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  • Writer's pictureTara Rethore

Nonprofit Boards: Support Your New CEO From the Start

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Note: This article is the fifth and final in a series talking about how Boards can position their new CEOs for success.

Over 45% of nonprofit CEOs responding to a Bridgespan survey (June 2014) reported receiving no help from their Boards as they took the helms of their new organizations. Worse, nearly two-thirds of those CEOs said they received little or no support from their Boards in developing as leaders. While new CEOs of for-profit organizations are similarly challenged, nonprofit and association CEOs (or Executive Directors) are at even more of a disadvantage. Why? Because most nonprofit Boards are comprised of volunteers or members – and managing people is not usually a specific criterion for selection or service. In fact, BoardSource reports that the top two criteria are professional expertise and representing a specific constituent’s needs.

Assuring the success of your new CEO (or Executive Director) adds tangible value for your organization. At the least, it avoids the cost of conducting another CEO search within just 18 months of closing the first one. That’s how long it takes for one-third to half of all new CEOs to fail. At best, setting aside time and resources to support your new CEO helps him/her to achieve the objectives you’ve set for the organization and to serve your mission better.

Focus on the future. Before hiring, understand where the organization is (or should be) headed. Then, consider how the political and cultural aspects of the organization may be challenging for the new CEO (or Executive Director). During interviews, screen for the competencies and experience that will serve the candidate well in navigating these nuances in your organization. Once the deal is inked, develop a leadership agenda that includes people skills alongside the financial and operating goals you set for the new CEO (or Executive Director).

Facilitate connections. Nonprofit Board members are often well-connected and know the key stakeholders and constituents well. During the first 90 days of your CEO’s tenure, facilitate connections to those key stakeholders, building on the strength of your relationships to lend credence to the CEO as the leader of your organization’s mission. Thereafter, support the CEO (or Executive Director) in developing his/her independent relationships with key stakeholders and help identify new stakeholders the CEO may cultivate in service of the mission.

Get help. As volunteers, nonprofit Board members may have neither the time, nor the requisite skills to support your new CEO (or Executive Director) in the areas he/she most needs. That’s where an external coach, mentor, or advisor can truly add value. Set aside specific resources to help your CEO (or Executive Director) start well in the new role, including integrating effectively into the new team. Hiring a new CEO is not an isolated event. By definition, the new CEO effects change in the way the organization works and the nature of relationships – just by being a different person at the helm. That change is particularly true for the leadership team. Both internal successors and external hires often need help in navigating the interpersonal and political landscape that emerges along with the new leader. Again, an external coach can be invaluable in accelerating progress and enhancing the effectiveness, not only of the new CEO, but also for the entire leadership team.

The research tells us that nonprofit Boards can do better in supporting their new CEOs (or Executive Directors). Fortunately, doing so is not all that difficult. By first being mindful of the challenge, then committing its own connections and specific resources to resolve it, the nonprofit Board can add real value for its mission.

First in this series: Transition.

PS: Ask me about the Rethore Rapid CEO Assessment™. Identify a few key actions to enhance your new CEO’s success.

©2019 Tara J. Rethore


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