It's lonely at the top for nonprofit executive directors-maybe even lonelier than for-profit execs, because a nonprofit exec has so many people to answer to.

Whether it's a director who tussles with the woman who, 20 years before, founded the organization at her dining room table, or a manager who sugarcoats his employee appraisals because he doesn't want to rock the boat, interpersonal relationship issues can get very messy.

"It's hard to find an executive director," says Wendy Hopkins, program director of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. "They have to have the heart and the business acumen and the development know-how and the ability to manage their staff."

That may be why some nonprofit execs are taking their cues from the for-profit world and turning to career coaches for mentorship, according to a recent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Career coaches act as sounding boards to test new ideas, set goals and improve communications among constituents.

"I'm one person you can let off steam to," says Ed Cabot, of the Cabot Management Group, who brought his consulting business to Sarasota from Chicago nine years ago. "I can hold up a reflector, so when you've heard yourself saying something out loud, you can hear whether it has the same meaning. And I can play devil's advocate; I can say to you, 'If these are your goals, this is how you're going to have to do it based on what you're telling me you're experiencing.'"

In the summer of 2000, attorney Jon Preiksat, then executive director of The Venice Foundation, signed on with executive career coach Jim Bos at the insistence of the chairman of his board. His primary goal: to more effectively handle human resource issues.

Bos and Preiksat worked together for almost 10 months. Initially, Bos assigned him hypothetical vignettes to read and respond to. Then Preiksat brought him actual situations he faced in the workplace. "I basically built the model, he smoothed off the rough edges," Preiksat says about the give-and-take.

Bos, a longtime insurance executive who graduated from Corporate Coach U. and founded Coaching Vision two years ago, stresses that career coaching is not therapy. "A therapist deals with the past to present," he says, "while a coach deals with the present into the future." He and his wife and business partner, Mary Beth, say they have counseled more than a dozen local nonprofit directors and managers since 2002. Most insist on confidentiality, although some, like Preiksat, are directed to him by their boards of directors.

Mary Beth, herself a veteran of 25 years in the nonprofit industry, says trouble often begins when the board's expectations do not match the executive director's job description. She cites a recent example of a nonprofit exec who was having difficulty settling into her new job. "I met with her and the board president, first separately then together, and had the board spell out exactly what their expectations of this person were."

Mary Beth says she also spends a lot of time with her nonprofit CEO clients establishing strategic plans. "An executive director has to be a leader, and that's the biggest part of their job," she says. A formal strategic plan lets you nip things right in the bud when a board member or donor comes to you with a big, unfeasible idea. "When you don't have that plan, you're in trouble."

Another area of potential conflict, Bos says, is when the director and a key staffer aren't in harmony. "All nonprofit executive directors have to be really savvy in the fund-raising realm," she says. "Even if they have a director of development, they have the main responsibility of touching base with that donor and clinching the deal. The director and development director must see eye-to-eye, trust each other, support each other. When that's out of synch you'll have a problem."

Ed Cabot says measuring the success of career coaching is "almost never quantifiable, it's almost entirely subjective. Often, it's a matter of feedback from colleagues saying, for instance, 'I really appreciate the way you ran the meeting today.' In the end, it's the manager himself or herself in some fashion trying to make observations that would say, 'I've made headway on the things I want to make headway on.'"

Did executive career coaching help Jon Preiksat? "I got fired anyway," he says bluntly, "Would I have sought this out on my own? Probably not. But it gave me a tremendous amount of insight into myself and into particular situations that I hadn't taken into account before."

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