How To Be the Executive Director of Your Own Life
I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.
—Louisa May Alcott
For three years, I was the executive director of a small nonprofit organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had never made “being an executive director” one of my career goals…it just kind of happened upon me in a strange way (maybe we’ll save the details for another post).
I have a fairly introverted personality—though I describe myself as a gregarious introvert—and if you had to pin me down to any one identity it would be “writer.” It surely would not be “executive director.” I thought long and hard before accepting that job, knowing it would require a big stretch beyond my comfort zone.
And yet I successfully made it through those three years of directing, leading, managing, budgeting, fundraising, and schmoozing. By the time my term was up, I was ready to go back to a quieter way of life. But in the process, I learned something invaluable: the same skills that I had honed in that position could serve me in other areas of my life.
In fact, there is a quantum difference in the quality of my life now compared to before my time as an executive director. It’s because I’ve learned to look at my life as my own organization, or business, and to relate to it that way. This is quite different from being a passive observer and just going along for the ride.
Here are six ways that you can apply the mindset of an executive director to your own life:
1. Create your own mission statement.
Everyone nonprofit has (or should have) its own mission statement, and so should you. A mission statement conveys the purpose of an organization or a person.
Take some time to think about your purpose on this planet. Why are you here? What do you want your legacy to be? What is your special gift to offer the world? How will the world be different because of your presence? See if you can summarize your mission in one or two sentences.
As an example, here’s my personal mission statement:
“To express myself and my thoughts through writing that inspires people to think more deeply about their responses to their world. To affirm the importance and wonder of difference, rather than denying difference.”
Once you’ve got this mission statement, print it out and post it above your desk where you can see it ever day. Set it up as your computer screensaver. You can use it as a reference point for making everyday decisions (should I watch TV for an hour or should I invest that time in reading this book about a topic I’m passionate about?) as well as longer-term decisions (where do I want to be living and working in five years?).
2. Think strategically and set goals.
When you’re in charge of an organization, you quickly learn that just “letting things happen” isn’t going to work. Your supporters need to know that you are diligently working toward your mission, and your staff need clear expectations.
The same is true for your life—it’s critical to have a map of what’s important to you, and how you’re going to make it happen. Once you’ve got your mission statement, this will be much easier to do.
Do you have a strategic plan for your life? One that articulates your personal vision and mission, and how you plan to move toward it in the coming month, year, and five years? Have you identified the kinds of measurable objectives that will help you reach those goals?
If you don’t have this, there is no better time than now to start creating your own strategic plan. This can be as simple as proclaiming a “theme for the year” and then reminding yourself about it every week. But it can also go into greater detail so that you have a blueprint of small steps and actions to follow.
Writer and world traveler Chris Guillebeau has come up with an Annual Review process that might help you with your strategic plan, and here’s a Reflection process that I described in an earlier Liberated Life Project post. Or you might create your own form. Whatever you do, you don’t have to wait until the end of the year—carpe diem!
3. Become a good financial manager.
Good executive directors know that finances is another area where things don’t just simply happen without any planning. Or at least they don’t happen in a positive way. As a director, you are charged with making wise decisions about how to spend money that people have donated to your organization. In the same way, think of how much effort you’ve put into earning money to support yourself (and your family, if you have one). Don’t waste it away by not paying attention to how you spend it.
Do you have a budget, even a rudimentary one? Do you evaluate your spending choices on a regular basis? Do you know your total assets and your total liabilities? Do you have a plan for getting out of debt, if that is an issue for you?
One way you can start addressing this area is by scheduling an review of your finances. Mark your calendar for a two-hour block of time for just this purpose. Use this time to write down how much money you have earned over the past year, do your best to understand how that money was spent, and note how much savings you have as well as how much debt.
Then create some financial goals for the next year. How much more do you want to save in the coming year? How much can you reduce your debt in the coming year? Keep this document in a highly visible place so you can review it monthly.
4. Think big and maximize your resources.
What do you need to be able to achieve your goals and fulfill your life’s mission? Often the first thing that comes to our mind is money, and nine times out of ten that thought is followed by, “If only I had enough money…”
As an executive director, if something in your organization’s vision is just crying out to be manifested—like a new project that will benefit many people—you realize that have it in your power to acquire the resources you need to make this real. You learn to think big, get your supporters excited about it, and mount a fundraising campaign to fund the project.
You can do this in your own life as well. This might take the form of being much more intentional around your income goals, getting a different or additional job, or creating another line of revenue.
But money is only one kind of resource. Sometimes what’s most needed in order to manifest your goals is really something else—more of your time and creativity, or perhaps the support of friends and family. Begin to think of the whole spectrum of resources, not just the financial kind. And then think about what your own fundraising campaign might look like.
How can you increase your level of income, or invite other people to support you, or free up more of your time to work on a project that you are passionate about? There are all kinds of creative solutions, if your mind is trained to see them in that way.
5. Communicate your goals to your community.
Good executive directors make sure to inform their supporters about their achievements as well as their future goals. They know that staying accountable to these people will advance their cause and keeps people engaged. Every year, I made sure to write an annual report to let our supporters know the milestones of each of our programs
How can this practice translate to your life? Can you take time to write a letter or email to all the people that are important in your life to let them know what you’ve accomplished this past year? And in what areas you’d love to invite their support? And just as importantly—how can you connect with them and find out how you can support their dreams to become a reality as well?
And by the way, you don’t have to wait to do this at the end of the year. See if you can make it a regular practice to stay connected with your tribe in order to offer and receive support.
6. Know your weak spots and be willing to ask for help.
I was never so humbled as I was when I was an executive director. Over and over again, I ran into things that I had no idea how to do:organizing a major fundraising event, asking a donor for help, creating a budget, dealing with a challenging employee.
I’ve always had a hard time asking for help, but being in this position I quickly got over that fear. I realized that if I let my pride get in the way and tried to figure out everything myself, I would take the whole organization down with me.
Where in your life may pride be blocking you from seeing something that you need help with? What would it look like for you to seek support in that area? If you don’t know how to do something, where and who can you turn to for help, either in learning how to do that particular skill or delegating it if that is more appropriate?
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