Nonprofit Board Support for New Leaders
Nonprofit Board support for a new leader is not optional. It is a mandate. Ensuring the successful nonprofit transition of an executive director is one of the most significant governance functions of a nonprofit board of directors. The success or failure of leadership transitions will impact the organization’s financial health, external communications, risk management, organizational culture, and donor relationships. Yet, most nonprofit boards of directors fail to engage in succession planning and even fewer adequately invest the energy and resources to ensure a successful transition. Much has been written scolding nonprofits for failing to engage in succession planning (such as here) or offering step-by-step directions for succession planning (such as here). Less has been written about onboarding a new leader and supporting the success of new leaders. Over the years, I have accumulated stories of succession done well, and succession gone horribly wrong. This article introduces the investments needed to support a new leader.
Recently, I came across a doctoral dissertation titled “Nonprofit Crossover Leadership: A Phenomenological Study of Nonprofit Executives from For-Profit Backgrounds.” Definitely a geeky title of a study that frames, in practical terms, how a board of directors needs to prepare to support a new nonprofit leader. What follows are four principles I extrapolated from reading the dissertation and is also informed by my own experience working with Boards of Directors and new leaders.
• Ensure Mission Alignment – When a new leader is brought into an organization, a Board of Directors needs to ensure mission alignment is focused on and supported. A Board must give latitude for the new leader to act, measure the leader against the agency’s program and operational benchmarks, and provide ongoing guidance to align organizational changes with the mission.
• Focus on Impact and Outcomes – Ultimately, the health of an organization must be focused on the difference made in the community. New leadership should bring energy to deepen, widen, or lengthen the impact of an organization. The Board of Directors must trust and act as the new leader’s partner in the pursuit of excellence, impact, and outcomes.
• Trust Strategy and Personnel Decisions – When new leadership is hired, the Board must give the leader the ability to adjust strategy and strengthen the organizational team. In partnership with the Board, the new leader must have the latitude to align strategy and staffing to improve the performance of an organization.
• Be Prepared for Change (and potentially disruptive change) – New leaders bring new ideas and propose positive changes for the organization. If a new leader simply perpetuates the status quo, then the Board has failed to ensure a healthy and positive leadership transition. Supporting a new leader who is making difficult management decisions is the work of a board of directors. As long as there is a sound basis for a new leader’s decisions, the Board must step-up in support of the decision, even when such changes are perceived as significant and disruptive.
It is easy to talk about the importance of a Nonprofit Board empowering a new executive director. More often, it is hard to operationalize this kind of support for at least three reasons.
1. Nonprofit Boards underestimate the time and focus required. Many corporate leaders recognize that leadership transition and change might take two to three years. Many Nonprofit Boards often do not have that kind of time horizon. Corporate leaders also acknowledge that change is usually concentrated on aligning management for impact (Birshan, Keller, Meakin, & Strovink). For many nonprofits, the politics or relationships between board members and staff, or the desire for the organization to “act as a family” work against management change. Most notably, the discomfort of reorganizing personnel or eliminating under-performing staff members requires courage that is often beyond the comfort zone of board members.
2. Nonprofit Boards lack the business acumen. The sad truth is that in the corporate world, less than a third of leaders believe that they support new leaders well (Keller & Meaney). In my opinion, leadership support from nonprofit boards is no more prevalent and perhaps worse than the paltry support found in the corporate sector. There is a need for nonprofit organizations to develop strategic boards, “where directors take appropriate risk to make significant contributions and lasting impact on enterprise value” (Dutra). For smaller nonprofits, the inability “to make significant contributions,” might be a reflection of the skills and qualities of board members. In other cases, the lack of results can be attributed to mediocre board expectations and practices.
3. Nonprofit Boards are afraid of change. The third barrier to supporting new leadership is the resistance to change — even when those changes create a substantial positive impact on the organization. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, in their classic book Leadership on the Line, observe that change, “stimulates resistance because it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values, It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty, and feeling incompetent: That’s a lot to ask. No wonder people resist (page 30).“
In another blog post on rapidly growing nonprofits, I suggested, that rapid growth (or change) can lead some of your board members to second-guess the executive director or inappropriately insert themselves into management decisions that have been delegated to the leadership team of the organization. A nonprofit Board must operate in support of leadership and organizational growth ane not work against the leader (see here). These words ring even more true to me today. Courageous nonprofits require courageous boards (see here).
When bringing on new leaders, the Board strategy must go beyond succession planning. Nonprofit Boards must also be intentional about supporting new organizational leadership. So the question remains, how does a nonprofit board overcome the barriers to supporting new leadership? Three words: Intentional. Board. Development. This requires investing the time in understanding the dynamic of board governance and the partnership needed between an executive director and the Board. In short, the success of a nonprofit board supporting a new executive director will require the Board to lead, adapt, and grow, sometimes facing uncomfortable truths about themselves along the way. In my experience, the highest performing boards embrace, plan for, and capitalize on the challenge and change that new leadership brings to the organization. This requires trust, risk, and courage.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.