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October 22, 2020
Boards Can Help New Executives Get Off on the Right Foot
By Claudia Lach

Claudia Lach
Claudia Lach
Nonprofit executive transitions can be complicated, and while boards are responsible for conducting effective processes to hire the best possible candidate, things can go terribly wrong if the board doesn't properly support the new hire.

In the past couple of weeks, the Boston area has been following the conflict between the president and the board of trustees of Suffolk University. Among other noteworthy aspects of the case is that Suffolk’s board has hired five presidents in five years. Without knowing the specifics of this particular situation, there are steps nonprofit boards can take to help avoid a similar experience.

Boards should be aware of the following, especially in the early months after bringing on a new executive.

1. Boards should model the characteristics of agile, adaptive and learning organizations.
This is especially helpful in cases that result in failed matches. Boards should examine their preparation for the hiring process, the process itself, and the onboarding support they provided to the executive during the first months on the job.

Boards should conduct formal after action reviews after each hiring process to identify the aspects that benefited and negatively impacted the selection of the candidate, and make sure they incorporate the learnings to design the next process.

2. Boards must assess themselves once a year.
Hiring the executive is one of their major responsibilities and a good measure of their success governing the organization. Examining and reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses in years after executive transitions can help boards identify their developmental needs and build on their strengths.

3. Boards should be clear about roles, rules, and expectations.
Executives are hired understanding a formal contract presented to them by the board, but communication about roles and expectations—on both side of the board-executive relationship—should not end there. Especially in the early months, expectations need to come alive from the pages of the contract and be explicit during interactions.

4. Boards should provide the executives with on-going feedback, counsel and support.
Feedback and support, especially during the first months on the job is critical to avoid misunderstandings and conflict.

Some boards wait until the time of the executive’s annual review to give feedback, if they provide feedback at all. The president/chair of the board and the executive should develop informal ways of communication and opportunities for open and honest feedback.

5. Boards should have realistic expectations about achievable goals during the first year.
Boards are responsible for the success of the organization and, after an executive transition, to establish performance expectations that can be reached while the professional gets to know the organization and encounters the real challenges and opportunities of managing the institution.

Quality of work and outcomes should not be compromised while setting up goals for the year; boards should use previous data as benchmark to establish realistic goals taking into consideration the learning curve of the new executive.

6. Board members need to be engaged.
Hiring of the right executive is critical and delegating the whole task to search consultants without much involvement and participation in the process is not recommended. Board members need to understand the current needs of the organization and the type of leader that would be appropriate to meet those specific needs.

Some boards are too large and not clear about the required engagement of directors in the process. Some members of especially large institutions perceive their role as primarily being a big donor and fundraiser. Even if working with a search consultant, the board has to establish a clear structure for this task which includes clarity in the process and members’ responsibilities.

In addition, having diversity on the board, if well managed and people feel included, can result in better decision making before and after the hiring. Multiple perspectives can enrich discussions and present different considerations while selecting the new executive.

Claudia Lach, Principal of Lach Training & Consulting works with leaders, teams, and organizations to reach their next stage with clarity and commitment, and lectures on organizational behavior at Boston University. Email her at or call 781-860-9782.
February 2016
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