Boards and the Onboarding Process for New Nonprofit Executives

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July 21, 2014; Associations Now

Your nonprofit is going through an executive transition. The new executive director is finally in place. Now it’s time for the Board of Directors to back out of the way and let the new ED find his or her own way. According to a recent article in Associations Now, this is the time when the board is most eager to hand things off to the new CEO and, yet, it is the time when an onboarding process is most helpful and necessary. “Onboarding is a two way street” with the “board giving guidance to the new CEO” and the CEO and board “collectively setting the new leadership agenda.”

An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review refers to a number of studies and the experience of experts on executive transitions which suggest that there are at least five ways to “boost the board performance where it counts most: onboarding and supporting the new CEO.” Here are the five recommendations for boards to adopt a “leadership development mindset” for supporting the new Executive Director:

  1. Lay the groundwork for the new leader: The suggestion is for the board to think 3–5 years out as to where the organization needs to be and work backward to surface the skills needed by the new leadership. The board could identify tough decisions that need to be made before the arrival of a new leader.
  2. Collectively set the new leadership agenda: According to the SSIR article, almost 40 percent of those surveyed felt that the board was not effective in helping to set priorities in the first year. The leadership agenda is a shared process that starts before the new CEO and evolves as the CEO learns more about the organization.
  3. Get clear on roles: Questions to be answered include
    • Who sets the agenda for board meetings?
    • What decisions will the board participate in?
    • How and when is the CEO evaluated?
  4. Go slow in orientation to go fast on the job: The board needs to ensure that the CEO has time to build relationships and get to know the organization as a whole. Create a transition committee made up of members of the search committee, plus maybe some staff, or perhaps a new group of board members. The focus is to help the new leader get fully into the flow of the organization. This committee could identify key meetings to attend and communicate the transition to key stakeholders.
  5. Make the collective setting of goals and evaluation of progress routine: “Setting expectations proactively lays the foundation for a healthy relationship between the board and new executive.” Almost 70 percent of the executive directors surveyed did not feel that their goals and milestones in their first year were established with the support of the board. According to the Associations Now article, at last year’s ASAE annual meeting, the workshop speaker emphasized “turn[ing] the evaluation conversation to look at future needs, not just past metrics”

Executive transition is a when, not an if. Time spent on developing an executive succession plan and focusing on the onboarding process is time spent on moving the mission forward.—Jeanne Allen