Did your Board Choose the Wrong Executive?

It is torturous to watch a good organization wither away or go awry because the wrong executive was hired. A faulty hire is, in my experience, a mistake not easily rectified . . . I’m sure you’ve seen such sad stumbles in your own community. What a terrible waste of time, resources, social capital, and opportunity.

The Nonprofit Quarterly understands, then, why the topic of leadership transition is of such interest to our readers. A leader’s departure is a pivotal moment in any organization’s life — that is why we have chosen leadership transition as the theme of our Spring edition.

Actually, I think we outdid ourselves this time with some truly noteworthy articles, including “Boards and Leadership Transition: The Wrong Hire can Derail a Healthy Organization,” about how boards err in choosing a new executive and what to do to get it right. Written by Deborah Linnell (who authored the seminal, “Founders and other Gods”) this piece is both excruciatingly resonant and refreshingly illuminating. It is a must read for every board member. Here is an excerpt that sets the stage:

Consider this example. For three years, the board of an organization that promotes volunteerism has struggled with a lack of faith in its executive director. The mild-mannered director lacks personal energy and functions as a coordinator rather than as a manager. His leadership style creates a loss in momentum, although the organization’s rates of volunteer participation are high. Made up of young professionals, the board has let its frustration build, prompting this executive to intuit that he has not met expectations and resign. The board decides it needs a real go-getter who will focus on fundraising, and it gets what it wants: a motivated, former junior staff consultant at a for-profit firm serving nonprofits who drives ahead without consulting others. In fact, she often appears annoyed when others voice their opinions. Staff begins to filter out.

Always involved in setting the organization’s agenda, the board soon realizes that it has made a mistake. The problem is, its members have spent valuable social capital in promoting the new director as organizational savior. The director leaves within the year and the organization — now significantly weakened and disheartened — is consolidated into another. How do such things happen?

To read more of this article which is rich in practical advice (subscribers to the Nonprofit Quarterly can link to the whole article but we have given you non-subscribers only a taste to encourage you to take the plunge and subscribe today!)

Other important articles in this sure to be well-circulated issue include:

  • •  A Leader’s Guide to Executive Coaching
  • •  Guide to the First 100 Days of an Incoming Leader
  • •  Debunking the Generation Gap in our workplaces

Meanwhile, and apropos of the topic, I want to acknowledge the sad passing of a remarkable and resilient community leader.

Barbara Motley of Goodwill Homes in Memphis had just passed the leadership baton to a woman she had mentored for decades when she died in a tragic house fire. Her legacy is in the health and happiness of the children and elders who are and will be so well served by Goodwill Homes. Ms Motley epitomized this sector’s spirit and tenacity. She will be sorely missed.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very insightful article. It describes precisely the situation at my organization.

    It is painful to watch an organization you care about fall apart. Careers disrupted. Staff growing depressed. Quality of work declining.

    Is there anything staff can do to help turn things around? Is it too risky to talk to the board?

  • Ruth McCambridge

    From Ruth in lieu of the fabulous Deb

    It is hard to respond to this question without understanding other variables in the situation but here are a few general observations: It is good, as a general rule when you have a complaint about something that does not rise to the level of the illegal or unethical to address yourself to the party in question first. Have you already tried to communicate with your executive directly to provide her with your perspectives on what you think is and isn’t working about her leadership? I realize that for some people (not you necessarily) this approach seems nearly inconceivable but the unfortunate result of avoidance is that executives often do not get straight forward and accurate feedback on some of the downsides of their styles and strategies.

    Of course the variables I referenced earlier can make this solution – or any other I might suggest – impossible. For instance, if the executive is very defensive or vengeful, such an approach could clearly backfire. But so could an approach to a board member. When we have seen that kind of approach taken it often ends up in confused and ineffectual attempts to take the issue up indirectly even while an underlying issue and agenda is clearly present…a nightmare for all involved.

    This is, by the way, why we advocate the use of regularized 360 degree evaluations for executives. Boards, in this way, might save themselves a lot of unexpected surprises that have festered too long in secrecy.