Boards Are Falling Short on Their Most Important Job

10/22/2014 | 5.5 mins |

The chief responsibility of any board is management of the senior executive. Yet a recent Bridgespan Group survey of nonprofit CEOs found that nearly half (46%) got little or no onboarding help from their boards. As one executive put it, "The board essentially said, 'We're glad you're here. Here are the keys. We're tired.'"

When it comes to managing the CEO, many boards underperform.

This shortcoming is understandable, especially for nonprofit boards. Board members are mostly volunteers. They're busy. They have other jobs. And according to a 2010 report by BoardSource, such individuals are typically brought on for their professional expertise and ability to represent constituents — not for their talent in managing people.

Books and articles abound on how to manage the arrival of a new leader. Yet for many nonprofit boards, access to good advice hasn't changed lackluster behavior. In an effort to understand why, we surveyed top executives across the U.S. (214 responded), reviewed the literature, and interviewed 30 experts, board members, and newly hired executives. Our findings revealed a number of pitfalls and led to a handful of recommendations aimed at boosting a board's performance where it counts the most: onboarding and supporting a new CEO. While these suggestions came out of our research on nonprofits, they are applicable to any board bringing on a new leader.

1. Lay the groundwork for the new leader. Even before the recruiting begins, make clear what skills and attributes the organization needs in a new leader. Consider the organization's potential growth, restructuring, new programs, and strategies. "I help my clients do a mini-visioning session before we start looking for a new CEO," says search executive Anthony Tansimore, vice president of leadership impact at Olive Grove. "This helps the board define their goals for the future and what they need to do to get there."

Once the new CEO is selected, boards should also try to facilitate a connection between the incoming and outgoing leaders. Zach Bodner, CEO of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, says that he had weekly appointments with the interim executive director months before he officially started. "[The interim executive director] made a comprehensive agenda of different topics we needed to cover," recalls Bodner. "From our conversations, I developed a learning plan and an action plan." It covered, among other things, what to say at his first staff meeting and goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days.

2. Collectively set priorities. Our survey showed that 39% of respondents felt their board was ineffective in helping set first-year priorities. "The board and the incoming CEO must agree on what their accomplishments should be, and in what timeframe," says Tom Adams, author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide. "If that discussion never takes place, the board and the new leader will likely form clashing assumptions about what is expected and when."

To reach a common understanding of the new CEO's main goals, create a leadership agenda that does several things: clarifies the organization's priorities; outlines action plans, roles, and milestones for each priority; and identifies gaps in organizational ability or capacity to achieve them.

3. Get clear on roles. Only 50% of the leaders we surveyed said their boards were clear about how they would work together in the first few months on the job. Questions to consider include: who sets the board meeting agenda, what decisions will the board participate in, and how frequently should the board chair and CEO communicate? The more detailed a board can be with their new CEO about expectations, the less likelihood problems will arise later. One board chair of an international youth development organization recalled how the new executive director received "no guidance on how to interact with the board," an oversight that created tension and mistrust several months into his tenure.

Role definition should also be clear for departing leaders, particularly founders or leaders who are retiring. Often these people want to stay closely engaged, which in the long term can confuse the staff, create divided loyalties, and sow doubt about the competence of the new leader.

4. Go slowly in orientation to go fast on the job. The survey revealed 58% of CEOs were dissatisfied with their first few months of onboarding. "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."

To ensure that the new leader has time to gain a sense of the organization's strengths and weaknesses, the board may initially keep some day-to-day duties off the new leader's plate. In some instances, the board chair takes on a mentoring role, becoming the new CEO's partner in the onboarding process. But onboarding is not just the chair's responsibility. It's also a good idea to set up a transition committee—composed of board members and staff—to develop an orientation plan to introduce the new executive to staff, board members, funders, and other stakeholders. The plan also should include assembling important documents and scheduling briefings on functional and programmatic areas, steps that get the leader into the flow of the organization.

5. Make performance management routine. Fully 66% of the CEOs we surveyed reported that their boards failed to establish concrete measures and milestones, including regular feedback and guidance, for their first-year performance assessment.

The board and the CEO should set a timeline to meet, perhaps starting with a 90-day informal check-in and then set an initial formal review at the six-month mark. This is in addition to frequent conversations with the CEO and board chair. The board also should be proactive about providing support to the executive director. One powerful way to accomplish this is to hire an executive coach. Amy Saxton, CEO at youth development nonprofit Summer Search, gratefully accepted a board member's recommendation that she work with a coach. "She knew that I needed someone who wasn't associated with the organization to help me think through how to approach situations," said Saxton. "It wasn't a sign of my weakness; it was recognition that all leaders need support, especially when they're taking on a new role."

While these five recommendations may not be terribly surprising, it is surprising that so few board employ them. All boards have the capacity to ensure that their organizations hire and support strong leadership. They just have to make it a priority.

This article is based on "Boosting Nonprofit Board Performance Where It Counts," published by Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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