My Biggest Professional Mistake

by Joan Garry

A great leader recognizes even good intentions can have harmful consequences. Learn the 5 Practices of Outstanding Nonprofit Leaders for free.

I want to share with you an unflattering personal story about how a certain, very common management style (mine) nearly resulted in the death of a dear friend and colleague.

No exaggeration (ok, maybe just a tiny bit).

I hope by sharing my story you can avoid making this mistake at your nonprofit.

During my eight years as a nonprofit CEO, my staff worked hard. That’s what I expected. I tried to make hires that were ‘best of breed.’ They overflowed with drive and ambition to move the American public from tolerance to acceptance of LGBT people.

I was driven and so were they. Every decision felt important. Hitting our revenue numbers was critical because, as our Development Director Julie always said,  “money = programs.”

I knew Julie had been to the doctor a few times but she downplayed it. She was always healthy as an ox. Ran 423 miles a day (I exaggerate… but only slightly). Truthfully, I don’t remember asking many questions. Too busy making “very important decisions” about the LGBT community’s future.

And it was just before a board meeting. As senior staff at any nonprofit will tell you this is simply a crazy time. Or it can be. I made sure it was. We prepped, we rehearsed, we were ready.

We traveled from different locations to Chicago. Julie walked into the meeting and informed me that she had a new accoutrement to her wardrobe.

A heart monitor.

Here come the “should haves.” I should have told her to turn around and go home. She looked absolutely horrible. She was ON A FRIGGIN’ HEART MONITOR!

But I didn’t.

What the hell was I thinking?


I spent fifteen years in corporate America. The culture of nonprofit is exhilarating and demanding in a way that’s just different. In corporate America there were small decisions, medium ones and then really mission critical ones. There were days when honestly, you just weren’t ridiculously busy. And if you made a mistake, it wasn’t typically of the life or death variety.

But in nonprofits, everything feels important. And it IS important.

What if that client doesn’t get in front of the judge? She could be homeless. What if the suicide hotline is not sufficiently staffed? On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being “the most important decision you need to make,” all decisions feel like 10.

In the early days, I simply did not have the ability to adjust and prioritize. When you’re in the business of saving lives, changing the world or both, that’s just how it feels. All the time.

That’s certainly how it felt to me. I assumed that this is how it felt to my staff. And therefore, I was relentless.


OK, maybe not all my fault. But I’ll save that for next week’s post.

But the boss sets the tone. When everything is a five-alarm blaze, my staff was unable to distinguish between the real emergencies and the thing that really could wait until next week.

Think for a minute about who is drawn to CEO positions. The typical profile: Type A, altruistic, impatient, driven and sometimes relentless.

That was me. And this profile can be toxic when it comes to managing staff and setting priorities.


Well, first, the obvious. I could have told her to go home. Better, I could have been aware of Julie’s health issues and insisted she not come in the first place.

But, beyond that…

  • Consider yoga.  I am only half kidding. My staff could always tell if I had taken time to go to the gym before work. And when I hadn’t. My mood was defined among staff by Starbuck drink size. “How’s Joan today” they would say to a colleague before their weekly meeting? “Buckle up, she’s a Venti today.” I needed to find a way to release the tension of a job that is so stressful. Long after leaving GLAAD, I took up racquetball. About seven years too late.
  • Prioritize for my staff.  Not everything is a 10. Can’t be. I should have taken the time to help my staff understand what can wait and what can’t. And I had to work hard to believe that some things can wait. Because I’m here to tell you that if you yourself think most things are a 10, it’s only moments before you are online ordering your own heart monitor. Or burning out. And people who burn out are unhappy and more importantly UNPRODUCTIVE. Your mission and your clients deserve that.
  • Take Vacations – each and every day you are entitled to.  Take at least two weeks consecutively. Your assistant should read your email, farm it out to the right people and connect with you on the top 10 items. If it will make you even crazier to be totally out of pocket, have your assistant connect every other day. Consider longer.
  • Talk about this issue with your staff.  Don’t just go around assuming that everyone is burnt out and there is nothing to be done about it. Assuming you even realize it. I should have taken time for an all-staff forum to generate ideas to reduce burnout. Make some commitments. Identify someone in the group to keep track of the commitments. A month later, revisit. Making any headway? If you don’t talk about it, nothing will be done about it.
  • Appreciate your staff.   Figure out a way to do this on some regular basis.  Not just a cubicle drive-by with a ‘good job.’ Be creative. I needed to send a message that it’s critical to take a break, have a laugh and dish about the most recent post on Perez Hilton (who worked for me at GLAAD but that is a post for another day).

I am so thankful that Julie was OK. More than OK – she was a full participant in the meeting and did a great job. But she never should have been there. She looked absolutely horrible and I’m sure the Board thought I was stark raving mad for having her there.

Julie and I laugh about this today. She’s now a clinical psychologist and presumably helps people avoid crazy things like getting too caught up in their jobs. As somebody who learned this lesson from personal experience, I use my role as a nonprofit consultant to coach people with this same message.

Of course, Julie knows that she too had a role to play in this. I asked her if she would guest blog and tell the story from her perspective. I am no longer her boss. She makes her own decisions.

She said yes.

Next: Julie’s side of the story.

24 thoughts on “My Biggest Professional Mistake”

  1. Not only is this one of the best blog posts I have ever read, but only a real leader can admit when they could have done something better. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Having worked for both Joan and Julie, I can’t WAIT for Julie’s post! I think it’s a question nonprofits need to ask as they negotiate the impacts that the Great Recession has had on clients and fundraising (and therefore on staff). We have to make sure not to accept burnout as the new standard operating procedure… for the good of our clients and fundraising! I’m lucky that my boss pays attention to these issues — but I see colleagues in the field moving (or seriously considering a move) to other sectors, representing a real brain drain. Thanks for taking the issue on so candidly, Joan. How would you suggest that boards take this on? Should they make their EDs/CEOs take their vacas?

  3. thanks for the kind words. it feels really important to talk about this candidly and with an eye toward real life ramifications. rather than just simply accepting the pace of nonprofits as they are. and at least part of what blogs should do is to share the lessons you learned. i learned a big one. let’s see if julie learned one too. stay tuned for next week’s guest post from julie.

  4. well, i can’t wait for julie’s response either! you raise a good point jens. board chairs must keep on the mental health of the E.D. and ensure that s/he is taking care of her/himself. because if the E.D. is on fire, it’s a sure bet that staff members are too.

  5. Phenomenal story. Thanks for sharing it. I wholeheartedly agree that too many nonprofit fires are self-imposed! Happy to read that Julie was indeed okay.

  6. i just left a meeting with julie about some new consulting business and she is as healthy as i’ve ever seen her!!!!!

  7. Joan- Great post. Work-life balance sounds so fluffy, but it’s so critically important at a nonprofit! I’ve learned this the hard way. Thanks so much for posting this!

  8. Beth. Thanks so much for sharing my work with your tribe. Speaking of sharing, I use your book The Networked Nonprofit every semester here at the Annenberg School where I teach Nonprofit Communications. Would love a real time convo if you are ever game.

  9. Executive Directors are driven, that is true, but let’s not forget the constant push coming from funders to do more, more, more. I sometimes wonder if we don’t sabotage ourselves by continuously becoming better, more efficient and leaner. We are always striving toward our own breaking point and spreading ourselves thinner and thinner. What outcome do we expect under these circumstances long term?

  10. I have a fed/state grant that costs me more to run that we get paid, the gov’t saying they pay for programs, not for infrastructure. OK, but if you want me to report in X software, I need a computer and internet. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s not good for us, and not necessarily good for our clients. We are all too good at doing good, and for no payment. In public health, in non-profits, in anything and all that means good work “for’ the people, we need to paid like the professionals we are. And recognized. And not pushed to the point of breaking just to prove we can do it.

  11. I love this post. I’ve made it a point to discuss ‘self-care’ with my very driven staff, working with difficult clients daily. I just gave them all silly, old school valentines, and will do the same for St. Patty’s – green jello, anyone? It’s easy, fun, and makes people smile and breathe for a minute – that means a lot.

  12. As an ED in full blown burnout I am still floundering. Every night I read more articles about what to do to fix it.
    If I read one more go for a walk, do yoga or take a vacation I really will go completely off the deep in! Its fundraising season and I have worked 16 consecutive days with no end in sight.

  13. The US is the only country where you can pay your professional staff shit, give them an extremely generous 2 weeks vacation, and work them into the ground. And then, we do just that. And then, we have an epiphany when a staff member gets seriously ill. And then we sell what should be completely obvious to anyone with a brain and a heart as consulting advice. Nice.

  14. Lisa. Sometimes it does take an epiphany to realize that your behavior needs to change. This has happened in my personal as well as my professional life. I learned a lesson and shared it with (not sold it to) my readers so that they may benefit from my own screw up. That was the spirit in which my post was intended.

  15. Great post! A few things that work well with my staff are:
    1. Flexible Hours & Comp Time- We’re in the symphony business, so there are a lot of long hours with rehearsals and performances in the evening. I give staff the option to either come in late the day after a rehearsal or to take a few hours of “comp time” within the month.
    2. Cell Phone & Email Policy- With the exception of performance weeks, I have a no cell phone calls, texts or emails after 5:30pm during the week and never on the weekends unless it’s a dire emergency kind of philosophy. Fortunately, there are very few emergencies in the classical music business! Normal office hours is usually ample time to get most things done.
    3. Bitch Sessions Encouraged- If I’ve been especially pushy on a project that goes especially well (presumably because I was pushy), I will encourage my staff to go out and celebrate their success. I will give my assistant $100 (my own cash, not the organization’s) to buy a round of drinks or appetizers for the group from me. Unless I am invited to join them, I stay away so they can speak freely and kvetch. Most of the time, I am invited to attend. There have been a few times when I haven’t been, though!

  16. These are all great ideas. I must say I wish my ED more than anything would recognize that not everything is a 10 and that we need to be able to have some down time. Currently, I’m trying to balance my EDs use of email, an interoffice messaging app and texting at all hours of the day. I don’t always answer, but with no written policy about when we do and don’t need to answer, it’s very common to get a lecture about not answering urgent messages even on days off and urgent is defined to very non-life or death matters.

  17. Hey Lil’ King T. Thanks for this. Perhaps you have some colleagues? Can you band together and maybe talk about using staff meetings differently – including a topic instead of tasks. Maybe “managing work/life balance” could be a topic and you could make the conversation constructive by making suggestions and requests of one another? Or just send your ED this post and the post that followed by Julie who wore the heart monitor?

  18. What a great birthday present, Joan! Thanks a million for your thought-provoking pointers and personal anecdote. When I was first pulled from the stage into “The Board Room” (40 years ago), I, too, “just accepted the pace of nonprofits as they were”, and chocked it up to my own learning curve as a NEW CEO/Arts Administrator”!?!
    After 20 years of working on that level — with inexperienced Boards and staff looking to me for “direction” — I finally “burned out” and took a brief hiatus in “the corporate sector”. I learned that we do tend to, “sabotage ourselves by continuously becoming better, more efficient and leaner” — blaming lack of time, funds, and human resources. Happily, you, and other contemporary nonprofit gurus are providing essential tools & guidance in the art of nonprofit sustainability… and CALM!
    Humbly & gratefully yours! Shukran, Grazie, Merci beaucoup, To’dah raba, Gracias, Mahalo, Salamat, Danke Schoen…

Comments are closed.