What to look for in an Executive Director

In 2009 I got a job that would change the course of my career. I was fortunate enough to be tabbed as the Executive Director for the Historic Quincy Business District in Quincy, IL. I was in my early 30s with a wife and kids and was ready to move back to my hometown to be closer to family. I wasn’t really sure what was in store for me, but I thought this was a good fit.

I couldn’t have been more right. What I would soon discover is the wonderful Main Street Community, the joy of being able to improve your community, and the ability to help others. I instantly fell in love with Main Street, and as importantly, the people on Main Street. As my career with the District thrived, I had more and more opportunities to work with and visit other Main Street communities across the country.

As I transitioned to the team at Rokusek, those opportunities became even more frequent. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with organizations from coast to coast. One of the most common questions I get from board members is what they should be looking for in an Executive Director. This is especially true for newer organizations and those going through transitions. I think this is a common question because of the turnover on Main Street. It’s a hard job that requires a lot of hours, and volunteers want to make sure they are entrusting their organization to someone who will care as much as they do. I’ve really given this some thought lately, and thought it would be appropriate to share what I think you should look for in an Executive Director.

First and foremost, the Executive Director has to be organized. Any director is going to be tasked with juggling many functions of the organization on a daily basis. They have to be able to prioritize and balance their schedule, be extremely detail oriented, and manage their time well. This doesn’t mean they have to look or act a certain way, but it does have to be present. For instance, anyone who knows me knows that I am a tiny bit particular about my desk, and by “tiny bit” I mean completely and utterly over the top about having a clean work space. If my desk isn’t clean, I cannot mentally function. However, I’m not talking about being neat, I’m talking about being organized. I’ve met some directors who are the “file by pile” folks who are highly organized. Their mind works differently than mine, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find exactly what they are looking for whenever they need it, and be on top of every aspect of their job. Any successful director has to be organized, which is why I always say it is the first thing I would look for in a candidate.

The second thing I look for is communication skills. A director will be tasked with building consensus (okay, as close to consensus as possible), keeping many stakeholders informed about the organization, recruiting new stakeholders, and representing the organization on a regular basis. Being an effective communicator is essential to thriving in this environment. This will help keep everyone on the same page and move the organization’s agenda forward.

The next thing I look for is drive. This can be incredibly hard to measure, but I think most people know it when they see it. Life as a Main Street Executive Director is hard. You’ve got to be a very driven individual to succeed. You’re signing up for long hours, usually little pay, and constantly have a target painted on your back. You’re the first one to show up and the last one to go home, and when you’ve done a good job often someone else is standing there to take the credit or reap the rewards. So why on earth would anyone sign up for that? Because you get to make a difference. You, and those close to you, know that your efforts led to the businesses success, the community’s new attraction, or the new policy that makes it easier for entrepreneurs to excel. Your efforts set up your organization for success and make your community better. This is a powerful incentive and something that can be extremely gratifying.

Lastly, I look for people that are going to be a good fit in the organization. Can you imagine this person representing your organization or are you trying to sell someone on them because of their resume? It’s very easy to get caught up in experience and resumes, but you need to first look for the passion. You can always teach skill set, so finding someone who is passionate about the cause (not the position) is important.

These are a few of the traits that I have seen successful Executive Directors exhibit. I have been lucky to work with a number of crazy talented individuals during my time downtown. I’ve seen enough directors come and go to tell you that there is no perfect mold. Each community is different, each situation is unique, and the right candidate for your position may not be the right one for mine. However, starting with these baseline characteristics may help you sift through the field to find just the right person for your organization.

woman at desk