Hiring a new staff leader is a make-or-break moment for most organizations. The new leader will shape the direction of your organization for the foreseeable future. The quality of their leadership and management will impact everyone—staff, Board members, funders and, most importantly, your constituents. But despite these stakes, most organizations don’t do enough to ensure that their new leaders are set up to be successful.
Your new leader is undoubtedly confident and competent, bringing great energy and enormous potential to their new role. But, inevitably, their skill set is incomplete. If they come from within your organization, they may excel as a program expert, as an external communicator and network builder or as a fundraiser. If they are hired from outside, they may have led a smaller nonprofit or perhaps they even came from outside the sector. Regardless of their own capacities, any new leader will be challenged if they’re arriving in the wake of a founder’s departure or other major organizational transition. Whatever the case, this new leadership role will bring challenges unlike anything they’ve previously had to face.
Of course, despite the limitations of their own prior experience and the obstacles of the new organization, many new leaders are eventually successful. Their talent and ambition push them through the early months as they grow into their roles. But it’s very rare to find a nonprofit leader who didn’t struggle through their first months.[i] And the costs of that struggle can be high—both for the organization and the leader. These costs can take the form of unmet expectations, burnout, broken relationships, excessive staff turnover, unforced errors and missed opportunities. They can also take the form of counterproductive behaviors—shifting or ill-defined priorities, conflict avoidance, poor management—that may become engrained in the organizational culture and very difficult to address.
A carefully designed onboarding can make a huge difference. Your new leader will receive the training and coaching they need to thrive. They will learn to navigate difficult relationships, understand and improve systems, clarify, prioritize and accomplish goals and manage effectively. A successful onboarding will enable both your new leader and your organization to reach their potential.
Despite widespread agreement that onboarding should be conducted by the Board of Directors, this rarely happens. Board members simply aren’t the right people for the job. They don’t (and shouldn’t) have the granular understanding of the mechanics of the organization or the challenges it faces that the new leader must quickly acquire. The power relationship makes it difficult for the new leader to be candid about their needs. And, frankly, now that Board members have invested significant energy–often well beyond what they had ever expected to invest in the organization–in order to recruit and hire an amazing person as the new leader who has assured them that they can do the job, the board is ready to step back and declare victory.
Onboarding for Success provides technical expertise, perspective, empathy and a crucial level of detachment from internal politics. You have found the right person to lead your organization. Onboarding for Success will make sure that leader gets off to a strong start. ↑
[i] CompassPoint found that only about a quarter of incoming executives surveyed reported their transitions were either “smooth” or “fairly smooth.” Jeanne Bell, Paola Cubías, and Byron Johnson, Will We Get There Hire by Hire?, 2017, https://www.compasspoint.org/sites/default/files/documents/Hire_by_Hire_Report.pdf.