Promising Practices for New Executives and their Boards

By Tom Adams, Director of Succession and Sustainability

Executives who move from a for-profit company are often surprised about how different and in many ways more difficult the nonprofit CEO job is. Jim Collins in Good to Great and the Social Sectors emphasizes how governance is more complex and decision making more diffuse in nonprofits, requiring a different approach to leadership.

New executives of nonprofits are motivated by a passion to make a difference. Each new executive navigates a different process with a Board who has varying degrees of experience hiring an executive and awareness of what the job is and requires. The first day arrives for the executive full of hopes and expectations. And then a combination of personal readiness to lead and the presenting situation of this organization meet or collide, producing an onboarding experience that ranges from intense and rewarding to a total nightmare.

Much is at stake for the organization and its mission, the new executive and all involved. Yet too many executives and Boards naively head into new executive onboarding with too little planning. The Board too often minimizes the challenges facing the executive and the need for support. The executive, most of whom are in the position for the first time, doesn’t know what to expect and doesn’t attend to the intense self-care and discipline required for success.

Here are some practices for executives and boards that increase the odds of a successful new executive onboardng:

For New Executive Directors/CEOs

Prepare Yourself
There are learnable skills required of executives. Get help in assessing the skills you have and the ones you need and look for safe places to learn what you don’t know. Some executives have innate people skills and struggle with the balance sheet. Others are the opposite. The more experienced in the work of an executive you have, the easier your entry will be.

There are also beliefs and habits about time management, self-care and boundaries that will equally contribute to your success. A habit of trying too hard and burning out or getting angry inappropriately at Board or staff needs attention. Plunging in head first, instead of using some time off in between positions to recharge may set you up for being tired from day one. Be good to yourself. Arrive for your new position rested and ready to go.

Make Building Relationships a Priority
You only get one opportunity to be new and seek guidance and input as a new executive. It is often challenging to make individual meetings or calls with all your Board members and managers a priority. Taking time to know the leaders as people and to build trust will make everything else you want to do more likely. If the organization is healthy, make transition the priority. If the organization is in crisis, use the crisis as a way to build strong relationships.

Be a learner and listener
Whether you call it a listening tour or your learning time, there is a lot to learn. When you meet with Board, staff and stakeholders, ask them what motivates them to want to be part of this mission and how you can best advance the mission and their desire to contribute. You will be amazed what you learn and how it helps you shape a clearer vision for individual and collective success and impact.

Be Kind to your Predecessor Executive
No matter how beloved and talented the executive you follow, there will be surprises and head scratchers. We are all human and you weren’t there and don’t have the whole context. So give the prior executive(s) the benefit of the doubt and focus on the good or say nothing. Blaming a prior executive has limited benefits and many downsides.

Manage Expectations
Establish a simple 90-day work plan with your Board. Ask for a small work group of Board members to be a sounding board and guide to you in the first 90-180 days. This group is the place to shape expectations and build agreement on focusing on relationships and a short list of priorities.

Assess Alignment of Strategy, People and Resources
Depending on the presenting situation, you will have a few weeks or several months to size up whether you have the people to carry out the stated strategy and a resource engine to properly fuel the work. Whatever it is, it did not get that way over night. Whether you are in a turn-around or sustaining success, take time to look and learn before committing to bold actions.

Trust Yourself
The Board hired you because they believe you can do the job. It is normal to have doubts. Act as if you can be successful while learning and asking for support in learning and leading change when change is needed.

For Boards and Executives

Make Transition the Priority
Yes, there are important goals and ongoing work. Focusing too much on the work and ignoring or short changing attention to the transition limits future success. Appoint a Transition Committee to support the onboarding and give the executive room to learn and build relationships.

Provide Feedback Regularly
While executives appreciate the positive feedback that “all is well,” a healthy long-term partnership requires consistent and more specific direct feedback to the executive. Board leaders have a responsibility to be supportive, to avoid getting into management details and to pay attention to what is important and provide helpful feedback as the executive learns the position. Informal feedback at 90 days and a more formal review of progress with onboarding at six months are recommended.

Pay Attention to Year Two and Three
The most recent Daring to Lead study (2011 by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services) reported a sharp decline in job satisfaction for new executives and satisfaction with the Board in year two and three. There is for most a honeymoon of sorts in year one. Long-term success and retention hinges on attention to the CEO-Board relation in years two and three.

Attention to onboarding in the first year and to the Board-CEO relationship each year increases odds for higher performance and mission success.

PodcastCoverArtTo explore this topic further, listen to Raffa’s Lead. Learn. Thrive podcast interviews with Jennie Lucca and C. Marie Taylor on this topic, read The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide (Tom Adams) and The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins and visit us at


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One Response to Promising Practices for New Executives and their Boards

  1. Pingback: Ep. 2 – Lessons from a New Executive – for Boards and Leaders | The Do More Blog

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