Board members: Five essential elements for onboarding a new leader for your organisation

As a member of a not-for-profit organisation’s board, your most important responsibility is to make sure your CEO has the support and tools they need to make sure your NFP thrives.

Despite this, a recent survey of over 200 not-for-profit CEOs in the US found that 46 per cent reported they received little to no help from their boards or committees when they began their jobs.

That’s almost half of all surveyed NFP CEOs saying that they didn’t get a proper onboarding when they started their jobs!

Why is onboarding your CEO so important?

Good onboarding, as we wrote recently, is more than just inducting your staff into the day-to-day running of your organisation. It’s about helping them to understand the dynamics of your workplace and is an opportunity to clearly articulate performance expectations.

If you want your organisation to hold onto a great leader, then making sure they feel supported from the very start should be your number one priority as a board member from the day they are recruited.

By onboarding your CEO well, you’re setting them up for success.

But given that NFP boards are generally made up of volunteers – and with many not having prior experience with HR and onboarding practices – it’s understandable that many organisations struggle in this area.

That’s what spurred Bridgespan Group – a consultancy that works with NFPs and their leaders across the US – to survey 214 top NFP executives and interviews 30 experts about where boards are falling short in onboarding CEOs, and how they could be doing better.

Based on their research, here are five recommendations to give your new CEO the best start at your organisation:

1. Lay the groundwork before your new leader starts

Before you even begin recruiting a new leader for your organisation, the board needs a clear idea of where the organisation is headed.

To start this process, Anthony Tansimore of US consulting firm Olive Grove – who has worked with many NFP organisations recruiting CEOs – suggests that organisations do a “mini-visioning session”, ideally before they even begin recruiting.

“This helps the board define their goals for the future and what they need to do to get there,” Tansimore says.

This mini-visioning session might include thinking about:

  • Potential growth of the organisation in the next 3-5 years;
  • Whether restructuring may be on the cards;
  • Whether you hope to introduce any new programs or strategies in the medium to long term.

This also offers the opportunity for boards to make tough decisions about an organisation, like looking at redundancies. If the board can take care of these decisions before the new CEO starts it will mean a much smoother, less stressful first six months for your incoming leader.

Before your new CEO or executive director begins, it’s also a good idea to connect them with your outgoing leader, or the interim/acting CEO if that’s easier. This can help pass on important organisational knowledge, and get them thinking about the particular challenges they’ll face once they start.

2. Create a new leadership agenda together

Only 61% of CEOs interviewed as part of the Bridgespan survey agreed with the statement “My board was effective in helping me set priorities the first year.” That leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Without agreeing on priorities, it’s easy for different expectations of “success” to form between the board and the new leader, which can lead to disaster down the track.

Instead, begin by sitting down together and creating a “leadership agenda” that begins with the board’s vision (see item 1 above), and then outlines who will take on what responsibilities, and over what timelines, to achieve the vision, as well as any capacity constraints that the organisation and board face that might stop the vision being fulfilled.

Bridgespan Group has a template for a Leadership Agenda on their website that is useful for setting realistic priorities between boards and their CEOs.

3. Clarify roles

Clarifying the roles of the CEO and board was another key area that the survey found was missing from a majority of CEO onboarding processes.

Even if you’ve hired a CEO with experience working with a board, levels of responsibility and how boards communicate will be different from organisation to organisation. Don’t assume that your new CEO will automatically understand how your board meetings work, or when they need to consult with the board about big decisions.

Some of the things that you should clarify during the onboarding process with your CEO include:

  • Frequency of communication between the board and new leader;
  • Dates for board meetings and responsibility for setting the agenda;
  • Circumstances that the board gets to be involved in decision-making;
  • Details of performance evaluation for the CEO;
  • Processes for sharing informal two-way feedback between meetings.

Defining roles is also important for departing or retiring leaders who would like to continue to be involved with the organisation after they finish in the role.

It’s the board’s job to define what role a departing leader can constructively play to support knowledge transfer, but not “step on the toes” of the new CEO.

4. Don’t rush orientation

“Too many leaders are fighting fires from day one, and they miss a critical window to understand and assess the organization and build strong relationships,” says Tim Wolfred, author of Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits. “As a result, they get off to a limping start and could end up playing catch-up for years.”

Instead of jumping into day-to-day responsibilities, encourage the new leader to take a few days, weeks or months (depending on your organisation’s size) to meet and talk to as many key stakeholders as possible – both internal and external. They should be getting a feel for organisational culture, understanding how daily processes work, familiarising themselves with various departments and strategies and generally getting a full picture of how the organisation works.

Together with the new leader and key staff, develop an orientation plan to map out this process, including:

  • Communicating the transition to staff, donors, other stakeholders and the public;
  • Key meetings to attend;
  • Learning the structure, processes and dynamics of the organisation;
  • Building new relationships with staff, donors and other stakeholders.

US CEO Amy Saxton from Summer Search said she was given 100 days by her organisation for orientation.

“I met with over 100 people in 100 days across all seven of our sites—board members, staff, donors, partners. By the end of those 100 days, I had a deep sense of where the organization was and a vision for where I wanted to take it. I had built credibility with important stakeholders and a partnership with my board that has served me to this day.”

5. Set clear performance expectations and review regularly

Making it clear what the board’s expectations are, before any problems emerge, was the single biggest problem that the Bridgespan survey found.

Only one third of responding NFPs agreed that “the board and I worked effectively together to establish concrete measures and milestones for the board to use to assess my performance in my first year.”

Once you’ve agreed on activities, responsibilities, timelines, capacity constraints and roles (see items 2 & 3 above), a clear set of performance goals shouldn’t be a lot more work, and will make a huge difference in everyone knowing how the new leader is performing.

A check in after 3 months, and an initial review after 6 months are good times to revisit these goals and check how things are going.

If your organisation has the funds, you may also want to provide your CEO with some support via a coach. A 2011 survey of about 3,000 NFP leaders across the US found the most effective investment in professional development was executive coaching.

Alternatively, a mentor at another organisation or a peer networking group could provide some of the same benefits without the significant price tag of an executive coach.

Supporting your CEO or executive director is the most important job you have as a board member. Your organisation will be stronger and more effective if you show your new leader you know that.

Are you member of an NFP board or even a new CEO? We’d love to hear your experiences of onboarding. Please leave your comments below!

This post was based on an article originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), based on a survey of 214 top NFP executives across the US, and interviews with 30 experts. You can read the original article here.

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