Natalie English | Crain's Raleigh Durham

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Natalie English


Organized in 1853, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce was the first chamber in the Tar Heel State. It is a nonprofit, membership-based organization of more than 1,200 diverse companies and organizations.

The Mistake:

The biggest mistake I made was jumping too soon from one position to the next level.

I was working at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce back in 1998 and I had set a goal for myself that I wanted to be the leader of an organization like a chamber of commerce or other membership organization. That was the career goal, particularly in the advocacy piece of the job, which I was really passionate about.

I got a call from a friend I had been lobbying with, which at the time had been for about eight years, and she said she was on the board of a statewide association that was searching for a new executive director and she’d love to put my name in the hat. I was bowled over. I was so proud of myself and so excited to have this invitation to interview. I was 30, maybe 31, and here I was, already going to achieve my career goal.

I went into the search process entirely myself, very sure and very confident and knew that I could do the job. And I got it.

Wherever our paths lead us, we’re meant to be stewards of what we’re given.

The Lesson:

I took the job and moved back to Raleigh. There were a couple big things I walked in on. One was a budget that couldn’t support the salary they offered me. The second was the realization that the previous executive director, who had been there for 30 or 40 years, left an office full of file cabinets and papers, some of which dated back so far it was on microfilm.

For the first week or so, I wondered what to do with all this and where to even start. I’ve got to do something to make the salary they offered me. I made a phone call to the then-CEO of the Charlotte Chamber and I said, “I don’t know what to do.”

He told me that next time I took a job I should look at the budget to make sure they can afford the salary they offered. He also said: “Whatever you have to do, for however long you’re there, make sure you’re leaving it in a better place than you found it. Make sure the organization is sustainable whenever you do decide to leave.”

Wherever our paths lead us, we’re meant to be stewards of what we’re given.

When I took this job at the Wilmington Chamber, I asked to see the budget and they could afford to pay me what they were offering, and I finally realized my goal of running a membership organization. I took the job and immediately got here and starting thinking about how I can leave this organization in a better place – raising revenue to make sure we can support our current salaries, as well as creating and adopting more initiatives to grow our staff and do even greater things for Wilmington.

Natalie English is on Twitter at @NatalieHEnglish.

Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

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