Most Executive Directors Are Hacks (and That’s a Good Thing)

Psychologist Anders Ericsson found that a critical factor in becoming an expert musician is spending 10,000 hours in solitary practice. To be an expert executive director, do you have to spend 10,000 hours practicing executive directoring?
The vast majority of nonprofit executive directors are hacks at their jobs. There, I’ve said it. They aren’t experts at their craft. They haven’t spent 10,000 hours honing their expertise. They aren’t well-versed in the wide spectrum of skill sets that a great executive director should need: fundraising, staff management, vision-crafting, priority-setting, financial management, motivating others, hiring and firing, negotiating, planning staff retreats, making coffee, and plenty of others. In fact, most executive directors are unusual if they’re really good at even one element of their job, much less a bunch of them.

(And yea, it is actually pretty hard to find people who are really, really good at making coffee.)

Yet these are the people that often run our nonprofits. These are the folks that see a need in their community and step up to fill it, or step into the breech when their own organization suddenly needs someone in that buck-stops-here role. They often bring some area of knowledge to the table … maybe they’ve been fundraisers for a few years, or they’ve led some successful advocacy campaigns, or they spearheaded a cool art or education or social services program. Most executive directors don’t come in cold. But they are often ill prepared for the challenges and demands of the role.

The amazing thing: a lot of them do a great job guiding kick-ass organizations despite their lack of expertise. They are hacks in the best sense: they care deeply about the work, they care deeply about learning what they don’t know, and they piece together all of their knowledge, experience, and intuition to chart a course, solve the problems that come up, and push their organizations to perform better. They try, they fail, they learn, and through all that they make it work.

This isn’t an argument for ignoring that long list of critical skill sets … those skills really are important. But it is an argument against the notion that you can only be a good executive director after you’ve become an expert. There are hack executive directors all over the place, and for that we are grateful.

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