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Nonprofit Management

Turning Nonprofit Executive On-Boarding on Its Head

If new executives develop themselves in alignment with the organization’s goals, they will mitigate stress and increase the likelihood of their success.

While we anticipate that the new report, “Daring to Lead 2011,” will generate buzz around the extent of leadership transition in the nonprofit sector, we are more intrigued by the quality of those transitions.

We are concerned especially for new executives, since we doubt the extent to which boards understand the nature and requirements of successful executive director “on-boarding.” A widely used practice in the for-profit world, on-boarding is distinct from classic employee orientation. It is a customized and long-term process that integrates and acculturates new executives into the organization and provides them with the tools, resources, and knowledge to be successful and productive in their unique roles. An on-boarding plan answers questions such as: What immediate needs and priorities is the organization facing at the time of the new executive’s hire? What support and development does the new leader require in the first 12 months to be positioned to realize those accomplishments?

Ironically, these questions are often best addressed by incoming executives and not by the boards who hire them. CompassPoint’s and the Meyer Foundation’s “Daring to Lead”—like many other research reports on the nonprofit sector—reminds us that in the majority of nonprofits, the executive director manages the performance of the board; the board does not manage the performance of the executive director.

The “Honeymoon Effect”

We know that a large majority of nonprofit executives are in the job for the first time and the report’s data reveals a pronounced “honeymoon effect”—a precipitous drop in both job satisfaction and satisfaction with the board of directors after a year or two of initial excitement. Unlike their veteran counterparts, newer executives described burnout as comprising fear of failure and of letting others down. In focus groups, we heard early-tenure executives discussing their panic and insomnia as they confront job demands and nuances that can be hard to imagine until one is in the seat.

Additionally, 33 percent of current executives followed a leader who was fired or forced out, suggesting the frequency with which nonprofit boards of directors and executives get out of sync on performance expectations. In fact, we found that 45 percent of nonprofit executives did not even have a performance evaluation last year, and among those who did, just 32 percent found it very useful.

Strategic on-boarding involves early, explicit conversations between the executive and their board, linking the leader’s intentional development to organizational goals and impact. This should increase the odds that executives and their boards establish a habit of attending to the executive’s development and evaluation.

Real World Practice, Not More Conventional Wisdom

The complex and sometimes baffling nature of shared power and authority among executives and boards is often the single biggest challenge a new executive faces. Conventional wisdom tells us that boards are responsible for setting policy mandates and strategic priorities that executives must follow and manage. Real world practice tells us that executives know best the needs of their organizations, and that boards rely on their expert guidance and collaborative thought-partnership to realize organizational success.

Expecting boards of directors to independently design and monitor a tailored on-boarding plan for new executives is about as realistic as expecting them to independently define and execute fundraising goals. Let’s stop pretending that executives are not central to any significant board effort—even their own on-boarding.

We need to flip the conventional wisdom about board responsibilities to better match the way executives and boards partner in the real world. In this new practice, it is the new executive’s job—not the board’s—to initiate and lead the on-boarding process.

This leads us to two recommendations for evolved practice:

1. Executive candidates should prepare for on-boarding by going through their hiring process attuned to where their current skills, knowledge, and relationships need to deepen, given what they are learning about the organization’s strategic priorities.
2. New executives should be mindful of their own strengths and weaknesses, the board and staff assets available to them, and those funders and stakeholders invested in their success, and should create a detailed on-boarding plan to share with the board and management team.

Rather than initiating and leading, the board’s role is to understand the critical importance of this process, to actively support the plan as it unfolds, and to evaluate the executive’s first year accomplishments relative to the plan’s objectives.

If in year one, new executives focus—intentionally and transparently—on developing themselves in alignment with the organization’s goals, they will mitigate stress, increase the likelihood of their success, and enjoy the rich rewards of their deepening leadership capacity.


imageJeanne Bell, MNA is CEO of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, one of the country’s leading providers of leadership development and consulting services to community-based organizations. She is the co-author of Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability (Jossey-Bass) and of “Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership.” Jeanne is also chair of the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and a contributing editor to The Nonprofit Quarterly.


imageMarla Cornelius, MNA, is a senior project director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. She developed and manages several of CompassPoint’s nonprofit management and leadership programs and research projects. She co-authored the national research reports “Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out” (2008) and “Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership.” She develops curricula, trains, and consults in the areas of staff performance management, leadership, personal development, performance metrics, and governance/boards of directors.

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