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Onboarding in Five Dimensions

What explains our chronic failure to effectively onboard nonprofit leaders?  Recent surveys show levels of ED satisfaction with their onboarding processes and other indicators to be abysmal.[1] The consensus is that responsibility for onboarding sits with the Board of Directors and that too many Boards simply fail to carry it out.  

This explanation is both absolutely true and entirely beside the point.  It assumes that the Board is well positioned to guide the introduction of a new leader to the organization.  But most Boards (and Board members) have a very limited idea of what actually goes on within their organization. Their perspective is defined by their roles, by what they’ve been told, by their own professional experiences and expertise, and by the constraints on their time and energy. It’s not the fault of Boards that they so often fail to onboard effectively. It’s our fault for expecting them to do so.

When we talk about onboarding, we usually have in mind the process through which any new staff member is welcomed into an organization.  But onboarding new leaders is fundamentally different from onboarding other new employees.  To the extent that there are similarities, they mislead more than they illuminate.  Better onboarding for nonprofit leaders must starts with a much clearer understanding of the multiple dimensions involved. 

 These dimensions are:

  • Information Acquisition

  • Relationship Building

  • Skills Weaknesses

  • Culture Building

  • Change Management

One good reason that the challenge of onboarding leaders is misunderstood is that each onboarding is unique.  Not every onboarding will require focusing on each of these dimensions.  The simplest onboardings may involve only Information Acquisition and Relationship Building.  The more dimensions that are involved, the more challenging the onboarding, the less likely the Board will be an effectively guide and so the greater the risk that—even if the Board does everything it can—the onboarding will not go well. 

Information Acquisition is an essential aspect of every employee’s onboarding, but for the new leader this dimension has three distinguishing components:

  • Quantity.  The new leader will need to be well informed on every aspect of the organization. Even in the simplest organization, this can be daunting.

  • Subjectivity.  Much of the information the new leader will need to absorb will be filtered through the biases and agendas of those who provide it.  Of course these filters and biases are not transparent to the new leader.

  • Risk.  Every other employee operates with guardrails.  Their use of what they learned is subject to supervision by a manager or at least questioning by peers.  Unlike other employees, the leader will use this information to make decisions that shape organizational impact. 

A well designed onboarding will pace and prioritize the information acquisition to mitigate the volume challenge, incorporate a wide array of information providers to counteract subjectivity, and encourage testing of information prior to decision-making to guard against idiosyncratic interpretations and mitigate risk.    

Relationship Building is also characteristic of every onboarding, with the general purpose of promoting collegiality and social fit.  Most jobs require interactions with other staff, and initiating those connections during onboarding makes good sense.

Unlike most new employees, however, new leaders will succeed or fail based on the quality of the relationships they develop and sustain.  Leaders get things done by working with and through others.  They must develop and nurture relationships with staff members, Board members, donors, constituents and often many others—government officials, other nonprofit leaders, etc.  Of course, this process continues well beyond the onboarding, but the early months are a critical time to engage with others when they are most receptive and to set expectations for the future. 

Addressing Skills Weaknesses is rarely recognized as part of the onboarding.  The hiring process is intended to find a qualified candidate with the assumption that the new hire will come with all the necessary skills.  In fact, successful candidates have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses.  They may be strong public speakers, for example, but weak when it comes to finances.  Very few organizations hire new leaders that check every single box.

Generally, the best approach to an identified weakness will be to develop a mitigation strategy.  Learning new skills can be difficult and time consuming and developing those skills to a high level of competence can take years. In more complex organizations, the new leader’s weaknesses in particular areas can be mitigated by capable senior staff.  In smaller organizations, external consulting support may make the most sense. 

Determining how best to address a skill weakness will need to balance the extent of the deficit, the risks to the organization posed by the deficit, the other demands of the onboarding process and the day to day responsibilities of running the organization.  

Culture Building can be either explicit or implicit, but the arrival of a new staff leader willalter organizational culture in numerous ways.  Most commonly, a new leader will have to immediately address three culture issues:

  • Existing dysfunction which may present as poor morale, ineffective management, a lack of clarity around impact or direction, etc.

  • The new leader’s initial approach to management and leadership is critical.  Staff will be watching carefully to determine how they should now behave, how cautious they need to be, whether they are trusted and should trust.  Words matter, of course, but far more important is how the new leader behaves.

  • The Board and the new leader will need to define a shared approach to their common objective of successfully leading the organization. What do they expect from each other and from themselves?  To what extent are they each territorial?  What level of engagement is appropriate with other staff?  How do they navigate conflict? 

Change Management.  Onboardings that require significant elements of change management can be extraordinarily difficult.  Ideally, change can be planned and implemented based on a deep understanding of the underlying information and culture and navigated through existing relationships characterized by mutual respect and trust with channels for honest feedback firmly established.  

But sometimes change cannot wait. Organizational crises can rarely be deferred.  Staff and the Board may have waiting a long time for the new leader to come in and make change.  Even when change could reasonably be deferred, failing to meet, or at least address, expectations for change can have significant long term consequences. 

 

Each onboarding will represent a unique combination of these five dimensions.  All other things being equal, an internal hire, an experienced outsider and a gifted fundraiser will all require different types of onboarding.  On the other hand, the same individual would require very different onboardings depending on the strengths, dysfunctions and prospects of the organization.

Appreciating the different dimensions of the onboarding enables more nuanced choices of how best to support the onboarding—whether the new leader can appropriately self-onboard, the extent to which the Board is equipped to guide the onboarding or whether external support or guidance is called for.   More on making that choice is available here.


[1]Examples can be found at https://www.compasspoint.org/sites/default/files/documents/Hire_by_Hire_Report.pdf(2017); https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/initiatives/leadership-development/nonprofit-boards-role-in-onboarding-a-new-ceo (2014); http://daringtolead.org/wp-content/uploads/Daring-to-Lead-2011-Main-Report-online.pdf, (2011); https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2017/03/27/reflections-executive-leadership-transition-data-fifteen-years/ (2017).