The transition of a new executive

Is the New Year bringing a new executive to your nonprofit? Do not assume this critical transition will simply happen naturally. According to the organizational consulting firm, Performance Partners:

  • It takes a minimum of six months before most new executives begin to create more value than the cost of getting up to speed;
  • 40% of leaders going into new roles fail in their first 18 months, and of course the average cost of a failed executive is far more than their salary;
  • According to a recent survey of 1,400 global CEOs and HR executives, the number one reason for executive failure is the inability to build relationships and a team environment; and
  • Employees who participate in a structured onboarding for their new boss are 69% more likely to stay with the company after three years.

Executive transitions are critical times. The pressure for the new star to produce results as quickly as possible is enormous. It takes time for even the most gifted leaders to understand the situation (i.e., the basis for wise decisions), establish a network, develop the team and begin to add value.

Here are RMA’s ideas on successfully making this transition:

1. Every nonprofit, organization, and living organism goes through various transitions during its life. In our sector, a very risky time is when an organization goes from the founder/visionary to the next stage of hiring the first executive director. It’s invariably volatile because the culture was established by the founder, the founder selected the board of directors, and the loyalty is to the founding players. External relationships with funding sources and strategic partners are vulnerable.

2. The first 90 days are critical in this transition when the executive director/CEO comes on board. The discipline of a written timeline is needed because it is tempting to skip some of the orientation and transition, and get right to the day-to-day operations at hand.

3. Actively employ social media, with photography and video, to introduce yourself to the organization’s internal and external communities.

4. Spend time individually with each board member. This is critical to establish your own relationship with each board member, to build credibility, to listen to how they want to be used, to identify their networks and relationships, to understand what skills and talents they bring to the organization, and so on. Don’t assume that your interactions during the hiring process are sufficient for this; the dynamic has changed once you’re hired. Remember, too, that people are almost always going to be more willing to confide in you in a one-on-one setting.

5. Spend time individually with each staff member (try to visit with every staff member if that is possible). For smaller and mid-sized organizations that is entirely possible, but with larger organizations, set up group meetings or coffee or lunch visits. Make your own judgment on people rather than just relying on your directors and managers to provide you with information. Lead volunteers who are not on your board warrant a meeting, too.

6. Develop ways to establish your own identity rather than just being an appendix of the founder or previous executive. For example, consider having a standing appointment every Wednesday afternoon for two hours when people can come visit you. From the onset, actively demonstrate what you believe the organizational culture should look like (i.e., transparency, collaboration, and so on).

7. Consider writing a short, weekly email to the staff so people hear from you and understand your directions and thinking.

8. After 90 days, present to the board of directors–ideally in a formal way with visuals–your vision for the next year. Don’t rush this step until you have had three months to get to know the organization.

9. Begin to visit individually with key funders, donors, and stakeholders of the organization.  If the founder is available and has positive relationships with these people, see if they will set up the appointments and go with you to “pass the baton.”  If their relationships are not positive, then set up the appointments yourself.

10. Organize an open house at the end of the 90-day period to invite all of your friends, donors, and stakeholders to come to your office for a meet and greet reception.