It’s 8:50am on a sunny Wednesday in April as the participants in the Executive Director Exchange begin to arrive for the first of four half day sessions. They straggle in bearing coffee cups, notebooks and a boat load of expectations, questions and uncertainties. These Executive Directors of small to medium non-profit organizations are looking for support that will ease leadership challenges in their organizations.

My role as facilitator is to provide some content on key organizational issues and to provide a safe place where these ED’s can get their concerns on the table, discuss them with their peers and formulate some solutions for their day to day dilemmas as managers. The four sessions are loosely organized around leadership, board governance, human resources, risk and time management, succession planning and ED self-care.

Purple ChairsWe begin each session with a check-in. How has your week been? What have been your biggest challenges? Your greatest joys? What do you need to discuss this week? This is where we hear the timid admissions of being overwhelmed or unsure. Or where we hear questions like, “Have you ever had this happen?” or “What can I do to manage this?” Sometimes there are tears or celebrations. This is where the agenda becomes quickly reorganized to accommodate the needs of the participants and to give them the necessary time to hear from one another about what has worked for them and in some cases, about what hasn’t.

The role of Executive Director in a non-profit organization can be a lonely one. Plenty of EDs have been promoted from a subordinate position in their organization and now manage former peers. Others have little or no experience in dealing with a board of directors as opposed to a single boss. Still others find the sheer volume of work and expectations visited on their role staggering and in some cases, unmanageable. Many struggle with finding a life-work balance that will allow them to feel that they are successful in their work while still being the kind of parent or partner or community member they desire to be.

Many of these EDs find that there are few supports in place for them: no human resources department; no finance director; no fundraiser; and little if any administrative support. Perhaps most importantly, there is often no mentorship, training or orientation for their position.

Although most don’t know it yet, the EDs are looking to establish a network of support for themselves, a connection or two that can sustain them when they need to just chat with someone who ‘gets it’. As the sessions progress, participants start to have individual conversations at breaks or after the session, discussing details about something mentioned during the session. Telephone numbers and email addresses are exchanged. Printed resources or helpful websites are shared. Invitations to visit one another’s sites are extended and accepted. Connections that will enhance their work and their lives at work are made.

The best connections are those that the participants forge among themselves without the intervention of the facilitator. In one group, a number of the women who attended agreed to meet every six weeks for a brown bag lunch session. That was three years ago and the group still meets, occasionally inviting a subject matter expert to join them, but most often just getting together to re-connect and enjoy the pleasures of a support network. Their group has expanded beyond the original participants, thereby providing support and mentorship to a whole new batch of EDs. Other session participants have stayed in touch through email and by phone, connecting when they need support or have an idea or resource to share.

Connections matter for non-profit executive directors because they are a means of accessing support in a sector where funding for core training and orientation costs are almost non-existent. Every leader needs support to be the best that they can be and the value of fostering connections for leaders is invaluable. If your organization has a number of emerging leaders, you might consider establishing a learning leaders group where fledgling managers meet regularly to share their experiences, perhaps with a mentor or facilitator. Or, if your smaller organization is grooming a new leader, you could allow the use of a few paid hours a month for your employee to search out connections of their own through volunteering or participation in a service or networking group.

However it happens, making room for intentional connection building is worth the effort – your organization will reap the benefits of professional growth and increased community awareness.

Looking for connections for yourself or an ED you know? Visit Executive Director Exchange.