How to direct an Executive Director

When it comes to downtowns, and Main Streets in particular, the Executive Director is the person in charge. This is the way it’s supposed to work. The Executive Director is hired to run the day-to-day operations of the organization. They’re responsible (usually) for staffing, running events, balancing the budget, and making sure the organization is carrying out the mission.

Once you find the right candidate and hire your Executive Director it’s easy to sit back and let them run the show. Don’t get me wrong, you want them to have ownership of the position, and you want them to be encouraged to try new things to advance the organization. You have to trust them, but as Ronald Reagan famously said, “trust, but verify”. This means there have to be checks and balances in your organization. We’ve worked with a number of organizations who do this wonderfully. We’ve also seen it go too far in one direction or the other, so we wanted to share our thoughts on how to best direct an Executive Director.

Directing an Executive Director is a lot like directing any other employee. You don’t want to micromanage them, but you want to make sure they know what you want them to do. A good starting place is usually an annual review (or for new hires a meeting shortly after they are in place and have found the paperclips). This meeting should typically be conducted by the board president. I’ve seen organizations that have the board officers or even the entire board in this meeting. In my opinion this should be a 1-on-1 meeting between the Executive Director and the Board President. The board president can certainly get input from board members ahead of the meeting, and will report back to them, but they don’t need to be in the room during the meeting.

This meeting is where you want to set some goals, both for the organization and for them personally. The organization goals are usually easy to set, we want x percentage increase in membership, Y new dollars in sponsorships, Z increase in attendance. Those are easily quantified.

The personal goals should be things that are important to their job, but are based around the individual. These can be things such as learning a new software, attending a training course for a new subject matter, or doing something that will get them out of their comfort zone and push them to be better in their position. It’s important that these be mutually agreed upon and committed to.

Once you have the goals set, make sure you review them regularly. Your board president and Executive Director will talk often, make sure at least quarterly you are discuss the goals and the progress that has been made. While you do want to discuss these goals quarterly, you don’t want to bring them up every time you talk (don’t micromanage, you trust this person, let them do the job). It’s also important to remember that not all goals will be met right away. Some may take the full year to achieve, such as membership or financial goals.

When push comes to shove, remember the golden rule. Treat the Executive Director like you would want your boss to treat you, and you’ll probably be in good shape!