5 Characteristics of great nonprofit Executive Directors

By on May 31, 2011 under Leadership

I recently read an article in the New York Times about “Distilling the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s,” and when I got done being annoyed about the apostrophe in the article’s title and the fact that the NYT wants to start charging me at a ludicrous rate to read its news, I started thinking about what parallels could be drawn to hiring nonprofit Executive Directors and C.E.O.s (note my correct punctuation of the plural), an activity I routinely help nonprofits with. (I’m clearly less opposed to ending sentences with prepositions–at least in something as casual as a blog.)

The article by Adam Bryant does a great job of presenting the five shared qualities of more than 70 C.E.O.s (that he discusses at greater length in his book):

  1. Passionate curiosity
  2. Battle-hardened confidence
  3. Team smarts
  4. A simple mind-set
  5. Fearlessness

This is a great list, but it’s different from the typical list of traits that I find nonprofit Boards are looking for in their top hires. Based upon my experience with our leadership transition management clients, I think a top 5 list in the nonprofit sector would look more like this:

  1. Visionary leadership
  2. Confident and natural communicator and connector
  3. Passion for our mission and compassion for our clients
  4. Proven fundraising skills and financial savvy
  5. Experience in a top management role

Are some of the ones on my list the same as the ones on Bryant’s list, just written in nonprofit-speak? Sure. Visionary leadership and fearlessness have a lot to do with perspective, attitude, intellectual curiosity. Experience in a top management role (whether ED or CEO) evolves through some hard battles that certainly build confidence.

And the way that Bryant describes the “simple mind-set” piece is actually quite in line with the nonprofit need for a confident and natural communicator. He makes the point that PowerPoint is powerless, and that good CEOs focus on ideas and efficient communication of those ideas. That’s what we’re looking for in the nonprofit sector, too, but the ability to connect through communication gets added to the nonprofit dialectic since so much that gets done in this sector relies upon involving people who donate their time, funds, in-kind services, and other resources.

However, I don’t think that we’re just looking for a kinder, gentler leader. I believe that the nonprofit sector does demand a different kind of leader. One that can manage two bottom lines: the financial bottom line and meeting the organization’s mission. One that must leverage others’ interest, compassion, and wallets to be successful, since bootstraps and great business skills aren’t enough to sustain a mission and vision for the long haul. And one that feels a personal connection to the mission and those touched by it in a way that eclipses enthusiasm for a particular widget or iWidget, since ultimately this is much more than business.

For some reason, I’m reminded of Ann Richard’s famous line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire could do, only backwards and in heels.  Maybe there’s something about the inherent under-resourcing of the nonprofit sector and the constraints of the nonprofit model that makes us need leaders with even more flexibility and gumption – kind of like the ability to do everything for-profit CEOs do, but with a different degree of finesse and flair.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Geri Stengel

    You’ve done a very astute analysis comparing characteristics for EDs and CEOs (to use yet simpler punctuation). I’d add two more prominent requirements: patience and flexibility. Importantly, once you fill that position, the process of making the transition to a new leader calls for a special set of abilities, some overlapping with these and others that are special to the circumstance of leadership change.

  • Tara Levy

    Thanks, Geri. Yes, patience and flexibility are two big ones! Change management is a recurring task for new and tenured EDs, and I love the article you shared.

  • Bernie Sadowski

    I liked this article.

    My non-profit is seeking a new CEO and we are writing up the job requirements.

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