a deep breath, regrouped and put my hands firmly on the leadership wheel.
I worried constantly over those first twelve months about other people’s perception of me in this role. I was suffering from a classic problem, The Imposter Syndrome. Authors Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified this phenomenon in 1978. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
Fortunately, my plan came from a different place - a leadership mindset. I chose to fill my team with people who were great in their technical areas of expertise. It was my job to learn the details with them and then teach them to grow into their positions. For example, I was fortunate to have a CPA on my team who had come back to the workplace after raising her kids. We quickly developed a mutually beneficial relationship where she taught me new ways to look at the numbers and I taught her how to look at the big picture and direction of the organization. When I moved on from the affiliate in 2016, I left behind a healthy, thriving team who were great at their jobs. I had successfully chosen to lead them for 6 years.
One of the most interesting things about nonprofit leaders is that they often come to their positions by default, as opposed to intent. My background is in social work and leadership development. I didn’t grow up saying I want to be an Executive Director. Many of my colleagues come from the “I just like helping people” or “I want to change the world” space, which is what drives us to get up everyday. This desire, however, is not enough.
It is sometimes appropriate to look like a deer in headlights and to feel the vulnerability of the imposter syndrome, especially as an emerging leader. At some point, each of makes a decision as to whether we want to own the word “leader”. Nonprofit leaders need both the leadership toolbox and the nuts and bolts knowhow to be effective. Do whatever you need to do to acquire both. Read books, or work side by side with someone who does a job that scares you. Find other colleagues whom you can confide in. And of course, be willing to be coached and coachable. Humility is consistently found to be the number one trait of effective leaders. Learn what you are good at, and if leadership is not for you, be willing to put your ego aside and move on to do what it is that drives you. You and your organization will thank you for it.