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Avoiding the seven year itch

by Terry Carroll
When addressing new executive directors, former United Way of Canada president David Armour used to say, “There are exceptions to this—and some of them are outstanding—but as a general rule, most people should not be the executive director at one United Way for more than 10 years.”
'Not longer than 10 years' is a good rule for most management positions, whether in the for-profit or not-for-profit world.
The risks of staying 10 years in one position include both burn-out and death to innovation. “We’ve always done it this way so why change for the sake of change?”
In the not-for-profit world, there’s another threat to Executive Director happiness.
In its phases, the Board of Directors/Executive Director relationship resembles that other most intimate one: marriage.
There’s the honeymoon phase when the new Executive Director is first hired after an extensive courting period called the E.D. Search.
Within a couple of years, communication may not be what it was the day the deal was signed.
This can be followed by the seven-year itch.
At 10 years or earlier, both parties may hit the wall, an impasse that requires counseling. The relationship may or may not be salvaged.
The unique factor in not-for-profit organizations is the constant changing of the guard as Board members, including presidents, end their terms.
Executive Directors often find themselves facing quite different personalities than the one they married.
What to do about this inevitable flux?
The secret of ongoing happiness all the way around lies in excellent communication, particularly between the Executive Director and the President or Chair of the Board of Directors.
Good, experienced Executive Directors understand this.
Some of the smartest and most successful of them devote much time on a regular basis to the Board relationship. As in a good marriage, you have to put in the time to get the result.
These Executive Directors are skillful in assisting with the process of Board of Directors recruitment. They are watching not only for the skills on paper but also for the complementary personalities to make the relationship work.
Nominate the right people and the honeymoon continues; the marriage is rejuvenated. Select the wrong Board members—and in particular the Board Chair or President—and this relationship is heading for divorce.
Successful Executive Directors get this. No matter what the policy manual says, they know that this fundamental relationship is part science and part art.
For the good of the organization, as well as their own stomach lining, they are vigilant about who is nominated to the Board and, in reality, who runs for President or Chair.
Boards of Directors have the ultimate legal responsibility for their organizations. But Executive Directors have to assume much of the practical responsibility for maintaining marriages that appear to be made in heaven.

Permission is granted to quote from this Article in full or in part as long as the author's name is acknowledged.

To comment on this Article, email Terry Carroll at terry [snail] carrollgroup [period] ca -> mailto:terry [snail] carrollgroup [period] ca

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