Welcome to Your (New) World!

It’s 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night. The doorbell rings. You open the door and greet your dinner guests. You say, “So glad to see you! The coat closet is over there (pointing). Make yourselves at home. Just go in the kitchen, I think there’s some wine and some food. You’re smart, I know you’ll figure it out and cook up something. I’m going to run upstairs and take a shower. Back soon.”

It’s difficult to imagine inviting guests over with such little forethought. What would Miss Manners say about this inhospitable “hello”?

Sadly, it is less difficult to imagine the following (admittedly exaggerated) scenario featuring a new nonprofit executive.

It’s 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning. As board chair of a nonprofit, you are on site to welcome the organization’s new chief executive. When he or she arrives, you say, “So glad to see you! Your office is down the hall (pointing). Settle in. Just walk around and introduce yourself. There’s coffee in the break room. You’re smart, that’s why we hired you and I know you’ll figure it out. I’m going to my office to start my work day. I’ll call you later in the week to see how it’s going.”

Not only is this scenario not gracious or welcoming, it’s definitely not a strategic approach. Failing to thoroughly think through onboarding a new nonprofit executive omits a key aspect of the process that is crucial to an ultimately successful leadership transition and your nonprofit’s ability to thrive.

Process Continuum

When I advise nonprofit boards of directors during executive leadership transitions, we begin conversations about onboarding their new leader even before the final candidate is identified. While there may be an inclination to feel that the work is done when the search is completed and the new leader has a firm start date, this is not the case. Moving from hiring to onboarding is yet another step in the overall leadership transition process. While an essential endeavor for new staff at any level, the stakes are particularly high when onboarding a new nonprofit CEO. Moreover, thinking back to the scenarios noted above, it seems unimaginable not to focus on and prepare for this pivotal moment.

Attention needs to be paid. How will the board make their new executive feel welcome? How will they ensure the transfer of knowledge? How will they foster the new leader’s ability to establish the relationships crucial to becoming part of the organization’s team? How will they convey goals and expectations? While these are important questions on their own (and there are many more), they lead directly to the larger question of how the board seeks to be the new executive’s strategic partner in steering the organization. Onboarding may be seen as the initial test.

Don’t Improvise

Just as nonprofit boards may be unsure about creating a process to hire a new executive, they may similarly be unsure of how to onboard the new executive.

But the same level of care needs to go into planning the onboarding phase as it did with crafting the comprehensive search process. The literature of executive transition suggests that the process takes a full year – going through a full organizational cycle – before a new executive is fully acclimated.

Thus, creating a transition committee to design and execute onboarding is key. In some instances, the search committee might transform into a transition committee. In other instances, it may be worthwhile to establish a new committee with fresh focus. At its core, a transition committee is a guide and advisor for the new executive, as well as a sounding board. Several years ago, as chair of a transition committee, I saw firsthand the value in regular formal and informal meetings. The guiding principles – honesty, openness, confidentiality, and all topics open for discussion – supported our intense focus on successfully integrating the new leader into the culture of the organization. After all, his success would be the organization’s success.

A smooth executive leadership transition is crucial to a nonprofit’s well-being. Every detail of the process to identify, recruit, hire, and onboard a new chief executive must maximize positive impressions, first and otherwise, as well as ensure steps to forge a solid leadership partnership.

A Time of Immersion

Onboarding has broad ramifications that affect all of a new executive’s relationships. In creating an onboarding plan, I believe that immersion in the organization and an internal focus for the first month is the solid foundation upon which success is built. During this phase, the new executive meets all staff, forms strong relationships with direct reports, gains clear understanding of organizational and staff priorities, and learns about all aspects of programs and services. Since a new nonprofit executive’s role has a large external component – often as the face of the organization, especially regarding fundraising and advocacy – this is also the time when the new executive forms the deep connection with the mission that is necessary before moving into the realm of external stakeholders. Because the new executive only has one chance to make a first impression with external audiences, it is fundamental to ensure a deep understanding of the organization before “going public.” The payoff in the future can be substantial: increased donations, stronger partnerships, broader visibility, greater receptivity to the organization’s cause, and more.

There are no Second Chances

When nonprofit boards of directors truly understand the significance of a leadership transition to the organization and its mission, it is reasonable to expect them to create an intelligent plan for onboarding. The value of thinking through all the nuances of onboarding and preparing a plan for doing so is obvious. There is no dialing back the clock to do it over if not handled well in the first place. Don’t settle back and assume that, just because the search is complete and the new executive is ready to lead your organization, the work is finished. It isn’t. It’s time to embark on the next phase of the continuum.

In my next blog post, I’ll fill in the details about tools and internal and external activities that support smooth onboarding and a successful leadership transition.