The Five Attributes of a Great Executive Director

Ellen DeGeneres would make a great Executive Director

How cool would it be to work for Ellen?

Originally posted at The Huffington Post.

Like many of you, I spent the evening with Ellen on Sunday night (Oscar telecast.) But while you were watching her deliver pizza to Meryl Streep and retweeting her selfies (did you know that this image is now by far the most retweeted photo ever?) I was thinking about how great an Executive Director she would be.

A comedienne as an Executive Director. I’m kidding, right? I mean, as far as I know she’s never run a nonprofit. How could she possibly have the needed skill set?

I propose it makes no difference. What makes a great Executive Director isn’t so much about skills as it is about attributes.

I WANT TO BE ELLEN

First in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to be Ellen DeGeneres. I keep waiting for the call to sub for her when she is on holiday with Portia.

Still waiting.

But let’s set that aside.

Why do I think Ellen would be a great Executive Director? What am I thinking?

Often search firms and committees look for certain skills in hiring an Executive Director. This is a mistake. Attributes are more important. For example, before becoming an Executive Director, I had never done one single ounce of fundraising. My board took a leap of faith that I had the right attributes to be good at it. Fortunately for me and the board, they were right.

And when you look at Ellen’s success, her attributes are exactly what an Executive Director needs.

So what exactly are the attributes of a great Executive Director?

WHAT MAKES A GREAT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?

1) Authenticity

Couldn’t you imagine having lunch with Ellen and feeling at ease? I haven’t lunched with her but have met her a number of times during my tenure at GLAAD. What you see is what you get. She is who she is, like it or not. And everybody likes it. Maybe the word isn’t authenticity. Maybe it’s trust.

2) Conviction

She speaks out about the causes she believes in and does so without alienating people with the “opposing” viewpoint. Doesn’t this clip say it all?

Towards the end, she reminds all of us of what she sees as her traditional values.

  • Honesty
  • Equality
  • Kindness
  • Compassion
  • Treating people the way you want to be treated
  • Helping  those in need

A master class in changing hearts and minds.

3) Joy

I’m sure if i was a ba-zillionaire, I’d be pretty damned joyful. But it’s not just that. She lives in the world joyfully. And there was surely a time when she could have lived in the world with a lot of anger. I have a beef with Executive Directors who don’t see their work as a privilege. To get paid to do something that matters? To make a living making some part of the world a better place? I’m not naive; the work can be hard, painful and sometimes feel like too steep a climb. But make no mistake. It’s a privilege and an Executive Director should approach the work with joy, not anger.

4) Humor

Executive Directors can be a humorless bunch. After all the work is serious and important  – maybe E.D.’s don’t see humor as quite befitting of a leader changing the world. This is perhaps one of the biggest factors in nonprofit staff burnout. There is no let up. Unless your E.D. sets a tone that allows for people to exhale and have a good ol’ belly laugh.

5) Fearlessness

Of course Ellen has unique power as a celebrity that we don’t all share. That said, I believe that with authenticity and conviction come a sense of fearlessness. Not the arrogant kind where you know in your heart that your position is right and that is all that matters (because as I tell my clients all the time, “OK, so you’re right. Now what? Because being right is a very very small part of the equation in changing hearts and minds.”) When I talk about fearlessness, it’s about picking up the phone, having a difficult conversation, firing a long time staff member, telling a board member that you have heard some bad ideas in your day and that hers is right up there, turning down a donation that makes no sense for your organization. This is what Ellen has and an attribute that every Executive Director must cultivate.

THE MORAL OF THIS STORY

Ellen has a day job. And I’m glad she does.  She has done more for gay rights than anyone I can think of, joining millions of Americans for coffee every single day. So I’m not suggesting that someone go recruiting Ellen to run a nonprofit.

I’m suggesting that you can learn the skills necessary to becoming a great Executive Director. But without the right attributes — which Ellen has in spades — you won’t get very far.

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  • Jon Hoadley

    Great piece, Joan.

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Thanks Jon. Still chuckling thinking about Ellen in the Wizard of Oz witch costume at a donor ask…..

  • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

    Thanks a lot Jon. Hope some board search committees stumble upon it :)

  • Nicole Lee

    Hi Joan, this is a great piece. So many EDs start off as you have described but end up the opposite. Often I don’t think it’s personality flaws or entitlement, I think it stems from a lack of support from boards, donors or other stakeholders that expect EDs to be magicians (ok, some of us are! :-) )

  • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

    Thanks Nicole. There is clearly some elements of magic in being a great executive director — keeping your eye on the vision and mission and creating a partnership with staff, board, volunteers and donors. Often requires a magic wand to get it right. Keep on waving yours!!!! :)

  • higheredadvocate

    I enjoyed the article but feel that it is missing its true target audience: Search Committees. Having those 5 attributes without a complete skill set and/or a receptive search committee leads to lost opportunities for the applicant and organization alike. It is the lucky applicant who finds the search committee willing to take a leap of faith. Unfortunately, the screens that are put up by search committees and consultants beforehand to identify those candidates with the ‘right’ skill set and experience deny nonprofits the fresh talent that could otherwise be found.

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      It’s funny that you write this. I decided to land on this topic after talking to a search firm in the midst of a CEO search. They kept talking about skills and I kept pushing them to talk about attributes. They kept coming back to the word “leadership.” Search firms and board search committee HAVE to tease out the elements of leadership — it’s just too broad. My five attributes attempt to do that. Hope some search committees are reading. Hope you will share the post and perhaps it will be more likely to find its mark.

  • Norman Dragt

    I do understand why skill sets instead of attributes are more sought after, they are easier to describe, research and measure. Because how much authenticity is needed, how much conviction, joy, humor, fearlessness is enough?
    But I agree I would rather have a ED with a little fearlessness and conviction than one with lots of knowledge of organizing, planning, accounting. Those skills should be brought in by the other members of the executive team.
    Besides that most skills can be learned if you have conviction and fearlessness, joy and humor.

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Norman – thanks for weighing in. The interesting thing about your comment is that while it may seem that skills are more measurable, that can be so deceiving. Does. 20 years of experience assure u that u are hiring a first rate development director if you haven’t been able to discern her /his level of diplomacy, conviction and ability to play well on a team. I often thing the key to hiring is not how someone answers the questions but rather whether you are asking the right ones.

  • http://gkkk04.wordpress.com karma_musings

    Wow. Yes. I can definitely think of an ED or two who fit the “not promoting joy” model… Excellent piece, thank you!

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Glad you found it helpful. If no sense of privilege and joy are seen in an ED try to spend time and figure out why. Can it be fixed or is it the wrong fit?

  • Pamela

    Captivating piece, Joan. And well said, ‘higheredadvocate’! Now where’s that magic wand to bring about [more] leaps of faith? Our sector truly needs it…

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Pamela. Thanks so much for your feedback! And staying with The Wizard of Oz analogies, rather than looking for the magic wand, maybe we should check to see if we might just be wearing the ruby slippers :)

  • Pamela

    Perhaps we just need to commit to reminding ourselves/each other, every now and then, that we already have the brains, the heart and the courage to go along with the ruby slippers and magic wand :-)…fairy dust, fairy dust, fairy dust… [mixed metaphors allowed]

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      :)

  • Nathan Reed Monell

    Fearlessness, humor and joy – three qualities rarely seen as desired attributes for CEO leadership but they sure are valuable commodities. “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.” Susan B. Anthony However, my experience is that the nonprofit world rewards caution more than experimentation. We listen more to why something cannot be done (applying the brakes) than what would propel us into the future, risk and experimentation (the gas.) Imagine letting legal grow a company instead of product development!

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Nathan. So right you are. Boards (and sometimes EDs) tend to be risk averse, cautious. The connection here is often $$. Trying something new might cost new money to be raised or failure may cost you donors ($$). As board members often shy away from fundraising (I’m being coy here), you can see why this tends to happen. It can also happen if there are too many lawyers on your board and / or if your organization is run by a lawyer. This supports an argument for diversity of skills and experience on your board — a few PR folks or entrepreneurs can change the dynamics of board conversations mighty fast. Thanks again for writing.

  • Colleen Elersich Keehan

    I want Ellen as my ED! I am an administrator in a non-profit; our ED does have these attributes…but I can tell sometimes, the workload is wearing on her. (And the admin staff!)

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Colleen. Well first off, Happy Belated St. Pats Day! And lucky you that your ED has Ellen-like attributes. It’s not common enough. Hope you shared this with your Ellen-like boss. ED’s don’t get enough positive feedback (see tomorrow’s post :). Cheers!

  • Kristin Smedley

    great article! I launched and manage a non-profit… with no formal “training” to do so :) I love that you point out the attributes, many of which I believe I have, that are essential for success of the non-profit. I tell everyone that I ask to help me, and I ask everyone for LOTS of things (LOL), that they need to join my mission because it’ll likely be the most fun they have ever had while making a HUGE impact :) Looking forward to reading more of your posts :)

  • CARLY

    What a great article. I have come back to it several times.

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