My Biggest Professional Mistake

Staff Burnout Can Be A Matter of Life or Death. Seriously.

Staff Burnout Can Be A Matter of Life or Death. Seriously.

I want to share with you an unflattering personal story about how a certain, very common management style (mine) nearly resulted in the death of a dear friend and colleague.

No exaggeration (ok, maybe just a tiny bit.)

I hope by sharing my story you can avoid making this mistake at your nonprofit.

During my eight years as a nonprofit CEO, my staff worked hard. That’s what I expected. I tried to make hires that were ‘best of breed.’ They overflowed with drive and ambition to move the American public from tolerance to acceptance of LGBT people.

I was driven and so were they. Every decision felt important. Hitting our revenue numbers was critical because, as our Development Director Julie always said,  “money = programs.”

I knew Julie had been to the doctor a few times but she downplayed it. She was always healthy as an ox. Ran 423 miles a day (I exaggerate… but only slightly.) Truthfully, I don’t remember asking many questions. Too busy making “very important decisions” about the LGBT community’s future.

And it was just before a board meeting. As senior staff at any nonprofit will tell you this is simply a crazy time. Or it can be. I made sure it was. We prepped, we rehearsed, we were ready.

We traveled from different locations to Chicago. Julie walked into the meeting and informed me that she had a new accoutrement to her wardrobe.

A heart monitor.

Here come the “should haves.” I should have told her to turn around and go home. She looked absolutely horrible. She was ON A FRIGGIN’ HEART MONITOR!

But I didn’t.

What the hell was I thinking?


I spent fifteen years in corporate America. The culture of nonprofit is exhilarating and demanding in a way that’s just different. In corporate America there were small decisions, medium ones and then really mission critical ones. There were days when honestly, you just weren’t ridiculously busy. And if you made a mistake, it wasn’t typically of the life or death variety.

But in nonprofits, everything feels important. And it IS important.

What if that client doesn’t get in front of the judge? She could be homeless. What if the suicide hotline is not sufficiently staffed? On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being “the most important decision you need to make,” all decisions feel like 10.

In the early days, I simply did not have the ability to adjust and prioritize. When you’re in the business of saving lives, changing the world or both, that’s just how it feels. All the time.

That’s certainly how it felt to me. I assumed that this is how it felt to my staff. And therefore, I was relentless.


OK, maybe not all my fault. But I’ll save that for next week’s post.

But the boss sets the tone. When everything is a five-alarm blaze, my staff was unable to distinguish between the real emergencies and the thing that really could wait until next week.

Think for a minute about who is drawn to CEO positions. The typical profile: Type A, altruistic, impatient, driven and sometimes relentless.

That was me. And this profile can be toxic when it comes to managing staff and setting priorities.


Well, first, the obvious. I could have told her to go home. Better, I could have been aware of Julie’s health issues and insisted she not come in the first place.

But, beyond that…

  • Consider yoga.  I am only half kidding. My staff could always tell if I had taken time to go to the gym before work. And when I hadn’t. My mood was defined among staff by Starbuck drink size. “How’s Joan today” they would say to a colleague before their weekly meeting? “Buckle up, she’s a Venti today.” I needed to find a way to release the tension of a job that is so stressful. Long after leaving GLAAD, I took up racquetball. About seven years too late.
  • Prioritize for my staff.  Not everything is a 10. Can’t be. I should have taken the time to help my staff understand what can wait and what can’t. And I had to work hard to believe that some things can wait. Because I’m here to tell you that if you yourself think most things are a 10, it’s only moments before you are online ordering your own heart monitor. Or burning out. And people who burn out are unhappy and more importantly UNPRODUCTIVE. Your mission and your clients deserve that.
  • Take Vacations – each and every day you are entitled to.  Take at least two weeks consecutively. Your assistant should read your email, farm it out to the right people and connect with you on the top 10 items. If it will make you even crazier to be totally out of pocket, have your assistant connect every other day. Consider longer.
  • Talk about this issue with your staff.  Don’t just go around assuming that everyone is burnt out and there is nothing to be done about it. Assuming you even realize it. I should have taken time for an all-staff forum to generate ideas to reduce burnout. Make some commitments. Identify someone in the group to keep track of the commitments. A month later, revisit. Making any headway? If you don’t talk about it, nothing will be done about it.
  • Appreciate your staff.   Figure out a way to do this on some regular basis.  Not just a cubicle drive-by with a ‘good job.’ Be creative. I needed to send a message that it’s critical to take a break, have a laugh and dish about the most recent post on Perez Hilton (who worked for me at GLAAD but that is a post for another day).

I am so thankful that Julie was OK. More than OK – she was a full participant in the meeting and did a great job. But she never should have been there. She looked absolutely horrible and I’m sure the Board thought I was stark raving mad for having her there.

Julie and I laugh about this today. She’s now a clinical psychologist and presumably helps people avoid crazy things like getting too caught up in their jobs. As somebody who learned this lesson from personal experience, I use my role as a nonprofit consultant to coach people with this same message.

Of course, Julie knows that she too had a role to play in this. I asked her if she would guest blog and tell the story from her perspective.  I am no longer her boss. She makes her own decisions.

She said yes.

Next: Julie’s side of the story.