Four Suggestions for New Executive Directors

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 25th, 2019 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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A recent article in KelloggInsight, a newsletter from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, shared the discernments of Alex Schneider, an adjunct faculty member teaching innovation and entrepreneurship.

Businesswomen meeting

Apparently, he likes buying (and selling) existing small businesses, and he has definite thoughts on what those who do this need to know once they become the new boss.  We so often recognize the greater similarities between small for-profits and their nonprofit peers than what these small organizations share with their larger “same-sex” siblings, that it is no wonder that his four suggestions for what a new owner-leader of a company should do resonated with what a new executive director should do.  His four suggestions make perfect sense.

#1:  Establish credibility.  Establishing credibility, for Schneider, is a new leader’s first task; it happens by a) sharing her/his background, b) explaining why s/he wanted the job in the first place and c) laying out her/his vision for the future.  There are two things that I like with this.  First, is point b:  there is great value in staff understanding the reasons why someone wants to be the executive director of their particular organization (as opposed to just wanting to be an executive director).

If the new executive director isn’t passionate about the mission’s organization, isn’t committed to the organization’s clients, isn’t excited for the organization’s possibilities, that will come through in her/his explanation, and credibility will be either won or lost in that moment.  But the second thing that I like in Schneider’s explanation of the value of establishing credibility is that he steals the title of former General Stanley McCrystal’s TedTalk, “Listen, learn…then lead.” 

Schneider says that by establishing a realistic, and measurable vision, rather than “lofty goals,” a leader gives her/himself the time needed to listen to the people already there, learn the organization from within—its strengths and challenges—and only then lead.  Too often new leaders come in with unrealistic ideas that may or may not fit the reality, may scare off staff and often flop.  This may be the result of that awful interview question that gets used so often:  What is your vision for the future of this organization?  Having gone public with that answer, which for any outsider could not possibly be based on the reality of the inside, people feel the pressure to act on it once higher.  Not a great idea.

#2:  Revisit Existing Metrics.  Do not rely only the data given to you by an outgoing executive director to learn what is going on and what needs to be done going further.  Rather than making decisions about the future based on potentially weak, inaccurate data or data that measures the wrong things, determine for yourself the metrics you need to determine the success of the programs, the business model(s), staff retention and satisfaction, etc., and collect and analyze that data.  Then lead.  So often, when we at The Nonprofit Center place an interim executive director into an organization that the board has assured us is in good financial health, we start peeling back the onion and find the reality is far from what was previously thought.  Organizations look different from the inside out than they do looking outside in.

#3:  Recognize adaptable employees.  (I would add to this:  recognize adaptable board members.)  You can spot their foils a mile away:  they are the ones whining that things have always been done this way and why should we change; they are the first to put up roadblocks.  These are the ones that you want to think twice about keeping.  On the other hand, those employees who are open to change—change in their job, change in the organization, change in how things have been done, change in expectations—are the ones you want to keep. 

Schneider smartly notes the importance to a new leader of delegating to others (something too many find antithetical at this juncture) as the new leader gets quickly up to speed on so many things.   He sees this delegation as having a dual benefit:  it allows a new leader to see quickly on whom s/he can or cannot depend and it allows employees to grow and stretch in ways that may not have been permitted or encouraged under the previous leadership.

#4:  Keep an eye on the big picture.  Too often a struggle for executive directors of any tenure, this is particularly so when just starting out.  The challenge for executive directors is balancing working in the organization with working on the organization.  Both are needed.  An executive director cannot afford to get out of touch with the mission and staff or to lose sight of the whole, along with a clear understanding of the current landscape in which the whole is operating.  No other person in the organization is responsible for both:  making sure all the right parts are there and all working as they should and working towards a clearly articulated and mutually shared vision.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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