Getting to the executive transition finish line

This article is about the poor cousin in the executive transition family: onboarding.  Often given short shrift, onboarding comes after hours and hours of time (and often thousands and thousands of dollars) have been spent preparing for, searching for, and hiring a new executive director.  While it may be understandable that what follows is often a collective sigh of relief while handing over the keys and heading for the hills, I’m here to tell you, board members, this is a time to stay engaged and committed to making that first year successful.  And you’re not off the hook either, executive directors – your role is pivotal too.  Along with a rationale for a collaborative and highly engaged partnership between the board and executive during the first year of a new ED’s life, you’ll also find here some practical suggestions that don’t require an advanced degree in nonprofit management, and specific tips from recently onboarded executive directors on what they learned from their experience.

The case for onboarding

The most compelling case for onboarding starts with recognizing a hard truth – that all that time and money spent on the front end of an executive transition is squandered when the back end isn’t executed well. Simply put, poor onboarding leads to an increased likelihood of another executive transition within the first 12 to 24 months, a.k.a. Much. Too. Soon.  The instability this creates in an already over-burdened nonprofit sector is not insignificant nor unrelated to its struggle to deliver on ambitious missions – missions our democracy is ever-more reliant upon.

Generally, the nonprofit sector doesn’t do a great job of onboarding new executives. In the results of a Bridgespan Group survey of 214 executives, shared in a report on their site, 46 percent reported “getting little or no help from their boards when first taking on the position.”  In a CompassPoint survey, Daring to Lead 2011, it was found that “45 percent of nonprofit executives did not even have a performance evaluation last year, and among those who did, just 32 percent found it very useful.”  These disappointing findings point to the risk of high levels of job dissatisfaction and burnout, especially in first-time and early-tenure executives, which in turn leads to higher turnover in executive positions.

I get it, it’s hard

While the case for onboarding is clear, it’s also understandable why onboarding is a challenge. Beyond fatigue following a search, board members may fear they are over-stepping or micro-managing if they are too hands-on with onboarding. Even more simply, many board members I talk to have the best of intentions, but get stuck because they don’t know what they should be doing, nor how best to rally the board in engaging as a whole. On the other side, executive directors, in their desire to not appear weak, may feel they need to handle everything on their own; asking for feedback and support can feel risky.  Or they may wait for the board to “do their job”, and grow increasingly frustrated when nothing happens. To that, I turn to the Stanford Social Innovation Review 2011 article, Turning Nonprofit Executive Onboarding on Its Head that says it well: “Expecting boards of directors to independently design and monitor a tailored on-boarding plan for new executives is about as realistic as expecting them to independently define and execute fundraising goals.  Let’s stop pretending that executives are not central to any significant board effort—even their own on-boarding.” Successful onboarding requires the active leadership of the executive director in partnership with a highly engaged and accountable board of directors.

Beyond orientation: practical suggestions

Onboarding done well requires planning and implementing a rich and deep orientation and integration process for a new executive that succeeds in embedding that new leader into the cultural fabric of the organization and linking their work to the organization’s strategic vision.  Here are some of my practical suggestions for executive onboarding:

Create or extend the life of an Executive Transition Committee through the first year of the new ED’s tenure

The charter for such a committee is to oversee the onboarding process and ensure adequate attention and resources are dedicated to a successful transition, with the desired outcome being a fully oriented, integrated, effective, and happy executive director!  Don’t expect your search committee members to be on this new committee because they may need a break after the heavy lifting of the search – though if one or two of them wanted to continue on, that’s great for continuity.

Establish a calendar of onboarding activities and stick to it 

We’re all busy, and if you don’t set up a structure and system for a variety of activities and meetings to ensure things are on track, they likely won’t happen.  Get out your calendars first-thing and schedule!

Knowledge transfer sessions

Consider the various functional categories (fundraising, finance, board governance, human resources, the general rhythm of business, etc.) and schedule dedicated sessions with the appropriate stakeholders to ensure that information is being shared and understood.  If the outgoing executive director is available and in a good space, consider setting up a session between them and the new ED (though, take care to not inadvertently enable “unhealthy interference” as the organization pivots to its new leader.)

External stakeholder meetings and gatherings

The first few months of any new executive’s job should include being formally and informally introduced to the community of stakeholders by the board of directors.  Include key volunteers, donors, funders, and program partners in your audience, and build out a calendar that includes four primary activities, in this order:

  • In the first 1 to 2 weeks, have board members call your top 20 to 30 stakeholders to share the news of the new hire.
  • Soon after, post a written announcement of the hire (via email, your website, and social media).
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings with as many of that top 20-30 list of stakeholders as you can, one-on-one with the executive director, or with a board member;  these can be set up by the new ED, or by a board member, depending upon existing relationship dynamics.
  • Organize a more formal opportunity (a reception, open house, small group lunch) for your community to meet the new executive.

ED-Board Chair check-ins

Carve out time for checking in on progress, addressing emergent issues that almost certainly arise, planning board and staff activities, and to just build trust, because of relationships built on trust work better.  The frequency for face-to-face meetings (or phone check-ins) will depend upon the situation. When I was a board chair, I met weekly with the executive director, which was an inherited routine from previous board chairs. More often I see an every-other-week or monthly schedule.  Whatever it is, prioritize carving out this time for check-ins.

Performance evaluations 

I like having an informal 6-month ‘conversation’ on goals, and a more official 12-month review.  See a previous article I wrote on executive director evaluations for specific suggestions related to setting up an annual performance cycle.

Mutually develop plans and goals 

Start with a first 100 days, but also have a 6-month and 12-month plan. I like to have the executive director draft these first, then share with their executive committee, building the final set of goals collaboratively.  These plans become the basis for reflection, conversation, feedback, and evaluation.

Be explicit about professional development goals, and set aside a budget to support growth

I believe organizations, and the board members and incoming executives that lead them, are served best when there is a genuine shared belief that we are all growing and learning no matter what stage of life or career we are in.  Whether a first-time executive director or one that brings years of experience, be intentional about professional development by having a plan (and budget) for how that growth and learning will happen. Some ideas include:

Executive coaching

I’m a big fan of executive coaching (and not just because I offer it as a consultant!) but because of how vital I found it when I was an ED. Having an impartial sounding board who is neither a staff person, board member, or family member can help ED’s feel a little less alone and out on a limb at high stakes moments, be more confident risk takers, and stay sane especially during the first year.

Peer learning circles

Participating in an ED-peer group can be an excellent resource for sharing best practices, discussing challenges, and problem-solving tricky situations. In Seattle, Janet Boguch’s Table Talks offers peer learning groups for executives. Or, create your own learning circle with a handful of other ED’s whose style and approach is compatible.

Trainings and workshops

Find local programs that offer trainings in specific areas of interest.  Here in Seattle, we are blessed with a wealth of such trainings:  501 Commons, Washington Nonprofits, University of Washington’s Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute, to name a few.

Give, receive, and ask for feedback

Few people feel they receive enough feedback, but without good feedback it can be hard to self-correct or intentionally improve.  Executive directors: take the initiative in asking directly for feedback, avoid defensiveness when receiving it, and show your appreciation when you get it.  Board members: make time to provide feedback, engage your ED in their own assessment of their performance, balance positive and negative comments, and offer insights into how to approach something differently or better in the future.

Hindsight wisdom:  Q&A with new(ish) executives

When I started working on this article, I asked a handful of new(ish) executive directors to answer four questions related to their executive transition and onboarding process.  Here is what I heard:

During your transition into the role of executive director at your organization, what did you find especially useful and helpful (by way of information, support, guidance, trainings, etc.)?  It can be something from the first 3 months, or within the first full year.

  • Regular calls with board chair to check in / ask questions / stay coordinated
  • Casual gatherings with other new EDs, especially newer EDs
  • Joining an ED peer coaching group
  • One-on-one coaching
  • Requirement of developing a 90 or 100-day plan and goals
  • Key stakeholders hosting lunches and coffees to introduce me to key people in a small group setting
  • 1:1s with all staff and board members and former EDs during first weeks
  • BoardSource resources on executive transition
  • Gave folks a 101 on my work style, leadership philosophy, communication needs (e.g. don’t ask me questions until my coat is off)

What did you wish you’d had/been given from your board and/or your staff team?

  • More training on financial management and legal risks for a nonprofit
  • Tailored orientation as the new executive director – was just given a basic one given to all new hires.
  • A calendar or sample executive director work plan from predecessor – didn’t know the flow of what was coming
  • A full Board of Directors

Was there anything that was decidedly not helpful?

  • Arriving in the midst of a financial crisis
  • Quickly encountering a high level of staff and board turnover
  • Responsibility to produce the annual fundraising event on day 60!

Any advice you have for a new executive director?

  • Don’t be afraid to ask other EDs for advice or even for a copy of their personnel policies, or whether they’d ever dealt with a certain issue
  • Begin as you mean to lead
  • Hold the long view
  • Listen, listen, and when you think you’re done, then listen some more
  • Work off-site one day a week
  • Set up monthly meetings with your Board President–you’ll talk more often but prioritize having face to face time 1:1 monthly
  • Read everything those who came before you created
  • Create a circle of advisors and mentors specific to your organization who you can call on for advice


The Nonprofit Board’s Role in Onboarding and Supporting a New CEO.  The Bridgespan Group.  Their extensive research on executive transitions resulted in a set of five popular and oft-quoted recommendations, which are fully explained in this article.