Managing Big Change: Top Tips for New Executive Directors & CEOs

Change is hard. Here are some steps to help you construct a careful plan on the front end in order to bring you success in the long run.

Managing Big Change: Top Tips for New Executive Directors & CEOs
11 mins read

Steps to help your nonprofit create a winning plan for change.

Congratulations! You’re a new CEO at a nonprofit or social enterprise hired to increase impact. Whether your organization is small, medium, or large, many of the obstacles you’ll have to navigate are the same. In this article, find out the steps you can take to succeed in the challenge of change.

Doing more good means the end of the status quo—something’s got to change. If you’ve been brought in to create that change, it’s likely to mean something big: ending a beloved program or creating a new one, hiring or firing staff, or restructuring the organization.

Change is hard. As everyone knows, it’s particularly difficult in nonprofits or social enterprises, since consensus is a prerequisite for change and incentives to motivate new behaviors are limited. Taking the time to construct a careful plan on the front end will bring you success in the long run. Here are the steps to help you create that winning plan:

  1. Get Ready: Meet, Listen, and Promote Accountability
  2. Get Set: Let the Precision Questioning Begin
  3. Almost There: Build Layers of Support
  4. Go: and Go Fast!
  5. Look Back: Pause & Assess

As the “new kid on the block” your first step is to listen and learn.

Step 1. Get Ready: Meet, Listen, and Promote Accountability

The presence of a new boss creates anxiety, so instead aim to create calm. How do you do this?

By showing you are first listening and learning, and you’re committed to moving in a positive direction for the organization.

First, meet with every important constituent. Have a full calendar. Your urgent work style is apparent and you’re setting the tone. Aim to meet with all board members (or at least the executive committee), senior staff, and top funders, with the only objective to get to know each of them and why they’re passionate about the work.

In these meetings, show respect for past efforts while making mental notes of what can improve. Include colleagues from other agencies in the early fact-finding, as they can be amazingly generous in sharing lessons learned.

Convey to the staff individually and in public meetings that you’re glad everyone is performing and knows their goals. If they aren’t, it’s a good time to review with supervisors. Accountability is the operating word.

Amazingly, the mere mention of accountability can result in early departures. I’ve seen a COO, Chief Program Officer, and admin quit in the first month as soon as they heard the “A” word. An Executive Board Member resigned when I asked the group if they had made their annual contribution. She didn’t want to be held accountable to her commitment even though she had resources. Be grateful for those departures, they’re not the folks who you will need to be effective.

For each resignation, there are many more quiet staff members who will say, “Finally. We have clear goals. Count me in. Glad you’re here.”

Step 2. Get Set: Let the Precision Questioning Begin

Your job in these early stages is to create a safe environment, but also keep listening and learning until you get the information you need. Precision questioning is not just about asking good questions—it’s questioning with respect and without judgment until a clear mutual understanding is reached.

In my first month as CEO at the Jewish Vocational Services in Chicago, I used precision questioning to discover that a major legacy program—a workshop for clients with behavioral disabilities—was subpar. Red flags were everywhere. It had been years since anyone had visited the sites and the staff had little training in delivering current services. Nothing had changed in the last 40 years. In addition, government funders said support for our type of service was disappearing, while other nonprofits had more expertise delivering services to that vulnerable population. The upshot? Resources were being drained that could be used to serve more clients with our stronger programs.

Step 3. Almost There: Build Layers of Support

Wrap up your precision questioning quickly: within the first 60-90 days. Your fresh eyes, great listening and questioning, and your experience will lead you to one or two changes that will have great impact. However, set the stage and test assumptions before you act. You’re seeking not only input, but buy in. Slowing down to get buy in early on will pay off and enable you to move fast later.

The confidential questions I asked the senior team to build their support in closing the program were:

  • If we exited, who else can serve our clients?
  • Are there agencies who deliver that service and do a better job than us?
  • What would happen to the staff we have currently assigned to this program?
  • How would closing down the service affect our reputation?

Remember, you’re the newcomer. The incumbent staff has a relationship with the board and their loyalty to you is not yet cemented. You are the boss; every word you utter is under a microscope. When the board asks, “How’s the new boss doing?” The answer is never going to be ”We love her!” At least not yet. Instead, it will be, “She seems to be doing great, but she’s thinking about closing the program we love.”

Cultivate your Board President as your best friend. Let them know in weekly meetings who you’ve talked to, what you’ve learned, and the conclusions you’re forming. This way they’ll already have the necessary information to back you up.

Since some consensus is necessary for big changes, use communication to get everyone on board. Here’s how to think about communicating with each stakeholder to build support:

  1. Senior staff help you build the plan from the ground up, so they are your partners and emissaries. If you make sure senior staff input has been incorporated, they also have ownership of the plan and will help communicate it to others.
  2. Executive Committee: Keep the Executive Committee, if you have one, informed throughout the early stages. Communicate your plan, actions, players, and timeframe. Detail how senior team members will each be responsible for a part of the implementation. Once the Executive Committee is aligned they will be the emissaries to the finance, marketing, and governance committees, and to the general board.
  3. Major funders: Call major funders early in the process; don’t let them hear about big changes from your board or staff. Explain why you’re implementing the change, the impact it will unlock, and share the whole process to give them confidence your clients will continue to be served. Ask for input and incorporate it in your plan. If you accept public funding, you need buy in from the government agencies, remembering their funds come with contractual obligations. If your changes alter restricted funding and contract terms, address it by getting your funder’s input early and exploring options.

The more you involve others and communicate, the more support you build.

Step 4. Go: and Go Fast!

Once the fact-finding is over, act fast. Information flows like water, so as much as you can, make sure to control it.

When we closed our mental health program, reassigned clients and staff, and deployed our resources to serve more clients in the area of our core competency, we followed a specific plan of communication. Here’s how the rollout went with the rest of the stakeholders:

  1. Full board: Your Board President will present the change plan. You and your senior team should be there to answer questions. Vote to approve the plan so that you have full, documented support.
  2. All staff: Schedule a meeting immediately following the board approval. Don’t expect staff to jump for joy when they hear change is coming; human nature kicks in so anticipate and be ready to address their fears. When I talked with staff about the changes at JVS, I was prepared for “What about our jobs?” but got “What about our clients?” Remember nonprofit professionals sincerely care about the mission and the people they serve. At JVS, the program staff all applied for other jobs within our agency or for positions at the agencies where our clients were reassigned.
  3. Client meetings: These can be the hardest! Have your Board President attend along with the program managers. Reassure clients they will not be left without services and you will help them find a place that best meets their needs. Have the referring agencies on hand so that real people are available to reassure and answer questions. Offer choices. No one wants to be told what to do, but the sting of the closing is lessened when the choice of what’s next is in the client’s hands.
  4. Press: Be ready with Q&A’s, a press release, and a designated spokesperson—preferably your Board President.

For us, the events that took six months to plan took less than a month to implement and involved closing three locations, relocating 150 clients (who all landed safely), and reassigning 20 staff. We were then able to focus time on building up our vocational programs. This entire process helped us emphasize our core competency and let other agencies do the same.

Step 5. Look Back: Pause & Assess

Depending on the project it could be months or a year before you’re done implementing all the components. However long it takes, after the dust settles review what you said you would do, what you did, and what happened. Reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what you can learn from it. Make sure to include key stakeholders in this review so the lessons are institutionalized. Most importantly, thank everyone for hanging in there with you during this transitional time.

Now everyone gets to breathe, deeply. You’ve made your first big change. You’re on your way to success.

About the Author

Gail Luxenberg recently joined Tuft & Associate as Executive Search Consultant and is the principal at GLuxenberg Consulting. Her current engagements follow a career accelerating the mission of large nonprofits as their CEO, including Jewish Vocational Services in Chicago, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, and Habitat for Humanity/Seattle King County.

Gail has served with and been recognized by the University of Chicago Women’s Business Group, JCCA, IAJVS, Habitat for Humanity, American Medical Association (AMA) and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Gail holds an MBA and AB from the Booth School and The University of Chicago.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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