Life “at the Top:” Reflections on Being a Young Executive

Flower

Throughout the past four years, I have often wished that there was a young leaders’ support group where everyone sat in a circle and we could all bravely stand, introduce ourselves, and say, “I am a young leader and I have no idea what I am doing!” I would further elaborate on this self-disclosure by talking about what it is like to manage people who are the same age as my retired parents. Or, that I cut my hair shorter because I did not want to look 12 when I had to meet with the government over contract negotiations. And better yet, I would discuss what it is like to ask one of your employees to stop calling you “dear”—because you find it patronizing.

But more seriously, I would seek support for the moments when I felt like it was my entire fault if the organization fell apart and I was the one at the helm. I would find comfort in hearing someone else say how difficult it can be to make the right decision (or to make any decision, for that matter) when it means that dozens of people will be impacted. I would also take solace in finding other new leaders who know what it feels like to be continually compared to your predecessor, the one who was with the organization 20+ years before they retired in a blaze of glory.

I had just turned 24 when I became the executive director of a nonprofit charity that works with families and children. In this role, there are two programs that operate with program directors that have been employed for almost as long as I have been alive! Our operating budget is around $1.3 million per year and there are approximately 40 full-time and part-time employees.

It did not take long for me to learn that being an executive director really means being “one who completes all necessary tasks.” In my case, I soon found that I was responsible for creating and setting budgets, cleaning out rain gutters, organizing fundraisers, negotiating contracts, navigating complex staff personalities, fixing the dishwasher, compiling statistics, understanding every charity regulation or law, completing payroll, paying bills, creating policies, navigating renovations…and the list goes on.

Thankfully, this type of job is a perfect fit for my personality, skills and business education. I love variety and have gained a vast array of knowledge while completing my university degree. However, no matter how vast one’s array of knowledge, there are topics that are just not covered in any form of schooling or training. For instance, how do you read between the lines and understand the real message that is being conveyed or the politics that are involved in a situation or partnership? Or what do you do when you find out that, in a span of a month, two separate employees in separate situations have been arrested outside of work for criminal activity that is not expressly covered in the policy of the organization?

But these and countless other difficult decisions confirm the importance of having a navigation system in place that helps to guide decisions. Herein enters my mission statement:

As Executive Director, I will diligently govern and manage the operations of [organization]. I commit to working from a Divinely guided character that is rooted in hard work, honesty, integrity, continuous improvement, and open communication. I will be a genuine encourager that fosters a supportive and collaborative team environment. I will make knowledgeable decisions and remain confident in my choices. I commit to wholeheartedly leading with a daily renewed passion for the purpose of the organization.

I wrote this mission statement when I first started my job. I evaluated my faith, my personal values and what I wanted to embody in my role and in the organization. In my naïve state, I idealized the type of leader I wanted to be and set my goal by writing it out and posting it beside my desk.

I would like to report that since writing this mission statement, the road has been full of sunshine and daisies, marked with simple situations and easy choices. In reality, there have been a lot of ups and downs and very difficult challenges. Early on, I found out that it is easy to say that I value integrity and honesty. Yet, it is an entirely different story when you are faced with decisions that have the potential to result in lost funding or diminished support because you chose to follow a policy or a gut instinct. The easy route would have been to turn a blind eye or stick my head in the sand and pretend I did not know the right or true way to proceed. But then I would look at my stated mission and realize that I had to follow what I had already decided would be the route to take.

There are also mornings when I arrive at work and am completely depleted of passion for my role and do not want to encourage anyone, let alone the staff who always seem to be complaining. But then I again look at the mission I set out at the beginning of this job and remind myself of the type of leader I desire to be. I remember that I want to be a leader who adheres to my mission regardless of the support/lack of support from those around me.

I am still a developing leader and I know that there are still a lot of new things to discover and to learn. But I also know that I am rooted in a strong foundation, that I have a light to guide my steps, and that I have determined what path I want to take. Overall, I want to run this race and not look back to see that I have somehow lost sight of the goal and become complacent or jaded.

Some days, I would still like to form that support group of “new leaders.” But my goal now would be to encourage other new leaders who are embarking on their journey into the unknown. I would like to encourage them to set out their idealized goals and values prior to starting out. I would tell them that there is a lot of validity in the concept of “fake it ‘til you make it!” But there is also a lot of amazing opportunity, unparalleled possibilities, and exceptional growth that will happen throughout it all. So get on, buckle up, and get ready for the ride of your life!


 

Editor’s Note: NPQ generally does not publish anonymous articles, however we are certain of the source of this article and wanted the author to be able to express the vantage point above without fear of repercussions at work.