When a new executive is hired, the board usually breathes a huge sigh of relief. They have likely been working extra hard for weeks or months interviewing candidates or taking on additional tasks, such as managing a fundraising event or overseeing the audit. If you're on a board, before you turn over the reins to a new leader, consider these fast ideas to help get the executive get started on a path to success:
- Hang in there just a bit longer. It's understandable that board members want to relax once the new executive director is in place, but stay in there at continued intensity for a while longer, and make sure the executive has the support she needs to get off to a great start. A new executive may be reluctant to ask board members to do something, or may be new to the community or field as well. Tip: Assign a committee or an officer to take on the job of monitoring the needs of a new ED.
- Write and send out a press release -- either by email or in hard copy. Send it to local and neighborhood newspapers, local ethnic press, newsletters in your field, your national office and affiliates (if you're a chapter organization such as Planned Parenthood), and local television and radio stations.
- Send the press release to everyone, not just the press: be sure the press release is sent to funders, donors, significant volunteers, former staff and board members, city officials, and organizations with which your nonprofit is in contact. They'll appreciate the news, and it gives you a chance to tell them more about the new executive and spark their positive interest in working with her.
- Have the board president or chair introduce the new executive to the staff. Doing so sends a message that the board has hired this executive who manages the staff and reports to the board.
- Take time at a board meeting to make a list of the influential people your new executive should meet, and see which board members can set up coffees or lunches with them. For example, a board member can invite the new executive to lunch along with other Chinatown leaders or coffee with the school superintendent.
- Make a personal donation to the organization now to demonstrate your confidence in the new executive and the organization's future. Bonus: he'll really appreciate it.
- Set the new exec up for success by giving positive messages to the community about him, especially ones that points the way for working together. Example: "We are so thrilled we were able to hire him -- he's just what our organization needs for the future. In particular, I think you'll appreciate his experience with innovative programs involving kids and sports." If you have some private reservations about the new executive, keep them to yourself.
- If you're the board chair, take extra care working with the new executive on board meetings and board packets. She'll be finding her way in a new environment, and you can help find a balance between what the board is familiar with and her style as it develops.
- Take your new executive out to lunch, and listen. Don't forget that he's in the process of forming his big ideas, and you can help him by listening, asking questions, and encouraging him to be creative and bold. You can also help him think through which kinds of issues need to come to the board, and which are appropriately up to him. Remind him what the board expects from its executive in terms of support and information and, in turn, ask him how he'd like to be supported by the board. Any relationship in life has a better chance of thriving when the expectations of all parties are explicit.
- Look for opportunities, especially at board meetings, to praise the new executive. "The directions you're talking about are just the ones we were looking for," or "The board packets were excellent -- I especially appreciated the inclusion of the article about changes in funding for neighborhood arts."
- Suggest to your exec that a good use of organizational funds may be to pay for a coach -- perhaps in fundraising, public speaking, or some other leadership area they may find helpful. Even the best baseball players work with batting coaches and fielding coaches.
Don't forget to establish and monitor benchmarks for performance. Clear performance goals for the first year will go a long way towards keeping the board and the executive focused on what's important. Some boards ask the new executive to use the first 45 days to learn, and then present a set of draft benchmarks to the board, while others establish the benchmarks together as part of the hiring process.
Either way, be sure the board fulfills its collective responsibility as a board to oversee its chief executive. If things begin to go bad quickly, such benchmarks will allow early termination, and if things go well, such benchmarks will mark a reason for success.
See also in Blue Avocado:
Tim Wolfred, Psy.D., inaugurated the Executive Transitions program at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and authored Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits (Fieldstone). He has consulted to dozens of nonprofits in CEO change, and has served as a nonprofit interim executive director 16 times. He's seen a lot.
Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado, and currently the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits.