Let me share two totally different situations of two new executive directors (E.D.s) taking over leadership of two different nonprofits. In each case the organizations were functioning without glaring problems, although both were suffering somewhat from the normal uncertainty of a leadership change.
In the first instance, the board was cordial and welcoming but not involved in the process of the new executive director's coming on board. The board made it clear they were ready for business as usual and expected everything to continue as if there had been no changes. The new executive director was given the keys to what they considered their well-honed machine and was expected to merge into the fast lane as if no change had taken place. It was no great surprise that within six months organizational performance dropped off. It was not business as usual because there had been a major change; there was a new leader at the helm with a different perception, outlook, and skill set than his predecessor. Almost all stakeholders were still getting used to the new E.D. and holding back as a result.
Now let's look at the second situation. As the change in leadership was taking place, the executive director and board realized it was an excellent opportunity to step back and evaluate the organization's direction. The executive director went on a "listening tour" of board members, staff, donors, and various stakeholders. The E.D. was able to ask for candid feedback, since there was no need to defend past practices and no egos involved. As a result, the E.D. and board reevaluated some programs and approaches and made changes that reflected stakeholders' needs. Here there was an acknowledgement that there would be no business as usual. As a result, changes and new relationships developed, and in 18 months revenues doubled.
I was the E.D. in each of these cases and can attest to the value of the cooperative and transparent approach in the second example. Bringing a new executive director on board is always a challenge, but it can be made into a tremendously valuable opportunity for the organization. It takes a partnership between the new E.D. and the board to bring value to the change. Here are some key components that can lead to a successful transition:
- Written description of what early priorities will be. The E.D. should develop the priorities with the board, then share the final version with it. The process should exemplify the transparent approach being taken and what expectations exist around early efforts and outcomes.
- An acknowledgement and willingness on the board's part to use the change in leadership as an opportunity to step back and reevaluate the organization's programs and tactics. This may mean putting some current strategic initiatives on hold. The board should also keep an open mind to making some adjustments if warranted.
- A possible listening tour, plus an analysis of the organization's programs, staff, financial situation, etc. These initial activities should be scheduled for the E.D.'s first 90 days so that the process doesn't get strung out too long.
- An inclusive approach to listening to stakeholders. The first apparently defensive comment by the E.D. will shut down candor, when it's that unfiltered input that's necessary.
- A start on developing relationships. Everyone likes being asked their thoughts and opinions—as long as you truly listen to the answers. Each meeting should be closed by thanking participants for their comments and asking if you can follow up with any further questions and to share the results of your collective outreach.
- A focus on learning. None of these meetings should be about asking for money.
From personal experience, the most common rejoinder when listening to stakeholders was "no one took the time to listen to me in the past." Participants greatly appreciated being asked for their opinions and having the opportunity to shape the organization's future thinking. And, of course, successful executive directors build strong relationships, and these meetings are excellent opportunities to begin this process.
Therein lies the value of truly getting up to speed in a new position and not simply getting on board. It takes concerted effort by both the board and E.D. as well as the willingness to reevaluate current practices. But it can lead to tremendous organizational success!
Bill Hoffman, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
© 2014, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
Bill Hoffman has more than 30 years' expertise in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, having worked at all levels of nonprofit organizations, including serving as chief executive of a $6 million education foundation for 9 years. He and his firm have written and presented on topics ranging from board development to community and volunteer engagement, organizational development and performance, and best practices in national, regional, and state publications and symposia.