How to Be an Executive Director

I wrote this up a few weeks ago as part of the Ruckus Society transition and thought it might be useful to publish it here. Enjoy:

How to Be an Executive Director (from someone who never wanted the job):

1. Get a coach and/or a learning environment where you will be able to vent about how impossible things are (either a leadership development program like Rockwood or Social Justice Leadership, or start/join a Women’s ED circle, or EDs of color, etc).

2. Be able to articulate what you are bringing to the table, and your limitations. Because it is an impossible job, there will be parts you don’t do well. The cost/benefit analysis is important – are you helping or a hindrance to the organization?

3. Join a board or two where you will be forced to have interactions with people of means and influence (be clear that your primary fundraising obligation is to your organization, so you will help in other ways).

4. Identify a few of your funders who you can/do have authentic relationship with and get them in your corner. They will keep you supported and sane through the lean times, and give you honest feedback on what is and isn’t working.

5. Cherish and stay in touch with your community outside of your work to keep you grounded politically and socially – this will help you stay in touch with the true impact of your work. I have a circle of friends to whom I explain things that Ruckus is doing. The reactions they have – laughing, confusion, or dropping their jaws in awe – that helps me gauge our impact in the civilian world.

6. Write every single day – force yourself to get comfortable being a public voice on your own terms, not just in other people’s interviews. I (obviously) recommend having a blog.

7. When doing media, know your do-or-die talking points (Ruckus is a network, directly impacted people are our priority, we cultivate leadership from communities, direct action is relevant when used strategically – these have been mine through the past 5 years). There’s nothing wrong with asking print media to email you questions, and writing your responses, to increase clarity.

8. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your predecessor(s). Don’t try to fill their shoes, you are walking your own path. However, absolutely put them to work to earn any ongoing adulation folks have for them – instead of resenting them or putting them on a pedestal of awesome you can never attain, see that person’s humanity and make it work for the good of the organization.

9. Be compassionate with yourself – you are totally going to fuck up big things.

10. Be hardest on yourself – as long as you sit in that role, you are responsible for the survival and well being of the organization.

11. Automate organizational development. Build in set times throughout the week, month and year for accountability and awkward, in-depth conversation. Otherwise this slips to the wayside and resentment and/or unintentional practices become the norm.

12. Never do anything to indicate that your role is more important than anyone else’s in the organization – you have the responsibility to hire, fire and manage, someone else has the responsibility to make the program happen, someone else drafts budgets, etc. All that work is equally valuable and should take nearly equivalent time. Never have an assistant unless everyone else does. (This is aspirational but where else are we going to learn new ways of holding power?)

13. Actually do exercises with your team to practice media talking points, speeches, elevator pitches. Ask other organizations who do well to coach you. Never be above learning to do better for the sake of the communities you serve.

14. Don’t get too caught up in the games of people with more financial resources than you. Let them drink, let them smoke weed, let them get naked in the hot tub; do only what you feel comfortable doing (which may be all of those things, or none). Don’t lose your composure – as long as they give only a portion of their resources, you are not in authentic community with them, you are in a power dynamic and you need to be fully aware of your choices and their actions. (***Many of them are amazing, wonderful, compassionate people trying to do well…and some will take advantage of your need, especially of women, POC directors)

15. Don’t cultivate a spirit of gossip in your organization, about people or other organizations. It’s toxic, and translates into a long list of reasons to hate people, rather than growing solidarity and an evolving community and movement – which should be our constant goal.

16. I learned this by doing it the wrong way several times…if you think someone isn’t a fit for the organization, a) give them really clear feedback, b) give them a period to improve, (and if it isn’t working), c) let them go swiftly and with loving kindness so they can move on to a place where they fit and you can focus on meeting the needs of the organization.

17. Do excellent work. Have high standards around the integrity and impact of the actual work – spend more time doing great work than you do writing grant proposals and talking about the kind of great work you could do.

18. Hire people who you think are more brilliant and capable of you, and then actively develop them as leaders and give them opportunities to grow. You should have a few options of leaders who could move up internally into holding the Executive Director duties, and they should know you believe in them and be a part of shaping the way the organization acts and feels.

19. Make sure the other members of your team (note: seeing yourself as part of a team instead of the shepherd or bright shining hope will always help) get the attention and praise they deserve for the work they do, publicly and privately.

20. Have fun. You are still a miraculous being so every moment of the time should feel vibrant, educational, not like you are biding time or wasting your life force. You are so fortunate and radical to get paid to spend time bringing justice into the world. Enjoy it!

I’m sure there’s more, but those are the things that stand out at this moment.

It’s been a huge honor to learn all of this. Thank you Ruckus.

10 Responses to “How to Be an Executive Director”


  1. 1 Shalini Eddens

    Phenomenal words of wisdom right on TIME!–I’m printing this out and putting it on my altar! Thank you Adrienne.

  2. 2 Nikke Alex

    Thanks for these words. I am a new ED, and most times I feel so lost.

  3. 3 mei-ying williams

    This is a good look, Adrienne! :) Great job in the work and extra thanks for documenting a solid practice!

    I hope to see you again soon enough,
    mw

  4. 4 Gideon Rosenblatt

    Really good advice, Adrienne. As someone who just stepped down as an ED, what you’re saying here resonates as very real and true.

  5. 5 Anonymous

    This list requires ED’s to hold themselves accountable. But, unfortunately, it’s a very rare type of ED that do that. What do you do with an ED that ISN’T doing any of these things a good ED should be doing? When they’re lacking knowledge in certain areas but think they know what they’re doing? Add a Board that doesn’t pay attention and doesn’t hold the ED accountable and it’s the staff of the non-profit that suffers. Unfortunately, it’s a story oft found in many non-profits.

  6. 6 Tracy

    Adrienne, as always, you speak the truth! I appreciate your words of wisdom as I begin to transitioning into an ED role. I will be calling on you to be apart of my sister circle (smile). Hope to see you around Detroit.

    Best,

    Tracy

  7. 7 Marianne Manilov

    These feel right, Adrienne. As always, you are a great writer, thinker and movement builder. I might disagree about the assistant part, but I like the aspiration. The only addition was one that Taj James gave me which was something like this: Make sure staff growth is towards where the organization needs to grow rather than the organization growing towards where the staff wants to go.

    See you soon. Love M

  8. 8 Stephen Legault

    Adrienne – great words of wisdom for all leaders. I hope you don’t mind, but when i update my book Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership I might be in touch to incorporate some of these wonderful ideas. Thank you. I wished I had read this in 1999 when i became an ED….it would have helped.

    Steph

  9. 9 Jayme Montgomery Baker

    Hello Beautiful,

    Thank you. Man, these tips were so helpful. Some of your tips, I have found out the hard and painful way. I really liked the first tip, which I have not done but have been thinking about more and more. I also appreciated the be in the community outside of work. Since starting my family, my life has just been family and work. Which I don’t mind at all, but I’m just beginning to see the “negative” impact from that. Finally, I liked the don’t be too hard, but hold yourself to a high standard. It is a delicate but necessary balance.

    I could say so much. It felt like you were talking about the art of being an ED. And addressed things that often isn’t taught or brought up when discussing how we should conduct ourselves. I’m going to stop now. But know that this really blessed me. Thank you for all your love and hard work.

    peace

    jayme

  10. 10 Sharda Sekaran

    Very powerful and insightful stuff, Adrienne. I’m looking forward to hearing about what you do next. Hugs.

Leave a Reply