The Hardest Job YOU Ever Had

About a month ago, I wrote a blog post entitled The Hardest Job I Ever Had. I have to admit that I was unprepared for the outpouring of emails and phone calls from CEOs and EDs that followed. They told me how the article resonated with them, recounted the variety of activities they do on a daily basis, and talked about their feelings of isolation. They also offered great advice. So, this post is dedicated to sharing their words.

For some, the articulation of the difficulties of the position was emotional:

“Thank you for the article you shared (“The Hardest Job I Ever Had”). It was wonderful. I went back and forth from nodding my head to being in tears.”

“You almost made me cry.  To be sure this has been the toughest year of my professional life, and I know many others share the same sentiment.  It’s no wonder we’re seeing so much transition.  Many of us have just had enough, and we’re tired.  If we’re lucky, the work we do is enough to get us out of bed every morning.”

Others shared their experiences related to the ever-expanding scope of the role:

“I never recognized how many directions you get pulled into and how many people you have to keep happy at one time.”

“Switching from all the different tasks and being expected to be the most knowledgeable in the different subject areas is what is getting me right now. Trying to find mundane tasks to help my brain recoup after a site visit with a major donor, meeting with the third person setting up our database to teach them about our org and workflow for data needed to collect, dealing with a parking problem at the building, mediating volunteer arguments, and compiling a list for donor prospect outreach, all within a few hours.  But I still can’t think of anything else I would rather do.”

“I’ve done things as an ED I never imagined. I’ve been serving as a general contractor for our new space and this week I had to learn how to drive a forklift.”

One word kept popping up:

“[This job is] always juggling balls. You just have to know which are rubber and which are glass.”

“My job is spinning plates and juggling at the same time.”

“You did such a good job summarizing the numerous juggles that come with being the ED or CEO which are often not as visible to the outsider.  There was definitely no playbook for building an organization and a team, and leading virtually in a pandemic; however, I’m hopeful this is a once in a lifetime experience that future ED’s/CEO’s won’t encounter.”

In a group discussion Armstrong McGuire hosted on this topic, EDs/CEOs empathized with one another, sharing the difficulties they regularly encounter. One person said they often felt “like a dumpster for everybody,” with everyone (staff, board, client, donors, partners, etc.) venting to them. Others agreed it is hard to make time to think about strategy when you have to be doing so much at the same time. Many are frustrated by the lack of respect they receive in this role and the lower pay and poor benefits nonprofit employees are expected to accept. An overabundance of emails was cited as a huge time-suck, especially when senders demand an immediate response.

One person noted they “always struggle as an ED with the feeling that I am letting someone down personally or professionally.” Burnout, the group agreed, is very real and the reason many EDs choose to leave not only their role but the profession as a whole.

As EDs/CEOs are inclined to do – in spite of all the frustration, exhaustion, and self-doubt – those involved in the group discussion looked for solutions and offered support to one another. I’ve captured some of their advice below.

  • Set expectations related to schedule availability, email checking and response times, and interruptions. Use the tools available to you (such as Outlook’s Automatic Replies and Schedule Send functions) to further reinforce these boundaries.
  • Make the time and find the space to think about the big picture. This may take the form of a midday walk, working in a different space, or paddle boarding on a lake. Protect this time, keeping it sacred and free of day-to-day details.
  • Recognize your limits. Avoid (for you and your staff) the inappropriate celebration of overwork, as discussed by Brene Brown. Pacing is important. One ED shared that they “focus on what’s in front of me that I can change.” Another referenced jazz vocalist Nneena Freelon’s comment that “NO is a love word.”
  • Clarify and enforce the board’s role as one of governance. Board interaction is vital to the ED’s job, but it consumes a lot of time. Schedule regular conversations with your board chair, implementing a “heads-up” agenda so you both know in advance the topics to be covered during your time together. Take an active role in vetting future board members and officer candidates to ensure they fully understand the organization’s needs and their role in meeting them.
  • Identify what fills your bucket and actively pursue it. Burnout, shared a mental health professional, is not caused by overwork but rather by not having your needs met. Learn to recognize the signs of burnout (see articles below), and do what you need to do to meet your own needs first.
  • Lean on others with similar experiences. Identify an accountability partner or group who “get it.” Seek out ED meet-ups or arrange get-togethers with other nonprofit leaders in your area. You are not alone!

Being an ED/nonprofit CEO is a hard job, so why do they do it? In my opinion, this comment pretty much sums it up:

“I’m so grateful for the joy that comes with this role as well that may not be as outwardly visible when the balls are in the air being juggled.  We have accomplished so much this last 1 ½ years which is what fuels my joy and keeps me motivated for sure.”

Articles on the topic of burnout (with special thanks to Garry Crites of NAMI NC):

Additional resources shared in the ED/CEO group discussion:

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