Nonprofits: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Executive Directors

October 10, 2019
7 minutes

We know you’re a busy person. After all, you’re the Executive Director of an awesome nonprofit. You’ve got meetings to attend, staff to manage, funds to raise, programs to support, a strategic plan to execute... geez, we’re tired just thinking about it all!

You show up to do this work every single day. But being the leader of a nonprofit isn’t without its challenges. Because there are so many demands on your time and so much on your to-do list, there are days when it can feel like a real slog.

If any of this sounds familiar, you're probably wondering if there's anything you can do to make it easier to manage everything that’s on your plate? You bet your funding dollar there is! There are tons of productivity and self-management tools that can help you.

Today, we're putting an ED-centered spin on one of the most popular business books out there, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," by Stephen Covey. Read on, nonprofit friend, and discover some useful advice geared towards busy EDs just like you.

What are the 7 habits?

"The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" is a classic business and self-help book that's sold over 25 million copies around the world. People have sworn by this framework, sold their souls for this framework, given up their firstborns for this framework! Okay, maybe not all of those things, but it's been pretty impactful.

What are the 7 habits? Glad you asked.

  1. Be proactive—This habit is all about moving out of reactive mode and taking responsibility for what’s happening around you. By being proactive you can take steps to improve the situation and yourself.
  2. Begin with the end in mind—It’s important to visualize your future and know where you’re going. For any goal or aspiration that you have in mind, Covey suggests taking the time to really understand the endpoint so that you can act more effectively.
  3. Put first things first—We all know prioritizing can make a difference and Covey suggests that when it comes to prioritizing what needs to get done, we tackle what is urgent and important.
  4. Think win/win—This habit is about fostering better relationships and interdependence. Rather than just figuring out how an outcome or project will work for you, take the time to make it a win/win for everyone involved.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood—Empathy is an important quality in a leader. Covey suggests that we all cultivate our ability to empathize with others by seeking to truly understand them. The more time we take to build these kinds of connections, the more influential we can be.
  6. Synergize—We all know how important it is to have a great team, but the secret to having the best team is to synergize. This means finding ways to leverage every person’s strengths and building a positive team culture.
  7. Sharpen the saw—To be our best, most effective selves, we need to be constantly improving or “sharpening the saw.” This means doing activities that emphasize our physical, spiritual, and mental renewal.

That’s our super abbreviated guide to the seven habits. If these sound like ideas you can get behind, it’s worth picking up Covey’s book to do a deeper dive into each habit.

We want to give you some ideas for additional habits to help you do your work as an Executive Director.

Here’s our list of 7 habits of highly effective Executive Directors

Habit #1—Plan for success

You may not be a fan of having a day planner, but we can say that the most effective EDs make planning a priority. This starts at the macro level with your strategic plan and goes all the way to the micro-level with daily planning. Since you are the captain of the ship, it’s important you know where you’re steering the crew! By making plans you’ll be able to do just that.

Here are a few planning frameworks we recommend:

  • Strategic Planning—a must-do in our book for all nonprofits
  • Quarterly Planning—sometimes it’s difficult to operationalize your strategic plan for a full 12 months. That’s where quarterly plans come in. They help you plan for a tangible, realistic time period. Check out the book "The 12 Week Year,"for quarterly planning inspo.
  • Weekly Planning—we all know that work weeks can be a little chaotic. To control the chaos, it’s helpful to go into your week with a plan. We like setting our top 3 goals for the week and time blocking for key tasks.

Habit #2—Protect your time

We know there are a million demands on your time. Between staff meetings, board meetings, and donor meetings, you could easily spend most of your week in a never-ending loop of meetings. But you also need time for visionary and strategic work—AKA time that is not spent in meetings. We suggest you put a few blocks of time in your calendar that are meeting free. This helps you protect your time and ensure you have time to do important strategy work.

Habit #3—Delegate

Maybe you work at a small nonprofit where you are a staff of 1. Maybe you're overseeing a staff of 20+ people. No matter what your HR situation looks like, delegation is an important habit for EDs to adopt. Letting go of the reigns can be super difficult, but you can’t do everything yourself (well, maybe you can, but you shouldn't have to). Sometimes you need help and need to let go so others can do what they do best.

At the end of each week, spend a few minutes reviewing all the tasks you did during that week. Go through each one noting whether or not you're the only qualified person at your organization to do that task. If other people could theoretically do the task, ask yourself if you can delegate that task next week.

Are you a team of one? See if there are any tasks that your board or other volunteers could help with to lighten your load.

Habit #4—Reconnect with your why

Burnout is something we’re all at risk for and that’s why we think this habit is so important for EDs. It’s all too easy to just be nose to the grindstone. Find time each week to reconnect with your why and your passion. Remind yourself of why you support your organization’s mission and vision, why you’re proud to lead it, and what you love most about your work.

Habit #5—Listen, a lot

One of the best habits any leader can cultivate is listening to those around them. If you want to be an inclusive, collaborative leader, this is a must. It's so easy to charge full steam ahead, but there are immense benefits to listening.

Next time you’re in a team meeting, pay attention to how much time you spend talking versus how much time you spend actively listening. In one-on-one meetings with staff, be mindful of how you're listening. Some of us have the habit of formulating our responses as we listen, which means that we’re only partially listening.

Habit #6—Cultivate your team

It’s no secret that staff retention in the nonprofit sector could be better. If you want to keep your best staff around for years, one of the things you can do is spend time cultivating and developing your team. Support their professional development by helping them find opportunities to grow their knowledge and skills. Make time for even small team building activities at staff meetings, instead of waiting for that once a year retreat.

Habit #7—Grow your skills

While we’re on the subject of cultivating employees, we want to make sure you’re in the habit of growing your own skills. Between webinars, books, conferences, coaching, and more, there are endless opportunities at different price points to help you grow your leadership skills. Make it a habit of building an annual professional development plan for yourself and follow through on it.

There are so many personal and professional habits that can help you in your role as an ED. We hope this list of 7 habits of highly effective EDs provides you with some inspiration for your work and makes it a little more manageable. Keep leading awesome, ED! The world needs you and your organization.

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