You have just hired a new senior executive. Congratulations! Now what?

When the search activities conclude, the transition continues and a well-planned onboarding process is critical. In the best scenario, a transition task force (which might be the search committee) will have contact with the new executive in the period from offer acceptance to first day on the job. Having a plan for this “in-between” time will make onboarding go more smoothly. It will also permit the transition task force to discuss onboarding with the new executive to learn what she/he would like included.

Onboarding a new nonprofit executive may seem daunting. Depending on the size and complexity of an organization, it may be. A nonprofit organization should always have a plan for orienting new staff. For a senior position, it would likely need to be enhanced to match the magnitude of the role. Thinking through the high-level expectations for the new executive leads to a sharp focus on the goals for onboarding and thus, the related tools and activities that are part of it.

Immersion: Tools

Starting with an internal focus lays the groundwork for ensuring a new executive’s connection to the organization. Even if a nonprofit executive’s role is largely external, related to fundraising and advocacy on behalf of the organization, it is essential for her/him to have deep knowledge of the mission and vision, programs, staff, clients, financials, and more.

Over the years, clients have shared tools and ideas that serve the onboarding process well.

A briefing book is both a collection of key documents and a quick reference guide. As a tangible item sitting on a desk and/or as a PDF on a tablet, it can be a useful personal crib sheet on all aspects of an organization. Recommended items include:

  • Contact information for key staff and the board
  • Organizational chart
  • Department and program information
  • Senior and program managers’ job descriptions
  • Photos and bios for key staff and board
  • Calendar of events and standing meetings
  • Important financial information, including the annual budget
  • Pertinent building/facility information
  • List of “go-to” people for various things, such as tech support
  • List of tech-related information, including user names and temporary passwords

Many existing organizational documents and manuals are also important to share. These are:

  • Employee handbook
  • Organizational policies and procedures
  • Current strategic plan
  • Annual development plan
  • Overview of grants and funding sources, as well as foundation/corporate donor contacts
  • Annual reports
  • Current marketing collateral
  • Form 990 – most current

Many nonprofits are going paperless, or at least cutting back. Creating a “curated” folder for a new executive on the server or shared drive is another way to pull out fundamental documents. Folders with relevant documents related to administration, budget/finance, fundraising, grants, human resources, programs, board, and more make sense as a resource.

Immersion: Activities

An important aspect for acclimating – getting to know the people and the programs – is offering formal and informal ways for everyone in an organization to spend time together and develop a rapport. Through these interactions, staff can share their knowledge about the programs, facility, and community. There are many ways to facilitate a new executive’s opportunities to meet staff. Town hall meetings, smaller meet and greet gatherings, and other tried and true options are possible.

Nothing beats walking around the office and stopping in to say hello. A new executive (or any staff member) needs to know the ins and outs of her/his surroundings. Moreover, a lot can be learned about an organization’s culture by walking around and observing staff in their own offices and how they interact with each other in the hallways.

An office or facility tour is an important early activity. For organizations with multiple sites, a full tour of all is warranted. This is an excellent way to get to know staff and clients on their own turf. Some organizations play a big role in the communities they serve – a walking or driving tour of the neighborhood may be part of the plan.

Also central to onboarding is time for the new executive to meet one on one with direct reports and the management team. The same is true for board members. An effective leadership partnership—board and new executive—is essential for their joint vision to become reality. One-on-one meetings with board officers can do double duty. For instance, a meeting with the treasurer can help the new executive drill down into the finances – past, present, future.

The relationships with board members are vital, too. By definition, the new CEO and board lead the nonprofit in partnership. In addition, the board is a bridge to the external world, to the community from which the organization derives its support. For many nonprofit leaders, navigating this realm to the benefit of the organization is primary. Thus, planning ways for the executive to get to know board members as individuals and as a group is a particularly meaningful part of the immersion phase of onboarding.

Venturing Forth

With internal relationships solidifying, it is time to move beyond the organization. External activities will be more successful when the new executive has a strong understanding of the organization. She/he will be better equipped to handle questions in an informed way consistent with the mission.

When the new executive moves into the public sphere – for meetings with organizational partners, donors and funders, and the community at-large – there is the unique opportunity to re-introduce the organization to the public at the same time as introducing the new executive. This is a bonus when it comes to enhancing an organization’s visibility.

With any new leader, there is change. The public relations focus and message to external stakeholders and community partners depends on the nuances of the situation that prompted the search and resulted in the hired candidate. Professional guidance from an internal or external communications professional can be worthwhile.

To begin this step in the onboarding process, I suggest this process: define concentric rings around the organization to identify critical stakeholders in order of importance, and then prioritize meetings or gatherings with these audiences. This example is quite basic, but conveys the idea.

ringsA new nonprofit executive whose role is largely external will become the face of an organization. What is critical, however, is that the executive is the ambassador for the mission and the organization and that she/he always shines the spotlight on the mission and the work. A focused onboarding process helps a new executive put down strong roots within the organization and gain complete knowledge of it, ensuring that the move into the world of external stakeholders will be most worthwhile.

A Final Note

Retention begins with the first encounter with a candidate during the hiring process. Onboarding supports retention and is another step in the sequence of ensuring that a nonprofit’s new leader is successful. Most of all, onboarding is a significant aspect of ensuring a successful leadership transition for the entire organization. Of course, the ultimate goal for all these efforts and activities is that the organization fulfills its mission and thrives with dynamic new leadership.