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Onboarding Your New Staff Leader - How to Identify the Best Approach

Congratulations!  You’ve just hired your next staff leader.  Now it’s time to think about the onboarding. The first few months of the new leader’s tenure will be the cornerstone of both the successes and challenges of the years ahead.  Thoughtful decisions now about what approach to onboarding makes the most sense will have implications far down the road.

Onboarding is the process of introducing a new employee to an organization in a way that will help that person fit into the organization.  But when that new employee is also the new leader, fit is better understood as mutual adaptation.  Successful onboarding will depend on the organization—staff and Board—adapting to the new leader as much as the new leader adapting to the organization.  More on the different dimensions of onboarding can be found here.

There is a common assumption that the Board should guide the onboarding process.  Certainly, in some circumstances, this will be the right way to go.  But over-reliance on this one approach has resulted in too many unhappy leaders and underperforming organizations.  Unfortunately, not enough organizations appreciate that they have a choice.

There are four basic approaches to consider:

  • Board-led. One or more Board members take responsibility for managing the onboarding.

  • Do-it-yourself (“DIY”).  The new leader defines and carries out the process without significant Board engagement.

  • Externally Supported.  Either a Board-led or DIY onboarding with a consultant providing specific training, coaching and/or facilitation of elements of the onboarding (e.g. Board/leader alignment is often facilitated externally).  External supports may include: 

  • Organizational assessment.

  • Designing the onboarding plan and schedule.

  • Coaching the new leader.

  • Management training.

  • Skills training (Finance, HR, Communications, Development, etc.)

  • Externally Guided.  A consultant designs and guides the implementation of an onboarding process which will include training, coaching and advising.  The distinction between Externally Advised and Externally Guided may be blurred, but it is useful to consider them separately in the context of who will have primary accountability for the onboarding. 

To figure out which approach is called for requires an individualized assessment, but four factors are generally most significant:

  • Capacity of new leader.

  • Capacity of Board. 

  • Level of organizational dysfunction.

  • Level of organizational crisis.

  • Organizational assessment.

The greater the capacities of the new leader and the Board, the more likely a Board-led or DIY onboarding will be suitable.  On the other hand, the greater the levels of dysfunction and crisis, the more likely an Externally Supported or Guided approach will be appropriate. 

Board-led.  This approach aligns with the most common understandings of leader onboarding.  Board-led is often appropriate when all or most of the following are true: 

  • The new leader has experience in a similar role in a similar organization.

  • The new leader does not have significant skills gaps.

  • The new leader is a strong self-advocate.

  • The Board (or at least a committee of the Board) has a strong multi-faceted understanding of the organization.

  • The Board member designated to lead the process is highly experienced in managing senior personnel.

  • Board roles and behavior are long-established, functional and unlikely to change without substantial effort.

  • The leadership transition has been well planned and well managed.

  • A good handoff from the former ED.

  • Strong consensus on organizational aspirations, priorities and next steps.

DIY.  NOT a euphemism for “no onboarding.”  Strong communication with Board and staff about the onboarding plan and periodic progress reports enables the new leader to demonstrate accountability for the onboarding in the absence of Board or external oversight.  If the following factors are present, this might well be the best option:  

  • A highly competent new leader who has had similar positions at similar organizations or a strong internal hire who’s been well-prepared for this moment.

  • A stable and high functioning Board.

  • A relatively uncomplicated organization without too many moving pieces.

  • A gradual enough pace that the new leader will be able to acclimate without too much short term risk to the organization. 

 Externally Supported.  This approach is particularly valuable when:

  • The new leader has not held a similar position in a similar organization.

  • The new leader would benefit from training in specific areas (e.g., management, finance, development, communications).

  • The Board is constrained—whether by capacity, inclination or otherwise—from guiding the onboarding. 

  • The Board/leader relationship needs to be reset in the wake of the former leader’s departure.

  • The departing leader will not be participating in the hand-off.

  • There are discrete organizational dysfunctions that are targeted to be addressed during the onboarding process. 

Externally Guided. Outsourcing responsibility for the onboarding process will be a good option when there are indications that the transition is going to be especially challenging.  In addition to the factors that favor an Externally Supported approach, these indications may include:

  • The leadership transition has been difficult and acrimonious.

  • There is unhappiness either on the Board or within staff about the selection of the new leader, for example when an internal candidate was not selected. 

  • The new leader is expected to guide a culture change or other organizational transition.

  • The Board is not unified in its approach to the organization or to the new leader.

  • The departure of the former leader was difficult or even acrimonious.

  • The onboarding is occurring at a time of significant organizational crisis.

  • Organizational dysfunction is high as evidenced, for example, in poor staff morale.

Nonprofit leadership transitions always pose significant challenges and very real risks—as is true of all meaningful changes.  You’ve done your best to prepare for an effective transition and to hire an outstanding individual as your new leader.  Now, be intentional about onboarding, consider your options carefully and make the choice that best suits your new leader, your Board and your organization.