May 13, 2024

The Board’s Role in Helping Leaders Avoid the Glass Cliff: Q&A with BoardSource CEO Monika Kalra Varma

Leaders of color transitioning into nonprofit executive roles often face "glass cliffs"—they lack sufficient support as they take on their new roles, hindering their ability to thrive as leaders. In this Q&A, Bridgespan Partner Preeta Nayak and BoardSource CEO Monika Kalra Varma dive deeper into Varma's own leadership transition at BoardSource, the concept of the “glass cliff,” and the board’s role in supporting new leaders of color.

While growing up, Monika Kalra Varma remembers “geeking out” about how organizations run. The president and CEO of BoardSource recalls hearing about the “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and learning about management strategy from her parents, who owned a small biotech company.

Monika Kalra Varma President and CEO, BoardSourceMonika Kalra Varma President and CEO, BoardSource

Those early days of learning about good organizational management weren’t lost on Varma, and as an adult, she would bring this same passion for management strategy to her approach as a leader of social justice organizations on the front lines of human and civil rights, including leading the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2021, after a sabbatical to explore the next phase of her career, Varma learned that BoardSource’s long-time CEO, Anne Wallestad, was leaving the organization. “The opening presented an opportunity to help the entire social justice nonprofit ecosystem,” Varma says. The organization’s board agreed, and in August 2022, Varma became the first leader of color in BoardSource’s 34-year history.

In this Q&A, Bridgespan Partner Preeta Nayak and Varma discuss more about why she joined BoardSource, the concept of the “glass cliff,” and the board’s role in supporting new leaders of color.

Preeta Nayak: A lot has been written about the “glass cliff,” a term first used to describe how a woman experiences taking on a leadership role previously held by a man in the corporate sector. But now we’re seeing it manifest in the nonprofit sector. BoardSource and Building Movement Project have recently written about this. Can you say more about it for our readers?

Monika Kalra Varma: We're all familiar with the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff was a term that came from the corporate sector as you mentioned, for women who were historic firsts. And they would be [facing] these entrenched challenges and essentially be set up for failure, or “falling off of the cliff.” Building Movement Project [BMP] adopted the term for historic first BIPOC leaders.

[New BIPOC leaders are] often expected to come in and solve all these entrenched problems. Yet in 2019, BMP wrote the Race to Lead report, where they found that 49 percent of people of color expressed that their race had negatively impacted their advancement. And in terms of fundraising, 49 percent of leaders of color—compared to 33 percent of white leaders—lacked relationships with funding sources. Forty-one percent of BIPOC leaders versus 24 percent of other leaders also reported earning less than their colleagues. And it’s important to note that layered on top of this is just the regular leadership transition stuff.

We wanted to take the opportunity of me being the first BIPOC leader at BoardSource, so we started tracking my journey, from the search to the transition. But we also knew that [these situations] were happening across our sector, and we wanted to talk to leaders, understand their challenges, and learn from them. We interviewed leaders, both in person and through surveys, to find out their challenges and what was working well, and to see how BoardSource might bring our unique set of resources and tools to support and augment their work.

[As part of this work,] we have launched a cohort of leaders who are historic firsts or BIPOC leaders following white leaders.

Nayak: Given all the specific challenges these leaders face, what would you recommend boards do based on your transition?

Varma: One of the key things that happened at BoardSource that made a big difference in my transition was that their racial equity journey began almost a decade before I arrived. It was a game changer to have had a board that's been through its own diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI] journey, as it usually changes the composition of who's on the board. Our board is now 73 percent BIPOC, and it has happened through a very quiet sort of deliberate learning and “holding each other accountable” journey.

More on Nonprofit Leadership Transitions

To discover four ways funders can help new leaders avoid common challenges and invest in their success during leadership transitions, read Bridgespan's article "Nonprofit Leadership Transitions: Four Ways Funders Can Support Leaders of Color".

I think that's number one. The other is understanding the nature of transition. Our transition committee was a transition committee, not a search committee. What that meant is that in year one, the focus was on search, but also on the transition of Anne Wallestad, who was leaving. They were very thoughtful about how you say goodbye to a leader as well as how you do a search. The transition committee also continued through my first year, and we didn't have a set roadmap. We knew the structure should be defined by whatever was happening in the organization. For me, our transition committee served as a support system, a place where I could go and vent about anything. And we have a deep level of trust. It was important for me to have that smaller group within the board.

The transition committee has been extended through my second year because now we're in the midst of real transition in the organization in terms of what we do and how we do it. Our second year has a six-month check-in to see if I still want [the committee’s help], if it's still useful. We don't want committees continuing in perpetuity.

Nayak: Are there other challenges the boards should address to help ensure a successful transition?

Varma: One of the biggest things leaders of color, or leaders in transition coming to do something new in an organization, run into is that they become the face of that change. Change is hard, and it produces anxiety. And it's a normal human reaction to be anxious about the change—and then you're upset with the face of the change.

A board that is clear about what is happening and why it's happening, and it continues [to communicate] that clarity leading up to the transition and then continues it once the leader gets into place will help set a new leader up for success. [In my case,] the board knew it was looking for a different type of leader, and if they could do it over, they would have been more deliberate about letting the staff know that as well. [It’s about] normalizing all the emotions that come with change and knowing that when we start making changes, anxiety is going to go up, productivity might go down for a short period, , or the team might have a lot of feelings about the changes. But that is normal, and we know it's coming, and we're not going to blame the new leader for that.

Nayak: You briefly mentioned in our last conversation the “first-year evaluation process.” Can you say more about how your board approached evaluating your first year as CEO and how that’s influenced your work with them?

Varma: I think that when we hire someone, [the board] should be clear about what the first year's evaluation process [and work plan] looks like. I joined outside of the [normal 12-month evaluation] cycle, so we hadn’t mapped out what my evaluation plan was going to be. We made some changes [to the plan] this year, to reflect the partnership model we’re working toward.

Part of this is that we changed the timeline, so the board assessment and the CEO assessment conversation took place at the same time. Doing it this way shifted the dynamic of the conversation. For instance, when I shared my strategic objectives with the board, we also spent a significant amount of time talking about things like, "Well, what is the board’s role in meeting those objectives for the organization? What are the committee roles?"

Nayak: Do you have any parting thoughts on leadership transitions?

Varma: Leadership transitions, particularly with historic firsts, can be difficult, but there are steps organizations can take to make things smoother. One, be committed to an intentional DEIJ journey. This is more critical than ever as we witness such pushback against racial equity and DEI efforts across all sectors, including within the nonprofit sector. This is ongoing work without a destination point. We all have work and learning to do and it never ends. Two, transparency and communication go a long way. It takes time for a board and new CEO and the full organization to build trust, but when we are comfortable naming whatever is happening, we can address most challenges. Our board has embraced the idea of saying the real “stuff” out loud. Three, ground yourself in purpose and mission. The beauty of the nonprofit sector is that we are working for something bigger than ourselves. That’s why we are all here. We believe in a shared vision to make the world a little better. And finally, four, what I believe to be the most important: look to BIPOC leaders for the solutions. We know where our challenges are and what we need to address them. Engage us in the conversations around leadership transitions—at both the organizational and sector-wide levels.

Learning from Other “Historic First” Leaders

Early in 2024, BoardSource launched a year-long pilot program for “historic first” BIPOC leaders who followed white leaders at their organizations. The BIPOC Leadership Initiative is an avoiding the “glass cliff”-focused program built on a foundation of its work with Building Movement Project and an expression of BoardSource’s updated theory of change, which aims to bring the organization more fully into community with the nonprofit sector.

“We began the work by interviewing and surveying more than 40 BIPOC leaders,” Monika Kalra Varma, BoardSource’s CEO, says. “We learned of the challenges [these] leaders were facing. [And we discovered that] they were looking for connection, community, and ongoing learning.” Based on those findings, BoardSource decided to create an opportunity for leaders to meet in person and virtually to learn from and support each other while taking advantage of BoardSource’s tools and other resources. “The main focus is to equip them with ways to strengthen their board partnership in a safe space, to learn from peers and network with other leaders of color, and to provide them with some rest and rejuvenation,” Varma says. She notes that BoardSource sees the cohort as a chance to discover which of their tools provide value in these transitions, and if not, an opportunity to refine the tools to better help “make the CEO role more humane.”

“We heard a real desire for connection and community because the job is tough,” Varma says. “These leaders are facing challenges, and they’re using innovative tools and approaches,” so there is an opportunity for BoardSource to learn from them and follow their lead.

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