Assessing an Executive Director Role: What to Know Before You Take the Job
Updated: Feb 1
For many of us, springtime is a fresh opportunity to make positive changes and achieve new goals, both personally and professionally. Whatever your aspirations may be, turning them into reality requires thoughtful preparation.
This is especially true if your goal is to transition into leadership, such as an executive director role for a nonprofit organization. I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating: nearly half of all leadership transitions fail. However, there are steps you can take to ensure success, both for you, the aspiring executive director and for the nonprofit seeking their next high-performing leader.
This blog is the first in a three-part series that explains, step-by-step, how you can set yourself up for leadership success. The series will showcase proven strategies for:
Assessing an Executive Director Role
Preparing for an Executive Director Role
Starting an Executive Director Role
Today, I’ll outline what you should consider before the interview process when assessing an executive director role. Then, I’ll reveal some key questions to ask during the interview process to position yourself for success.
What You Should Know Before the Interview
One: What Does the Role Entail?
First and foremost, make sure you have a solid understanding of what an executive director’s role is and what a successful executive director looks like. While the mission and programming might draw you in, the real work of a nonprofit leader focuses on fundraising, financial administration, staff management, networking, and decision making. Often inexperienced leaders are surprised by the isolation, lack of support and overwhelming demands of the role. Talk to current executive directors and your mentors about what it will take to succeed before you jump into the interview process.
Two: What Are Your Strengths and Opportunities for Growth?
Have an honest conversation with yourself and know what skills you have that make you an excellent fit for an executive director position. Think of how you have changed over the last five to ten years. You have likely faced distinct challenges and opportunities that have shaped you into the person you are today.
Be ready to share actual stories about how you’ve grown or obstacles you’ve overcome in relation to the areas of work that executive directors focus on. This will prove you’re ready to handle the challenges and opportunities that come with the role.
Additionally, when pursuing an executive director role, both you and the nonprofit’s board will need to have true clarity on what needs to be done and whether or not you are the right person for the job. Be honest about which skills you are weaker in and your willingness and path to improvement. The good news is almost anything is trainable. As Seth Godin, founder of altMBA says, “Talent is something we’re born with. It’s hardwired into us. Skill, on the other hand, can be learned.”
Three: What Is the Organization Really Like?
It goes without saying that you should understand as much as you can about the nonprofit's programming, strategic goals and current needs before you begin the interview process. Additionally, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about the key pieces of the organization you will be most responsible for, such as its:
Fundraising Model - Learn how the organization approaches fundraising to get a sense of how your experience aligns and would make a positive impact, as well as where you might need support.
Financial Status - Review the nonprofit’s financial status to determine its current financial health and better understand its priorities and challenges.
Community Reputation - Ask your network and other community members about the reputation of both the organization and its current leadership to understand the culture and assess any red flags that emerge.
Decision Makers - Research backgrounds of key players in the organization to gain insights into the organization’s governance structure and who influences decision making.
Four: Why Do You Want the Job?
Before embarking on the interview process, take time for some serious self reflection and ask yourself why you really want this job. When you understand this, you can more effectively show why you’re a good fit for the role during the interview process while also sidestepping any misconceptions you might uncover about your intentions.
Common Reason for Pursuing Leadership Roles
Below are some common reasons for pursuing an executive director role and what to consider as you think through why you’re taking this step in your career.
It's a Step Up On Your Resume
While stepping into a higher level of leadership as an executive director is a worthwhile goal as you build your resume, recognize that the role comes with a lot of hard work and responsibility. Traditionally, the prestige, salary and benefits are traditionally lower than other industries and often don’t match the work nonprofit leaders put into the role.
As with any business, senior executives must be ready to lead with conviction, inspire employees with their vision and solve the big-picture challenges their organization faces. You should be ready to jump into strategic planning, fundraising, management and governance. Make sure you’re ready to learn quickly and shoulder responsibility for your staff, community and funders.
“Even though it's a non-profit, it's a business.”
- Storied Awareness Interviewee
You are Committed to a Cause
Many people are drawn to the role of executive director because they are passionate about the program’s cause. While it is expected you will be dedicated to the organization’s mission, the day-to-day work of problem solving, relationship building and fundraising is arguably more relevant. Remember to consider what will continue inspiring you beyond the program and clients.
“You can go peek at the program and that can make you smile and make your heart happy, but the work that you are really responsible for is the fundraising and the day-to-day operations of the organization.”
- Storied Awareness Interviewee
You Want to Improve Your Leadership Skills
Becoming an executive director is an incredible opportunity to improve your leadership skills. You’ll be responsible for establishing objectives for the organization, assessing challenges and opportunities, and determining how to make things better for your clients, staff and volunteers. Naturally, you should be ready to provide direction, and inspire, lead and motivate a team.
As you think about taking on an executive director role, consider it a chance to cultivate and hone in on your leadership style. What type of leader do you want to be and who is your leadership role model? Are you a leader that values a collaborative work culture and open communication? Or is your leadership style more visionary, where you map the way for employees and set expectations for how to achieve the organization’s goals?
“When you're an executive director, you are doing so much different stuff. Being grounded in what's important to you, what you believe and what's the endgame - being centered in your leadership - is most important. Because the challenge is that the job changes.”
- Storied Awareness Interviewee
You Have an Entrepreneurial Itch
Many nonprofits, especially smaller ones, are very entrepreneurial organizations that attract leaders who want to influence change and impact their community. As a leader of a nonprofit who can see the bigger picture, the opportunities and potential are endless. While having a vision is critical, as the leader you’ll also need to know how to execute on ideas and empower staff to do the same. Beyond the big ideas, ask yourself if you are ready to get things done and take action in the face of uncertainty.
And Three Reasons Not to Take the Job
There are also reasons for not taking on the job of executive director. If any of these are the main drivers for your next role, you may want to take a step back and reconsider your motivation.
You want to be onstage at the gala or events.
Although the events and galas can be exciting, they are not the foundation of your job as an executive director. What is more important is your ability to accomplish both concrete and intangible goals, such as sharpening the organization’s operations, establishing and maintaining budgets, and strengthening relationships within the community.
You want to work with the clients.
As stated above, working with the clients should not be the sole reason you’re pursuing an executive director role. Given the demands and requirements of the role, if this is your main purpose in pursuing the executive director role, you will not be fulfilled.
You want to be perceived as successful.
Some are drawn to the top role at a nonprofit because they want to be recognized by their peers and community as a success. While this aspiration may drive you in the short term, it is an intangible goal that you don’t have control over. If perceived success is your main motivation, I’d encourage you to define more clearly what this means to you and the organization so that you have clear benchmarks and aren’t chasing an unattainable goal.
Accept the Current State
Ultimately, before you step into an interview you should understand and accept the reality of where you are in your professional journey and the current state of the organization. Holding a clear view of the strengths you bring to the table and what the organization needs in its next leader will allow you to go into the role with your eyes wide open and ready to succeed. An easy way to get a snapshot of this is by writing down your strengths, areas to get support, where you plan to upskill and blind spots to be mindful of. This will also help you track your professional growth over time.
Seven Areas to Explore During the Interview
If you’ve decided an executive director role is right for you and you’ve secured an interview, congratulations! Now it’s time to dig in and learn more about the nonprofit, as well as demonstrate why you’re right for the job. Keep in mind, you are interviewing the nonprofit board as much as they are interviewing you. Here are seven areas to explore during the interview process:
“There is no perfect situation. There's no greener grass. There's some land mines somewhere. You just have to figure out what it is with that particular gig and can you live with that? I think homework on any job is the best thing you can do.”
- Storied Awareness Interviewee
1. Board Relations: Can you interview and/or meet all board members? When you do, ask questions that will help you identify positive and negative working structures. For example, how can you best support the board members and their initiatives? Can they share a time when the previous executive director leveraged the board well? How about when they didn’t?
2. Leadership History: How does the board describe the challenges and successes your predecessor faced? What did the former executive director do really well and where did they struggle? Even the most self-aware boards are hiring in response to the challenges and strengths of the former executive director, so this area of exploration will give you a good sense of the board’s expectations.
3. Finances and Fundraising: Are you able to assess the financial health of the organization and what fundraising success looks like? Are you confident that the board has an intimate knowledge of the financial status of the organization? Do they seem involved and knowledgeable about fundraising? Can they speak to you about their successes, challenges and aspirations in these areas?
4. Diversity and Inclusion: What kind of support will you receive to foster an inclusive and diverse work environment? See this blog post for more questions to consider asking during your interview.
5. Organizational Needs: Has the board taken an opportunity to do an organizational assessment during this transition so they understand what the best leader looks like at this point in the organization’s history? No one candidate has all the skills needed to succeed in the role and no organization is perfect on the inside. This can help avoid blindspots and ensure you’re clear on the most pressing challenges and resources needed to overcome them.
6. The Team: What can you learn about the team you’d be working with? Why did they join the organization and how do they see their roles interacting with the executive director?
7. Personal Fit: Be confident, polished and authentic! Are you comfortable letting your personality shine through during your interview? Do you feel the board members and staff are authentic and comfortable in their roles? It’s impossible to know whether you, your potential team and board members will enjoy working together, unless you can be yourself during the interview process.
Do you have any additional tips or thoughts? I’d love to hear what you have experienced. In the meantime, stay tuned for next month’s blog post, where I’ll share how you can prepare yourself for the executive director role once you’ve gotten the job.
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