Hey Executive Director! Time to Get a Thicker Skin!

by Joan Garry

How can you avoid being whiny or defensive when you’re criticized regularly from all sides? Even by people on YOUR side?

“A 360 degree performance review? Really? Can’t you see what a great job I do? Don’t you see how busy I am?”

Before I dole out some tough love, let me start by saying that I sympathize. Truly.

Being an Executive Director is hard work. And it can be made much harder when you feel like nobody is supporting you.

I feel you. I’ve been there. When I led GLAAD, I fully expected the attacks from those who opposed LGBT equality. I imagined I would get hate mail (I did.) I even got hate voice mail after TV appearances. I’m not sure I really expected that. But my eyes were open when I took the job. I knew there would be those that would try to tear me down.

But you know what I didn’t expect? That my sharpest critics were sometimes those I was advocating for. People I didn’t know who saw me as a symbol and thought I was doing a poor job representing them. Colleagues in the community who felt I was too tough. That I wasn’t tough enough. Board members who publicly disagreed with my decisions. Angry and under-appreciated volunteers.

And I had it easy! I know another Executive Director who led a direct service nonprofit who was nearly eviscerated by the clients she worked so hard to serve.

Pretty hard not to take it all personally. But whining about it helps nobody. In fact, it could be your downfall.

So how do you, as a leader, develop a thicker skin?


“So you’re saying the knowledge I’m changing the world should be compensation enough? Seriously?”

Executive directors feel misunderstood and under-appreciated. Busy board members forget to say thank you. They ignore emails. Daily, they can make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t important to them. Until it is, and then every decision you’ve ever made is scrutinized and micromanaged.

It wears on you.

So now it’s time for the tough love. Being defensive is neither flattering nor productive. There’s a combination of arrogance and a dose of ‘victim’ that doesn’t play well with your constituents.

These are not ideal attributes for a leader. How can you view all this differently and behave like the leader you want to be?


“I know you paid $500 for the fundraiser and you’re having trouble hearing, but, well somebody has to sit near those swinging kitchen doors!”

Before I continue, you have to promise me you’ll check your ego at the door. You also have to pack away the following attitude. (At least until you finish reading.) “No one has a clue what I do,” or, “That board member has no idea how offensive his comment was!”

OK, attitude adjustment set? Here are three causes of fierce criticism. Perhaps you’ll have others.

1) Passion: People who care get fired up. And criticism + passion? Oy. This can lead to detonation. And if they have access to the big dog, they’ll find you and try to lay you lay flat. The cause is deeply meaningful to them too.

2) Lack of information: Maybe a client or volunteer or member or donor is being critical because she was in the dark about something. And while it’s possible (and perhaps even likely) that she was told in some email or something, it’s time to either suck it up and re-communicate or explore your communications mechanisms. Bombarding folks with email? Maybe you need a different strategy.

3) They are informed and they just think you made a bad call. “They” could be a group of clients, an executive committee or an event volunteer committee. Here’s the thing ED’s forget. These people don’t work for YOU. You work for THEM. You have the privilege of representing their interests publicly in order to advocate for change. Now this doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to change your mind. But it does mean a discussion so you can share the sides of the issue and what led you to your decision. It honors those who are upset, and it may lead to a change in decision (though if you’re good at your job, not likely.) Most importantly, your constituents will feel honored and heard. They’ll have a deeper understanding, at the least.


Would that CLIENT like to try to do this job for a week? I wish he would – then he would really appreciate how good I am!”

The knee jerk reaction of Executive Directors is that the criticism is about you. It’s usually not. Most of the time, it’s about the passion of your stakeholders, their efforts to do the best they can (often as volunteers) and their interest in sharing their expertise with the organization.

If you can leave your defensive self outside the door, the best thing you can do is to be curious. Tell me more about why you are upset? What is the bigger issue you think I am missing? Let’s make sure I understand. I make no promise to change my position but I can promise you will be heard.

Because I know I’ll learn something in this conversation that will make me a better, more thoughtful Executive Director who is deeply committed to working on behalf of all of the constituents of my organization and with my colleagues. Our organization cannot be successful unless I engage our stakeholders and see the criticism for exactly what it is.

Deep and abiding passion for our mission.


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NEXT: 5 Reasons Executive Director Jobs Feel So Hard

3 thoughts on “Hey Executive Director! Time to Get a Thicker Skin!”

  1. 3) They are informed and they just think you made a bad call.
    What if this is a board chair that feels this way? And they tell you, you should of made the call differently. Doesn’t that count as being in the weeds? What happened to big picture and strategy and ED is the execution.
    Also, 2) Lack of information
    I email my board once a week, and usually the chairs more frequently (by request), but sometimes things don’t get shared immediately and my chair freaks out that I am not telling them everything. What is the balance? It’s a micromanaging chair nightmare (she’s been chair for years/since founding) in my opinion.

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