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.
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:
- Through the Valley of the Shadow of Failure by Cate Steane
- Get Thy Nonprofit Self Into Therapy! by Elizabeth Sullivan
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.