Positioning New Nonprofit Leaders for Success

Too many organizations focus all their attention on the search process – and too little time thinking about how to onboard a new leader.

Sometimes it’s easy to assume that if you hire the right person, success will be guaranteed. But during my career running and advising large nonprofit organizations, I’ve watched too many organizations focus all their attention on the search process – and spend too little time thinking about how to onboard a new CEO or Executive Director. 

Of course, you want to find the best person to fill the executive role.  But you must also invest in their leadership by taking the next critical step – intentionally supporting this new leader throughout their first year.  The most effective organizations spend as much or more time on the executive’s first year as they do on the hiring process. That’s the only way to ensure they have the resources, introductions, and partners they need to succeed.

A Good Interim Leader will Set the Tone

Sometimes Boards move too quickly in appointing an interim – either tapping someone who is in the running for the permanent job or assigning the title to an existing staff member, asking them to essentially do two jobs in one. Instead, another approach is to bring an experienced outsider – someone who can both provide stabilizing influence for the staff and help support the board, while setting the stage for an effective transition. 

Here’s a recent example. The Louisville Ballet is one of the five oldest professional ballet companies in the country and was looking for a new Executive Director while celebrating its 70th Season in 2021. The Ballet had a great Artistic Director, Robert Curran. But they also needed an Executive Director, who would lead administrative functions like marketing, ticket sales, development, finance and operations. 

They made the decision to bring in an experienced outside person – me! – to manage this transitional phase. Much of my time was spent on the normal day-to-day work of an executive director, but the most important thing I did was prepare a thoughtful one-year plan for the eventual permanent Executive Director. 

This is my favorite kind of opportunity – supporting a great organization and setting up a new leader for success!

When the search process was complete and the Louisville Ballet announced it had selected Phil Koester as the new Executive Director, they were already aligned on an ambitious and thoughtful plan for Phil’s first year – especially the first 90 days. 

This plan gives Phil a jumpstart and will accelerate his impact. I look forward to seeing a new era of growth and creativity for this 70-year-old institution.  

Every new nonprofit leader needs a strategic plan for the first three months

So what does a great “90 Day Plan” look like for new leaders?  When I’m putting together a plan for a new CEO or executive director, I’m drawing on more than 20 years of leadership experience in nonprofits. I know firsthand what it’s like to walk into a new organization, charged with both dramatically improving results while also maintaining key traditions and values.  Here are the two things that make that job possible:

1 – A 90-Day Roadmap: Every new Executive Director needs a plan for the First 90 Days which includes the details of leadership transition, onboarding, knowledge transfer, and—most importantly—formal  introductions to community stakeholders.

By the time the new person is hired, the board is tired. They have guided an extensive recruitment process. They want the new leadership to take over. That impulse is understandable, but if you really want the new leader to succeed you must invest a bit more time in helping them to hit the ground running. This can’t “just happen” – it requires coordinated attention from a transition team.

2 – A Task Force focused on transition:  I always recommend recruiting an ED1st12 (Executive Director’s First 12 Months) Taskforce, made up of board and staff members. This Taskforce is responsible for helping to properly introduce the new ED to key stakeholders in the community, and to be a sounding board for the new ED as they navigate their first year in the executive role. The executive and the Board have many priorities, but this taskforce stays clearly focused on what the new leader needs in their first 12 months.  You might also consider engaging an Executive Coach to provide additional support to the new leader in their new position, especially if this is their first experience in the executive position.  

Crafting a 90 Day Introduction Plan: The Boone Group’s Approach to Onboarding Leadership

Every situation is unique. Some transitions come after a sudden and unexpected departure – others can be planned as a leader grows closer to retirement. The details of your organization and the life and career experiences of the new Executive Director will determine the best types of support you can provide over the first year, especially in those first 90 days.  But at The Boone Group, we find certain similarities in the challenges that face a new Executive Director.

All of our 90-day plans have three key components:

1. A Robust Stakeholder Wheel  

Most organizations will have staff, the Board and key donors or investors as stakeholders. But depending on your organization’s mission you may also have government leaders, ticket buyers, media and community leaders. Putting together a thoughtful stakeholder wheel is never as simple as it first looks.  Making sure you have the right messages and the right plan for every stakeholder will make a difference. This stakeholder wheel should serve you as you plan the initial announcement, through the 90-day “Listen and Learn Tour” and throughout the entire first year. 

2. A “Listen & Learn Tour”

A well-planned “Listen and Learn Tour” provides important ways for the new leader to build relationships with key donors, community partners and staff members. A well-thought-out tour will include donors that must be met in Week 1 – as well as vital community groups that need an audience sometime in the first six months. 

Resist the temptation to introduce the new Executive Director only to people who will sing the praises of your organization. When I became President and CEO of the Fund for the Arts in 2014, some of the most valuable conversations were those in which people told me frankly about ways we weren’t meeting the mark. 

Some of those criticisms were initially hard to hear but were instrumental in shaping the work of the Fund over the decade.  A thoughtful plan includes not only the right list of people, the right order for meeting people, but the right questions for the leader to ask.  There also should be a plan for the new executive to report back their findings from this tour, to the staff and board, and how that feedback will inform the leader’s priorities. 

3. A series of social events and warm introductions

Develop a series of social events and introduction to support the “Listen and Learn Tour.”  The one-on-one “Listen and Learn” meetings are vital, but they will go better if they aren’t the first meeting. The new leader needs opportunities to engage with stakeholders in a more casual, social environment to establish rapport, build relationships, credibility and trust with stakeholders. This is a GREAT way for the Board to help introduce the new leader.  Challenge each board member to host at least one event to introduce the new leader to a key stakeholder group or to their circle of influence.  This could be a meet-and-greet cocktail party in their home, a coffee chat for a small group or a one-on-one luncheon with an influential stakeholder.  In addition, the Board should be looking for opportunities throughout the year to include the executive in events – inviting them to be their guest at a charitable gala, the annual chamber event, or to be the guest speaker at a professional networking organization or rotary club.

The executive could find ways to attend these events on their own. But being the guest of a board member positions the executive in a different light, leveraging the social capital of the board member and creating new opportunities for the executive and the organization they serve.  These warm introductions change the first conversation with a potential partner. Instead of the executive asking, “can you help me?” the executive is being asked “How can I help you?”  A good introduction makes a dramatic difference.

Smooth transitions provide a fast start

There are very few organizations that do this well. But just like in a relay race, a smooth transition means you’ve given your executive a head start.  If your organization follows these steps for New Executive Introduction, the new executive will be uniquely and effectively positioned for great success with their constituents and stakeholders.  

Ideally, a good transition process starts a year before your current executive leaves. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes, with executive coaching, a transition can be “reset” even after an unplanned start.

Succession Planning and Leadership Transitions are some of the most critical roles for boards and organizations.  If you are ready to start thinking about succession or leadership transition for your organization, or if you want to learn more about executive coaching, schedule a conversation with The Boone Group at christen@boone-group.com.

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