Rhea Wong Consulting



Executive Directors: How you know it's time to go

I founded and scaled a successful nonprofit organization over 12 years.  It was one of the most defining achievements of my life (so far) and I walked away a year ago.There was no compelling reason to leave.  After all, I think I'd gotten over some of the big speed bumps that characterized our start-up phase.  I had weathered some of the storms of growth and had my fair share of battle scars.  I'd finally gotten my board, staff and programs to a place I was happy with.  I had figured out the fundraising.Things were starting to hum along, but....The work was good, I loved helping kids, I loved the community I built, but...I was bored.I was burnt out.I had built the train and now someone needed to make sure it was running on time.  I was more interested in the building, not the maintaining.How did I know it was time to go?Shiny new object syndrome:Instead of swimming in my lane, sticking to my knitting or whatever, I was constantly picking up new ideas and projects because, well, I was bored.  I realized that I was pushing the organization into areas that were outside of our mission and scope.  Yet, I couldn't do that for my own selfish reason.  Instead of a steely, single-minded determination to build the nonprofit at all costs which characterized the early days, I was responding to every whizzing idea.Lost that loving feeling:Waking up in the morning, I would get ready for work and it would be...fine.  I wasn't excited, I wasn't even particularly stressed.  I was just...fine.  There were high points and low points, but my work started to feel like a job and not a life calling.Fantasizing:I would spend a great deal of my time wondering about being anywhere but where I was.  I wasn't fully present emotionally or mentally.  The organization deserved better than that.Getting in the way:As a quasi-founder, I realized that I was getting way into the weeds that I should not have been.  We were a big enough organization that it wasn't really appropriate for me to get into the decision-making level of the program.  But, I couldn't stop myself because that's what I loved doing to begin with.  At the end of the day, as Executive Director, I did not and should not have been involved with things like planning an interview day.What I needed to do was get the hell out of the way and let others do their jobs.  I knew in my core that the efforts I had invested to get the organization up to a certain level were not the skills and temperament necessary to get it to the next level.  As any parent knows, I had to let go in order for the organization to grow.In short, it was Classic Founder Syndrome.In the end, walking away from something I had invested so much into for so long was both incredibly hard and incredibly freeing.  I could step away knowing that I had built an organization that would last beyond me and I could figure out who I was when I wasn't the ED of this particular organization.Even now, a year later, it's hard not to answer the phone with the name of the organization and it's been an interesting process to rediscover who I am without the organization that had been my identity for over a decade.  I was incredibly blessed to build something that I'm so deeply proud of and excited about "being in the wild" to explore new projects.Have you been through a big transition?  Let me know in the comments!

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