Crawling Out of the Psychological Depths

Most of us have had moments of despair. Marilyn Neece very generously shares her story with us:

It's hard to say this out loud. I lost my edge. I went from sharp-minded and insightful consultant to a tired and nearly burnt out executive director in just three short years.
I know the board is wondering if I'm all right. It's humiliating. They hired me to make the great turnaround. We started with such energy and focus. But then . . . life is very different from those case studies in Harvard Business Review.

It started out great

My organization is a small mental health counseling center that was founded 35 years ago by several churches. It's a neighborhood place. We still have Christian counseling for those who want it, but we are mainly secular, and we offer counseling in a number of languages.

I've been a successful executive director in the past. I know about boards, strategic plans. I was a successful development person.

I started as their nonprofit management consultant, helping them decide whether the organization could be saved. Together we crunched numbers, thought through this and that, decided we could make it. I became the interim and we got a capacity building grant. I love the mission: mental wellness in my own community. Wonderful board; great staff.

We started out great. We had strategies and steps to take. But then earlier this year, somehow I hardly knew what to do next. I didn't have the energy. I tried so many things and they didn't work. The vision in my head was the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz: I wanted to lay down and take a nap.

As a consultant you never fail

As a consultant you never fail because you never have to implement. I got great feedback all the time as a consultant. It was so rewarding! I would listen, identify the light at the end of the tunnel, and figure out a path towards it. And here I was not being able to get anywhere. It wasn't just depressing; it was terrifying.

When I had been in development for a college I would ask X for a quarter of a million dollars and she would write the check. I would ask Y for a grant and it would come through. Now I was going to some of the same places and many new places and nobody was saying yes. We were trying to get the Department of Mental Health to approve us as a vendor, but it kept getting delayed and delayed.

Actually, one foundation came through and we were so grateful.

The daily grind strikes

Initially we worked on building the profitable programs and adjust the others so they didn't lose money. The transition team -- me and four board members -- met weekly for two months. We were going to grow through partnerships, but I was working on partnership after partnership. There's only so many relationships you can have and keep them going!

I hit that burnt place, and I'm not a depressive person. I'm upbeat, optimistic, engaging. People were asking me, "What's wrong with you?

And ironically, I'm working at a mental health center! I would walk by someone and think she's a great therapist I should talk to her and then I would think, I can't do that, I write her paycheck.

All was not horrible. Our collaborative partnerships were paying off. Our board was engaged and participated in strategic conversations.

But I wasn't their thought leader anymore. The need to make payroll became my driving force. I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed. The day I found myself playing solitaire on my computer during lunch, my malaise came to a halt. What had I come to and how had this happened??

Useful is everything

I wasn't feeling as useful as I used to be. I recognized it was both personal and professional and a lot of it was personal. I had gotten quite large; my motto was there's no bad day that Haagen Dazs can't improve.

Finally I turned my once-useful insight on my own hot mess. I resigned from the presidency of a board I was on; there was just too much worry and work for me to continue to do there. I started walking three days a week. I started feeling more energetic.

I started delegating more. I didn't worry so much in anticipation that people would push back when I asked them to do something. I got a coach -- not a management coach but someone who helped me keep track of details and stay on track. I started meeting with other nonprofit executive directors and asking them for help -- who should I talk to at ____? How did you solve a particular issue? What other kinds of work could we be doing? How did you grow when you're small like this?

I had to get back into affirmations. "Of course I can." I went to a friend who had leads a financial stress reduction class and learned the affirmation, "Money is coming to me all the time from expected and unexpected places," and I started writing it down 20 times and just saying it out loud.

I started getting checks! I knew they weren't actually a result of the affirmations but it made me feel better! And then I felt less apprehensive about getting another direct mail letter out, getting another proposal out.

Alive again

I told my top two board leaders that I was finding my passion for the work again. Of course they'd been aware that something was wrong but they were pleased that I was willing to speak with them about it, and they were very supportive.

And I went to a conference at the Los Angeles-based Center for Nonprofit Management. The first day was about rekindling imagination. I could feel my own energy shifting and in fact, once back in my office I received word that a long-sought contract relationship was approved.

I feel alive again, able to think with some clarity and tell the important stories. And I'll recognize that foggy bottom if I drift near it again. Now I know I have the remedies in hand. People are saying, "You look like your old self again."

I still have a way to go and a lot to do, but at least I have more awareness and control over it. I've lightened up, simplified, improved my daily practices to handle the long haul, and asked for help. I'm not at the happy ending, but I think we're in the happy middle. I hope this story helps some other executive directors!

See also in Blue Avocado:

Marilyn Neece is executive director of the Intercommunity Counseling Center in Whittier, California. In addition to founding her own consulting firm, she has served as the director of development for Claremont Graduate University and as director of alumni relations for Whittier College. She is an active board member and community volunteer. She is known for her willingness to try anything twice.

Comments (23)

  • Anonymous

    It is SO different from those case studies in HBR. Why, why, why?? I really appreciated the frankness of the article. As an Executive Director of community organization I can identify with Marilyn.

    Sep 08, 2014
  • I applaud Marilyn's courage in taking the job in the first place. Too many consultants enjoy the "no failure, no accountability" aspect of consulting too much to put themselves on the line.

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thank you Marilyn for sharing your story....been there...done that but I must admit not quite as eloquently as you did! Nor did I come out of it in one piece so I am glad to read that you did. Your organization sounds wonderful as do your Board members for supporting you through that difficult time. I wish I had had that support - it might have ended differently. Trish

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I am so there - right in this exact spot. Thanks for the insight. Thanks for the practicality. Now, to get off of Solitaire and on with my work!!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • I appreciate knowing that the story of my "slump" resonates with some executive directors - and maybe offers hope. It's both humbling and strengthening. I'm a better director and stronger person for the experience, but had to argue hard with my ego to share it.

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I feel renewed & inspired just reading Marilyn's story! Now to see if I can follow some of her examples... Thank you!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Great story! All too often we expect CEOs and Executive Directors to be superhuman, solving all problems and doing it with limitless energy and serenity. The pressure undermines our ability to cope with the stress that comes with the job itself. - Emily Capito

    Sep 09, 2014
  • When you're a CEO/ED, it's so helpful to know that others are 'suffering' along with you, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The courage to share Marilyn is extraordinary...... Thank you for taking the step.....you've helped everyone reading this. Patricia

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thank you Marilyn for your wonderful insights. I love working with consultants who have specialized, technical knowledge. But for others, the answers might well have been authored by Captain Obvious. I am going to borrow your line, "As a consultant you never fail because you never implement." But over all, your article was spot-on and funny. This Executive Director stuff is not for sissies to be sure!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Thank you for your courageous candor. I hit a similar place (energy wise) about 2 years ago and realized after 16 years a complete break was a necessity. My board authorized 2 month paid leave sabbatical and I'm refreshed unlike I've experienced in years. The investment they kindly made in me has had a measureable ROI for my organization, not to mention my creative spirit, clarity, and work-family balance. - Fran Albrecht, Missoula,MT

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Marilyn. You can and will help others by having done this!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    So powerful. Thank you for the hope that a corner can be turned. The energy drain from carrying excess weight of the organization (and coping mechanisms) is very real and debilitating. I, too, feel it despite efforts to get things moving again. It's particularly challenging when orchestrating change for which there is no magic answer or ready solution - adaptive change. Great article, thank you for reaching into your thoughts and feelings and writing a very real account of leadership and renewal.

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I really identify with what you went through! Saving the world can make you so tired. Thank you for sharing this!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for sharing, Marilyn. I'm actually right in the middle of that slump. It's been three years since I started. The first year was wonderful and I had such great energy and made big strides and had great ideas, the second year I got bogged down by all the day to day details that I needed to pay attention to, and now, in my third year, I'm dealing with a lot of HR/staffing issues that I've been ignoring and it's really tough. I'm so happy that you got through it all and am hoping for that bright light at the end of the tunnel. It just seems like I keep changing things and we take one step forward and one step back. Sigh.

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Sounds exactly like where I am in Year 3. Sigh.

    Sep 10, 2014
  • Anonymous

    As a consultant you never fail because you never have to implement....really??? I want to be a consultant!!!

    Sep 09, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Marilyn, I think it's time for you to start a support group for slump-ers! Really appreciate your honesty and sharing your story. There are few safe places for CEOs to talk about this kind of story and in my experience it's only getting worse in the NGO world regarding real support for leaders by boards, staff and consultants. EDs are too often replaced when all they needed was a break or collegial support and advice. The one thing I would add to your story is a stronger emphasis on the importance of having a "safe" network of other colleagues in similar positions that you can ask for advice, counsel or work through problems and challenges with.

    Sep 10, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I second that motion.

    Sep 10, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Actually, the notion of a support group for EDs is very wise. MAP for Nonprofits in St. Paul has been offering Leaders Circles for about 20 years. They're technically peer coaching groups, in which each members get coached by the others. Meetings are very close and confidential. I encourage you to check out their model at mapfornonprofits.org . (I don't work for MAP -- I just really admire the organization.)

    Sep 10, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I'm actually part of a new Executive Director support group in San Francisco. We meet around once every 6 weeks to talk about whatever is on our minds. Topics include: staffing, HR, board relations, fundraising, founder's issues, whatever. Attendance varies since we are all very busy, but I always feel a lot better after going to one of these. If you're interested in joining us, please send me an email: schen@scrap-sf.org.

    Sep 30, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Maybe something good can come from baring my professional soul. Hmm. A support group for ED/CEOs in a slump. A safe place to talk about it. I run a counseling center devoted to mental well-being. Why didn't I think of that already? What an important idea. Thank you. I welcome any partners in creating a virtual counseling/safe place/coaching support resource for survival. Wait a minute - if you need that, you already have too much on your plate. I'll draft something and get back to you.

    Sep 10, 2014
  • I so appreciate Marilyn's candor. What ED out there cannot relate? As someone who has been in executive management positions for a handful of wonderful non-profits, I certainly have felt that way at times over my 35 plus years. What always makes me so angry is the fact that nonprofits are charged with doing the work of our collective society that the for-profit world turns away from.

    Why do they turn away? Because it's not profitable. And so, we all struggle to work in our communities with scarce financials resources, and funding models that are from the days of the dinosaurs. Where is the model of investment that evaluates the leadership of the organization, the mission, and the clear plans to execute, and then makes capital investments in that nonprofit? That's the way the for-profits raise money: good leadership, clear product/service, ability to give a return to investors over time. Our non-profits can give a clear return on investments: healthy communities, in whatever space we work. Financial resources gives an organization to buy the talent required to get the work done, and and that is true for nonprofits as well as for-profits.

    It's time our talented executives of our non-profits get freed up to do the visionary work they are hired for, and to have adequate resources to handle the day to day management without continuous angst and worry. Maybe it's time for the non-profits to turn into for-profit B corporations that allow the corporation to do well financially by doing good. Cath Merschel, CEO Build It Green, Oakland Ca.

    Sep 10, 2014
  • I so appreciate Marilyn sharing what many of us in Executive Director positions go through. I, myself, just experienced the same thing earlier this year and am happy to say I, too have made it to a "happy middle."

    Jul 28, 2016

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