Principles for Executive Directors

Posted by Stephen Lemire on November 3, 2011 at 10:50 AM
Nonprofit executive directors have access to vast amounts of peer support groups and on-line resources where they can ask questions of colleagues and share best practices. However, they operate without a peer within their organization. The following principles may serve as guidelines to help navigate through those times when you feel like you are sailing alone.

1) Respond to all e-mails, phone calls, requests, and questions promptly. You are the face of your organization. How others perceive your organization will be impacted by factors ranging from your professionalism to your interpersonal skills. Always send thank you notes!

2) Act socially; behave professionally. Both as the public representative of your organization and as its senior manager, you need to be approachable. However, keep in mind the appropriate role that you must play in each situation.

3) Be guided by, and update regularly, your strategic plan. You need to continually work with your board and your staff to continue to meet the goals and objectives of your strategic plan. The most effective plans are those which are dynamic, not static.

4) Encourage organizational growth and change. We have all heard the response, “because we've always done it that way.” Take that as a cue to ask “Why?” and “What else had been tried before?” In many cases there are better and more efficient ways to go about your business as your environment
changes. (See #3)

5) Accept no complaint unless it’s followed by a recommendation. An organization can quickly de-evolve into one with a negative environment. When, instead, staff and board members can feel increasingly valued for their input, suggestions, and contributions

6) Seek out methods of professional development. Keep learning. Do not fall victim to the potential isolationism which can quickly sap an executive director's enthusiasm. Sharing best practices with other executive directors, serving on external committees, taking interesting courses are all ways to maintain your energy and to continue to bring a fresh perspective to your many roles.

7) Create and foster external alliances. Working with other organizations in your field or different types of nonprofits helps you to bring new strategies back to your organization. It can also help to identify new partnerships around issues such as joint funding initiatives, group purchasing
efforts, and shared operations.

8) Ask for help when needed. You are not expected to have all the answers. However, you are expected to find the best answers. Seek help as needed from board members, staff, peers, consultants, etc.

9) Get excited; not impulsive. For each new idea that you have, you must weigh it on a continuum that ranges from deliberate to impulsive. Use your excitement to roll out the idea in a timely manner, but be sure that it is tempered by asking appropriate questions to ensure that this is the right idea at the right time.

10) Leave people laughing and smiling. As in #1 above, you are the face of your organization and you want your organization to be remembered by its various constituents. Making a pleasant, professional, and lasting impression is a sure way to do this.

Earlier version published in Massnonprofit.org, September 6, 2007.

Categories: Executive Directors, Management, Nonprofits

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Reply Brian Goff
10:43 AM on December 13, 2017 
Professor Lemire,

Great insight in this article, and a good depiction of habitual common denominators that contribute to a positive, and successful, work environment. All ten principles listed in this article have substance, and relevance, but what I love most about this article are the principles you listed that aren't always touched on, but should be. The best example of this is #10, "Leave people laughing and smiling." Any article on leadership in the workplace is going to list a lot of the same things, and it becomes repetitive in instruction, but very few times will you see something like this that outlines the importance of making sure people WANT to work for you. Happy employees enjoy their job, and it gives purpose and incentive to elevate efficiency within the organization, without any external pressure or influence in doing so. Wanting to work hard because you enjoy your job is a product of leadership setting the right tone and environment, and its a powerful principle that's often overlooked.

Great read, Professor Lemire.

Brian Goff
Reply Stephen Lemire
11:28 AM on December 14, 2017 
Thank you for the thoughtful feedback, Brian. Not only is it greatly appreciated, but it encourages me to continually re-commit to these principles which I hold most important.

- Stephen