Over the past few years, Peel Leadership Centre has had seasoned and new Executive Directors, and other sector leaders engaged in interviews and informal conversations so that we could learn more about their experiences in the nonprofit sector. We wanted to see some of the issues faced by folks in our sector from their perspective, gain new insights on what it’s like to be an ED today and how things have changed, and to generally gain new learnings and understandings about life as an ED or CEO.
There were a number of themes that emerged in these conversations as critical to healthy and effective leadership, and we’d like to explore two of them in this blog: the benefit to leaders in establishing learning and/or support networks and, the continued importance of self-care.
Learning networks can help us gain a deeper understanding about the work we’re doing by convening a group of colleagues to share our knowledge and experience in a supportive, collegial environment. Networks can also support our emotional wellbeing because when we see our own struggles mirrored in the daily experiences of other leaders, we may feel less alone.
Self-care gently nudges us to check-in with ourselves physically and emotionally, and to tend to the areas of ourselves that need care and attention. What that looks like is different for every person. The key is to know what we need, what works for us, and to do it regularly.
Though these are not new concepts (we all know how important it is to establish a group of supportive friends and colleagues and to take care of ourselves), we wanted to share these insights here and link them to leadership effectiveness and overall wellbeing.
One of the most critical strategies we can deploy when we step into an Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer role is to build our networks. “Network” can be interpreted in many different ways, and what we build is based on our needs and the way we want to work.
Some EDs suggest that this network could be a learning network; a formalized group of peers that gather regularly to share learnings, exchange pertinent nonprofit information, and impart knowledge. Other EDs suggest that this network could be a group of friendly EDs that share a similar perspective where we can offload some stress, have some laughs and find support for our most difficult decisions and actions. Of course a mix of the two would be great, too. And, still others suggest that this network need only be a mentor or two; people we can access regularly who are more experienced and can share advice, direction and wisdom in a way that will help us improve how we carryout our work, and relieve some of our stress.
Whatever the manifestation, the point is that as EDs, we can not do it all on our own. To be happy and successful, EDs agree that we need people around us who support us, cheer for us, and from whom we gain valuable insights and vital support. And, since many of us in the nonprofit sector tend to be inherent givers, we may also find another level of satisfaction and happiness in knowing that in these larger networks or groups, we’re also able to support our fellow EDs by sharing our own knowledge, advice and experience.
This is not to say that finding these networks and groups of supportive friends and colleagues is easy. Some EDs discussed the exclusivity they faced when trying to network at conferences, meetings, roundtables, or other group events. Established ‘ED circles’ can be difficult to penetrate when we’re the new kid on the block. It’s important that we identify people with whom we can build a positive relationship that will serve our needs and that will allow us to also contribute to the wellbeing of other leaders. And then, when we’re experienced EDs, it’s important to remember what it was like when we were new and make sure we’re always willing to pull another seat up to the table.
Networks allow us to take time away from the day-to-day work of our organizations and broaden our focus to look at larger, systems-level issues. They also allow us to turn inwardly and reflect on our experiences and identify where we need support, improvement and guidance, and from where we can pull support to offer others.
All of the conversations that we have with EDs regarding their experience as leaders inevitably return to self-care. They agree that self-care needs to a priority to not only thwart burnout, but for us to be at our best as leaders.
The nonprofit sector is a peculiar place when it comes to self-care; we are focussed on making life better for people, animals and places, and yet we so often neglect ourselves. We are accustomed to putting other things ahead of our own needs. Sometimes it’s clients, sometimes staff, and always The Mission.
And yet, we know it’s true: you can not serve from an empty vessel. The truth is, we have probably given this advice to others in our lives (clients, staff, family, etc.), but somehow, we don’t think it applies to us. Or, we think that there is too much at stake for us to take a break. However, the interviewed EDs agree that self-care is critical to our leadership. If we are not taking time to step back and look after ourselves, then our organizations will inevitably suffer.
As the organizational leader, we are the ones responsible for ensuring that the staff are happy and delivering, clients are served, the board is involved and updated, reports to funders are done, donor relationships are fostered… there is so much that lands in our laps! And if we want to continue to serve optimally then we have to make sure that WE are ok. More than ok. In order to serve and be at our best we must do everything we can to make sure we are well. Because it doesn’t just happen. We don’t wake up every day feeling fantastic and like we can take on the world without first doing some reflection and work on ourselves.
Figuring out how to practice self-care takes time, some trial and error, and reflection on how the world around us is impacting our emotional and physical wellbeing. Creating the time and space to send some love back to ourselves, however that may look, will help us be even better leaders.
We hope to share more of these insights from current and former EDs with you in the coming weeks, so stay tuned to our blog. If you have any comments or feedback, we’d love it hear it! Feel free to comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
The PLC Team