16 Aug

The Loneliest Job in the World, the Executive Director

President Kennedy was dubbed to have the loneliest job in the world by The New York Times during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961. A lot has changed since that time, not only in politics and the private sector, but also the nonprofit sector. In this day and age, the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization might, in fact, have the loneliest job in the world.

The Executive Director is expected to be the Wizard of Oz, a person who is a visionary CEO, an operating manager, a programmatic genius with passion, a leader internally and externally and a skilled fundraiser. On top of having so many hats to wear, the Executive Director is supposed to do everything with a magical turn of the hand  and with limited resources. Being everything at once on a shoestring budget is a tall order to fill.

The position is lonely because there aren’t very many other wizards at the top and very few others whom the Executive Director can let behind the curtain. In a small organization, being the Executive Director is an especially lonely job because there aren’t very many people in the organization and even less at the top. The ED does have a Board, but the Board consists of volunteers who are giving the organization usually a small percentage of time and don’t have the time (or desire) to also work through routine high level thinking with the ED. The relationship that the ED has with the Board is that of a boss/employee, not that of a peer. This means that the ED cannot over ask and cannot over share.

The ED always needs to be the positive face of the organization. There are ED round tables, but these are rarely places where directors come together and spill all of  her or the organization’s challenges.  Rather the roundtables are fantastic resources for the EDs to gain awareness in general as to what is happening in the nonprofit community outside of their organization and spot trends.

Because the job of the ED can be so lonely and stressful, a coach can become an integral resource and value add. The goal of the coach is to be a safe, judgment free sounding board who can help the ED develop professionally and discharge their work and responsibilities more efficiently and effectively.

Being able to talk and listen openly enables the ED and coach to parse out the challenges the ED faces, assess where her skill set excels and falls short and strategize how to best engage her team and board. Everyone needs a sounding board and a thought-partner and this is what a coach can be for an executive.  A coach will help the ED talk through challenges, decide which tasks can be delegated, and of those tasks that’s can’t be delegated, prioritize and plan for their completion.  The real magic trick comes in knowing what tasks are most important and which ones can wait, that is really how the Wizard keeps Oz functioning smoothly. Where additional skills are required, the coach can work with the ED to acquire the new skills.

Coaching is an investment in Executive Directors and the organization. Executive Directors, don’t be afraid to ask your board chair to allocate resources for your professional development through coaching. Board chairs, suggesting coaching to savvy EDs is a reward, not a punishment. Invest in your leaders, and it will pay dividend across the organization.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is a catalyst for values-driven organizations and leaders. She is President of Fridman Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching.  Nanette is the author of On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service. She can be reached at

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