Career Advancement, Management and Leadership, Success Stories & Support

Advice from an executive director: Be a cheerleader and encourage your staff

Trista Harris

Trista Harris

Trista Harris is the executive director of Headwaters Foundation for Justice, a community foundation based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that focuses on environmental justice, economic and racial issues, and social change.

“I love big picture thinking and I like being able to see how lots of different pieces work together,” she said, when asked about why she decided to go after this position, her first ED gig. “You get to do a lot of that as executive director.”

Trista spoke to Idealist about what she has learned in her four years as an executive director, how to connect with a board, and the challenges executive directors face today.

How would you describe the role of an executive director?

It’s being a cheerleader and encouraging each of your staff members to work to their full capacity and figuring out what it takes to get to that place. Coaching them along is very important. You can’t do all of this work by yourself.

Sometimes we idealize the director role, saying “I’ll be the boss and then I can decide everything,” but that’s not the role of the director of an organization. Your role is to pull everybody’s needs and the organization’s needs together and then mesh that with what the community’s needs are. You’re much more of a conductor than a decider of where everything goes.

You have to make sure you have the right people governing the organization, the right directors around the table. You have to have an open and honest relationship with each of those individuals so that you can be really clear, and understand what skill sets they bring to the table and how you can best utilize them.

And then the most important thing is being clear when it comes to what your organization’s role is in the community. What are you trying to accomplish? What is it going to take to get there? What is the best strategy for your organization to make?

What was the most challenging part about pursuing the executive director role?

The hardest part, especially being a younger person—I was 30 when I took the role—was having people see me as a leader and to position my experience rather than just my age. I have been working in nonprofits since I was 15 years old and I had a wide range of experiences that were helpful for the organization, but sometimes when people see me, they’d say, “you don’t look like an executive director to me.” So that was a challenge.

What do you wish you had known before you took on this role?

I wish I better understood the role of the board of directors. It’s like having 17 different bosses and is a whole different experience than having one person that you report to and you understand what your accountabilities are. When you’re a director, your accountabilities change as the organization’s needs change. Each board member has a different perspective and your job is to pull together the will of the whole and to understand that.

What advice do you have for someone who is hoping to become an executive director?

The most important one is to be on a board first so you can understand that role. Do informational interviews with other people who are directors.

Also, it is important for people is to stay up on trends in their sector. So if you work in hospital administration, know what’s happening there and know about those folks who are executive directors. We’re changing a lot faster than we have in the past, and we are going to need a lot of executive directors who are not just comfortable with change, but who can thrive on change and who can help organizations be flexible enough to make it through these quick transitions.

What resources can you recommend for people interested in becoming an executive director?

I would suggest a book I co-authored with Rosetta Thurman called How to Become Nonprofit Rockstar. We have a whole section on authentic leadership and then moving up in your career. Both of those are really important. It’s really more than putting your head down and doing a good job; it’s about branding yourself and building that network and building the relationships that are necessary for you to be able to move into those roles.

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