By Tom Adams, Director of Succession and Sustainability
Board leaders are often exhausted by the time they select a new executive. They are ready for the new executive to deliver on her promises and hopefully surpass them. More than 70 percent of nonprofit executives are in this leadership position for the first time (2015 Survey on Board of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations, Stanford Graduate School of Business with Board Source and Guidestar). They are often anxious about what they don’t know and may even try too hard to get off on a right foot with the Board.
Successful new executive onboarding is therefore a dance. It is part art, part science. It requires attention and flexibility to fully leverage the potential of transition for change in the organization. Done poorly, it threatens the success of the hire and the organization.
Despite this opportunity and risk, most organizations underinvest in onboarding of a new executive. It is human nature for many boards to back-off and “see what happens.” The executive, particularly if new to the executive role, is not sure what to ask for or expect.
Designing a successful new executive onboarding is complex. There is no “perfect way.” The health and needs of the organization, how the transition and hiring were managed and the personalities and experience of the Board and executive all contribute to the onboarding strategy.
Health and needs of organization
The requirements and pressure on a new executive are quite different if the organization is financially strong and building on success or in crisis and requiring a quick turn-around to stabilize or even survive. Imagine the new CEO in her/his first executive position. The Board has clearly communicated the need to be aggressive about fundraising. What they didn’t share was that the quarterly payment from the government contract that is 50% of the budget is frozen and delayed indefinitely. Best practice is for the new executive to spend the first 90 days focused on relationship building and learning about the organization. Unless the Board and new executive are able to quickly rethink onboarding goals and priorities, there will be a major cost. The organization will struggle financially and lay off staff or raise the money – either way, the new executive loses the opportunity to build relations with the Board, key stakeholders and staff early in her tenure.
For a new executive where the organization is financially healthy, often the board is okay with the executive spending considerable time building relationships and learning the organization. For an inexperienced executive, this may create a false sense of security. In month seven, sometimes earlier, the results-focused members of the Board will begin pushing for movement on key goals. Again, appropriate engagement between a Board transition committee and the executive with attention to goals and accountability will ensure there are no surprises. Surprises weaken trust. Weak trust threatens performance and retention.
Transition and hiring experience
Boards use a variety of processes to select their next executive director. Some manage the process through volunteers and trusted staff. Others hire an executive search firm, who may or may not also provide transition consulting. Often, the way things begin is the way they end. If the new executive and Board struggled to agree on salary, this tension often colors the broader relationship and trust. If the Board does not fully understand the opportunities and challenges, the executive may feel deceived and misled. If the executive was an internal candidate, staff may or may not have been consulted about the Board’s decision. An internal new executive may be warmly received or coldly tolerated depending on process and prior experience. Or the Board may have been divided between two candidates and selected a compromise candidate who in the end has little support from Board or staff.
Ideally, the transition and search process is part of ongoing organizational development process. With internal volunteer expertise or external consulting assistance, the onboarding process and approach is building on a thoughtful prepare phase for transition and a search that seeks a candidate meeting present and future leadership needs. For a variety of reasons, this kind of process may not happen. To reduce the risk of a failed or struggling experience with the new executive, Board leaders and new executive can attend to transition planning during the first six months of tenure. This is particularly important where there are early signs of tension and communication break downs between executive and board.
Personality and culture
Most leaders have a distinct way of leading and leadership habits. Organizations develop a culture and set of organizational habits based on the preferences of the dominant leaders. When a new executive arrives, she inherits a culture shaped by preceding executive and board. The Board and staff may or may not desire change in how the organization behaves. For the inexperienced executive, there is a risk of being blind-sided by resistance to a leadership style that is quite different from predecessor.
Boards also develop habits of trusting their executive. If the last executive was underperforming or absent for a period, the board may have stepped into management out of necessity. Pacing the retreat to a more helpful governing and generative role can be challenging for the board and new executive.
The good news is that small investments of time and money can exponentially increase the odds of a successful onboarding that builds on the transition situation and the personality and culture of the leaders and organization.
To explore this topic further, listen to Raffa’s Lead. Learn. Thrive podcasts interviews with C. Marie Taylor and Jennie Lucca, read The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide or visit us at www.raffa.com.