Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Can it be cruel to be kind?

Nick Lowe and Hamlet think so.  But rocker and poetic license aside, is there some truth in this well-worn phrase?

In working with a diverse group of nonprofit organizations in Florida, we repeatedly hear the desire for open and direct communication.  One of the most respected attributes in a leader is someone who uses clear and concise communication to build an atmosphere of trust.  So while no one is asking to be treated cruelly, there is a clear preference for honest feedback delivered in a timely manner over being handled so gently that the message is prolonged and perhaps never truly heard. 

When you are sharing praise or constructive criticism, be specific and to the point.  Your employees and those to whom you report want to know what you think and how they can bring their best game to the organization.  Let them know that your input is part of your investment in and commitment to the value they add to your mission work.

Feedback should be provided all year long, and no employee should hear recommendations to improve performance for the first time during their evaluation.   The evaluation process is a time of increased vulnerability, and your team members will absorb your overall assessment in a more constructive way if it’s used to reinforce ongoing feedback.

So don’t be cruel and do be kind – but don’t let your message get lost in the process. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Onboarding your new CEO

What a relief it is for a nonprofit Search Committee to finally hire a new CEO! After many months of meetings and interviews, the end is in sight and soon things can get “back to normal”. Or so you think. However, there is still important work to be done to assure that the new leader is successful. And that starts with an “onboarding plan” to help this person get up to speed fairly quickly.

What is onboarding?
It is the education and assimilation of a person into a new role.  It includes providing:
  • Information
  • Introductions
  • Education/training/insight sharing
  • Office set-up

How does one prepare for onboarding?
It starts by aggregating and organizing information about the organization – the who, what, when, where, why and how – both internal and external, regarding operations, board governance, community relations, etc. This information includes materials like:
  • The CEO’s job description (ideally with details about specific daily/weekly/monthly/annual activities)
  • The CEO checklist (see our Succession Planning Toolkit, www.claritytransitions.net) which identifies where all key information is stored (e.g. legal documents, personnel files, passwords, contracts)
  • Lists of staff, board members, donors and stakeholders with details about their relationships with the organization
  • Calendar of important dates (e.g. staff, board and committee meetings, fundraisers, “friend-raisers”, networking groups)
  • Board materials (e.g. bylaws, policies and procedures, committees, minutes)
  • Financials
  • Strategic Plan with progress report
  • Marketing materials
  • And anything else that will help him/her be successful!

Onboarding also involves introductions to staff, board and key stakeholders according to a very thoughtful, prioritized plan that likely includes one-on-one meetings, small and large gatherings. And there should be a thoughtful and strategic communications plan to inform all stakeholders (e.g. letters, emails, phone calls, website, press releases) about the new CEO.

It is also important to get the new CEO’s office set-up BEFORE DAY ONE. You want him to be ready and able to focus his attention on meeting people and listening to them on that first day. So, prior to his official start, it is important to set up email, phone and passwords, arrange furniture, etc.

Who prepares, plans and implements this onboarding?
Typically, a Transition Committee will develop and implement this plan with help from the outgoing CEO (if relationship is good) or the Interim (if there is one), the Board Chair and a designated staff member. The committee enlists others too – staff and board members as appropriate - to collect and share information, provide background/education/training, develop and implement the communications plan and make introductions.

Much of this preparation can be done while the search is underway so that the Search Committee CAN breathe a sigh of relief when the new CEO is hired! In fact, you never know when your CEO might leave, so maybe you should start now?

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Is Executive Transition the Big Bad Wolf?

We all know the story.  Fearing the Big Bad Wolf, one little pig builds with straw, one with twigs, and only one builds a solid brick structure.   According to BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent study, only 27 percent of nonprofit organizations have written succession plans.   Proportionately, the little pigs are outpacing nonprofits.

By and large, nonprofits are afraid to address executive transition.  We’re afraid that succession planning sends “signals” of imminent change or instability, so we don’t adequately invest in leadership development or plan for the next generation of leaders.  When it comes to organizational leadership, too many boards are building with twigs and straw.

But - even if you’re afraid of the Big Bad Executive Transition – there are some leadership bricks you can use to prevent your nonprofit house from being blown down.

Invest in the next generation of staff leaders
Using your strategic plan, define the skills and competencies that the organization needs to succeed. Build job descriptions and training on these essential attributes.  Develop staff through stretch assignments.  Allow them to take risks, making sure you support them with time and mentoring from other staff or Board members.  Be intentional about inclusion and equity as you develop staff.  Yes, your staff may eventually leave.   But if you help them become stronger and more capable, they can still help deliver mission even if it’s from another organization.  

Shift from board recruitment to managing board succession
Recruitment is a transactional activity to get people in seats.  Recruitment is absolutely part of succession, but it’s only a part.  Managing board succession is an ongoing process of engaging board members, developing a culture of critical questioning, and developing on-going leadership both within your organization and by acting as liaison with aligned organizations.

 Building your staff and board strengthen your organization and its mission delivery.  By itself, this makes your organization more impactful.  It also strengthens the nonprofit house for the day when the Wolf of Transition comes to huff and puff at your door.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Preparing for a Nonprofit CEO Transition

One of the greatest fears of a nonprofit Board of Directors is that their CEO will leave during their tenure. They are rightfully concerned with numerous issues, including:
  • Leadership capacity beyond the CEO
  • Potential departure of other staff
  • Potential reduction in funding
  • Potential disruption to mission delivery
  • Potential loss of confidence and support of various stakeholders
  • And all of this for an unknown amount of time

Given these very real fears, it is interesting that Boards often leave the business of transition to a small group of volunteers and staff who may have limited experience with executive transitions and who are not familiar with the resources available to them, of which there are many.

It’s important to note that CEO transitions aren’t just the hiring of a new leader. They involve preparation (e.g. capturing information from the current CEO, staff cross-training and alignment, communication plans), search and hire (e.g. developing the job description that reflects the needs of the organization now, making sure that the person is right fit), and onboarding (e.g. opportunity for the new CEO to listen, learn, meet, acclimate, and get set on the path to success). When done well, it’s a robust process that requires due diligence, strategy, sensitivity, staff engagement, effective communication, and more.

Of course, we at Clarity Transitions are ready and able to help. But if that’s not an option, then it behooves those involved to research how best to manage the process. Why does this matter? Because if managed poorly, those greatest fears can be realized. Difficult transitions, like those which are unanticipated, emergency or board-initiated, may leave an organization especially vulnerable. You certainly do not want to make the wrong hire and have the “unintentional interim”, the new CEO who leaves within a short period of time, leaving you to start all over again.

Where do you find these resources? Clarity Transitions has a Succession Planning Toolkit that can help you navigate this unknown territory. (www.claritytransitions.net) Also, BoardSource has numerous guides that can help. (https://boardsource.org/fundamental-topics-of-nonprofit-board-service/executive-transition)

It is definitely worth the time and effort to manage a CEO transition well so as to keep your organization strong and sustainable and its mission on track!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

What's your commitment to serving on a board?

How many times have you been asked to serve on a Board of Directors of a nonprofit?  Organizations whose purposes matter to you and are comprised of good people trying to do good things?  As proponents of the sector, we want to see thoughtful, caring people participate on Boards and engage in good governance. 

But what exactly does that mean?  While it’s important than you have a heart for the work, Board service is much more than simply caring about an organization.   If you commit, here’s a few of the things you must be willing to do:

  • Agree to articulate the organization’s mission to your friends and business colleagues
  • Delve into the profit and loss statement and balance sheets and ask questions about what you don’t understand
  • Mark Board and committee meetings as priorities on your calendar
  • Understand the organization’s strategic priorities – where does it want to go and how does it intend to get there?
  • Don’t be afraid to question how well the organization is achieving its purpose/mission and if that mission could be better achieved differently
  • Help build community relationships that support the strategic direction
  • Donate
  • Acknowledge donors and other funders whenever possible
  • Be aware of areas of high risk and vulnerability
  • Attend special events and invite others to join you

To do this well requires a commitment of time, energy and focus.  Effective participation requires knowing your capacity and limiting the number of Boards on which you serve accordingly.   

We say “Just Do It!”  But with the caveat to first commit to doing it well.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

If we put mission first, what’s the impact on nonprofit staffing models?

Why do we get involved with nonprofit organizations?  To make our world a better place.  Running a nonprofit organization however, operations may not always align with mission.  So what if we all put mission first?

Along with colleagues at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, we’ve been looking at concepts of mission sustainability - the capacity of one or more organizations to consistently deliver mission results over time and through unexpected circumstances.  Adding this perspective might change how we, as a community, develop, retain, and seek nonprofit leaders. 

To keep delivering mission results, we suggest:
  • The work is bigger than one organization and its leaders 
  • Leaders need each other to succeed
  • Strong, intentionally connected leadership helps creates a healthy vibrant nonprofit ecosystem
  • On-going leadership continuity is important every day as well as making episodic transitions easier
  • Leaders include board members, EDs, and staff managers. 

In a system with this kind of thinking, we might build staff talent pipelines that welcome inter-agency career growth, and foster deliberate programs to value diversity, practice inclusion and achieve equity within leadership and staffing models across agencies.


In this kind of system, we might consider board recruitment in relation to other boards and their joint purpose with intentional strategies of placement after rolling off, cross memberships.  This helps joint advocacy, maintains mission knowledge and passion, and strengthens collaboration.

 Is this achievable? We don’t know.  But giving it some consideration could help you approach nonprofit staffing challenges from a different perspective.

Monday, December 3, 2018

An open letter to board chairs

Dear Board Chair,
You play a significant role in assuring the health and well-being of your organization. Your knowledge, expertise and experience in board governance help you know what needs to be done, by whom, how, when and with what resources. As leader of the board and working with your CEO (if you have one), you set the agenda, you provide information and context and you guide decision-making. Your leadership instills confidence for people to invest in your organization. These skills and attributes are critical to the success of your nonprofit.

So, it is important to be thinking about what you can do to assure that the person who follows you is prepared to lead. Does the Governance (or Nominating) Committee understand its very important role of identifying the next chairman? Are they working with the long view of building bench strength and future leadership for the organization so that there are good quality candidates from which to choose to chair the organization? Do they understand what kind of leader is needed at this time? Unfortunately, too often, these matters do not get the time and attention they deserve, and nonprofits are woefully unprepared for board leadership transitions.

When a new chair is elected, it is incumbent on you to help onboard this person to be most effective. She will need all the information that you can provide about the current state of your nonprofit and how you’ve pursued your roles and responsibilities. Ideally, you’ll share a current, detailed job description and discuss what’s going well, what needs attention and what’s coming up. Even if the person has been on the board, it doesn’t hurt to review minutes, financials and progress on the strategic plan. Introductions to key staff and stakeholders should be made in appropriate ways, from one-on-one meetings to staff gatherings to community receptions.

It is very important through this whole process to be thoughtful and thorough, not making assumptions and providing opportunities for lots of questions and clarification.

Managed well and smoothly, this board chair transition should prepare your organization to continue to grow and thrive. This will ultimately be a great legacy to you and your leadership!