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

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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.

  • Rosie

    The issue lies in the fact that you were only 24 years old when you were selected for the position. While we all applaud the focus on education today that may have not been the case 25 years ago, life experiences and work experience are instrumental in decision making, Sadly gone are the days when executives had to work themselves up the ladder of success. They learned various aspects of the many roles and responsibilities within an organization, could transition that experience to other opportunities and challenges. Depending on the level of education, experience, and job knowledge of those under one’s leadership, it seems unlikely that such a young person would be able to have a significant impact. BTW, my well educated, intelligent son is 23 years old. There is no way he is ready to direct an organization. He has much to learn in many, many ways.

  • Emma

    Thank you for publishing this honest article! As a young aspiring leader, it is both encouraging and eye opening to hear about the successes and challenges of a peer in a meaningful leadership position.

  • Jan Ridgely

    What a wonderful and honest expression of your experience as a new ED. I have found, even being an “Old” (!) ED, that a support group for all of us would be so very helpful. You really hit the nail on the head with your description of being everything to everyone and doing so many different tasks, from the mundane to the monstrous! You seem to be so very aware of the human-ness of yourself and of those around you. I was inspired by you to write my own personal mission statement to look at on those days when I don’t feel like supporting anyone, including myself! To help you maybe find that path to support, you may want to look at the Independent Sector’s program called NGen. I attended a couple of the sessions geared to the “Next Generation” of non-profit leaders, and found the groups of younger executives refreshing, and also found that their struggles didn’t differ significantly from my own. I do hope that with time and more experience, you’ll be confident in yourself and your decisions, and will see that those around you, no matter what age, will look up to you as their leader!

  • Justin Pollock

    To Anonymous,
    You learned early on one of the truism of leadership – “leaders rarely know what they are doing.” Rather leaders are willing to tackle that unknown with a vengeance, refusing to back down while they sort out what is in front of them. If the challenges weren’t hard, a leader wouldn’t be needed. Where you shine is in your ability to articulate the demands of doing it.
    All leaders, not just young or new ones, should seek out and be granted the space to share the challenges, fears, and even the insecurities that surround leadership.

  • Sarah

    Ob how true. I will be sharing this with others!

  • Ruth McCambridge

    Oh how I disagree! I helped start and head up an organization in the seventies at 21 and when I did so I had a lot of company in my age group. This idea that leading an organization requires a lot of seasoning is, I believe, a construct of an aging sectoral leadership. It always surprises me when I hear people talk about age as a deciding factor in the ability to lead. And I had no training believe me – I made many mistakes but our organization had a great deal of impact.

  • Kitty Lopez

    Bravo to you younger leader for sharing your ups and downs of this crazy job as an Executive Director of a nonprofit! Please know that even as an “older leader”, I sometimes don’t know what I’m doing or close the door of my office and wonder “now what am I going to do?!” And then there are those times where I realize, after 11 years, “Just breathe, you have seen this before.”

    Sometimes just talking through things with someone can help….I’d be happy to listen sometime, if you wish.

  • Malcolm Furgol

    Anonymous, Thank you for sharing your experience so publicly. I work at The Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington where we have partnered with several young EDs to start a Young Executive Director Network. The members of the network meet quarterly in person to discuss the issues you raised and more. They also stay in touch in between meetings via a private Google Group. See more details on our website,

    Best of luck in 2013!

  • MPE

    Rosie, you make a specious argument that is just irresponsible ageism. Exactly how old do you think the average Marine Corps combat squad leader is? Maybe as old as our 24 yr old author? Those folks are making life and death decisions that can impact international relations and you’re saying a 24 year old can’t manage a $1.3 Million dollar budget and 40 employees? For Pete’s sake, where are the next wave of national and international level nonprofit execs going to come from if they aren’t currently cutting their teeth in these kinds of leadership positions?

    I can think of two mid-20 aged nonprofit workers that I know personally who are more than capable of the job described above, and I have zero doubt they could make “a significant impact” in that role. I can think of multiple current nonprofit execs who are well educated and way beyond their 20s, and they have n business directing an organization and are not capable of making a “significant impact”.