Experienced executive directors often say they wish they had known early in their careers what they know now. Here are four tips from those who have been there.
1. Have a plan
As you begin your executive director role, you may feel like you are jumping onto a moving train. There is so much going on and, as the new leader you may feel the need to address it all right away. But, if you take a step back and give yourself the time and space to determine your goals and priorities, as well as the strategic steps you need to achieve them, you will be doing yourself a huge favor.
Creating a planwhether it is for your first three months, for the first year, or a strategic plan that addresses several yearsfocuses your time and energy. It provides clarity for resource allocation and offers a roadmap for you, your staff and the board.
Who should provide input? Think about which staff members, board members and stakeholders can help you identify organizational challenges and strengths? Conduct a listening and learning campaign to ensure you have the information you need before making decisions and solidifying your plan.
What questions should you ask as you create this initial plan?
Who do I need to talk to over the coming weeks/months?
How can I really learn what is going on in this organization?
Are there any crises that need my immediate attention?
Where are the islands of excellence” in the organization?
What are some low hanging fruit victories I can deliver on that would thrill my staff and/or board?
What are the issues that will need to be addressed soon?
2. Secure the right team
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins said, Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” You can have the perfect plan, but without the right people to implement it, you are unlikely to be successful.
If you are new to your executive director role, there may already be staff in place. Your first task is to evaluate the current employees. Get a clear picture of performance, through past performance evaluations, if they have been done, or by reviewing past accomplishments as compared to anticipated outcomes.
Also, try to find out which employees are committed to your new leadership. Knowing who are your allies and who may be resentful or wary of your presence will be helpful as you assign roles and decide who is the best match for your new team.
If possible, determine the affect that each employee has on the culture of the organization. Those who have a negative influence need to be vetted carefully to ensure they wont undermine the team. Try to identify any islands of excellence - individuals or teams who are going above and beyond, accomplishing high-level outcomes that are critical for the organization. These islands” should be fed and supported to ensure that their great work continues.
Once you have determined which employees should stay on your team, make sure that you continue to provide them with opportunities to develop their talents and skills. Your support and attention will give them the message that you value their contributions, and will also ensure that they continue to grow and learn.
You may need to hire new staff. Be strategic about these new hires. Seek appropriate skills and expertise, but also fit for the culture you want to develop in your organization. Also, ensure that you bring a diversity of perspectives to your team, so that lively discussion and creativity can thrive.
3. Balance inward and outward facing roles
The role of the executive director is both operational (internal) and promotional (external). Both are necessary and they should be established as equal priorities, but you might find it challenging to accomplish both well. Often new executive directors quickly get focused on operations and get stuck in the office, leaving little chance to get out. Make sure that doesnt happen to you.
How can you ensure that you are able to balance your internal and external roles? First, you will need to consciously plan and manage your time. It is challenging, but critical. Your calendar can be used as a tool to help you. Plan and schedule strategic time outside of the office, and stick to it. Second, get support. If you find yourself becoming captive to internal operations, ask yourself who else might be able to help out. Identify tasks that can be delegated, either to other staff, to board members or to volunteers. It may take time to train others to take on projects or activities, but it will be well worth the investment. Not only will it provide you time to leave the office, but also, the individual providing support will be further engaged in the work of your organization.
Your external role is very important for the success of your organization. The executive director is typically the face of the agency and brings the mission to life for all constituencies. Fundraising, promotion, public relations, marketing, board development and partnership development all require the executive director to be out in the world, and you will not be successful without these activities. So, make sure you set aside time to get out of the office!
4. Establish an engaged board
The most successful nonprofit organizations have a strong executive director and a strong board working effectively in partnership. Yet, so many executive directors complain about their boards. Common concerns are that the board is not involved enough, or the board is too involved in day-to-day operations, or that the board and executive director arent functioning as a team. How can you build a board that will be your partner in achieving your mission?
As a new executive director, begin by getting to know the current board. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual members and the group as a whole. Build on strengths while you simultaneously identify ways to address weaknesses. Let board members get to know you and what you bring to the organization. Meet with individual board members several times annually so that you can nurture your relationship, share information and get feedback. Meet with board chair monthly, and/or in preparation for board meetings so that you are on the same page and there are no surprises for either one of you. Building relationships and trust as quickly as possible, especially with the board chair, will help create a strong partnership.
Clear and regular communication is critical. Ask board members what type of information they would like to receive and through what vehicle. Is a monthly written report most helpful? A presentation at board meetings? A site visit to experience the mission in practice? Engage board members in key policy discussions and planning, both to get the benefit of their expertise and to demonstrate the significance of their role.
Most successful nonprofits institute a board agreement that outlines the roles and responsibilities of board members, as well as what they can expect the organization to provide. Having an agreement helps to set expectations and create a common framework for board operations.
Once youve gotten to know your board, you will have a better sense of the expertise and perspectives of the current members. Think strategically with your board about what might be missing and what types of additional members would strengthen the board. Make sure that new (and current) board members are truly committed to your organization and willing to commit time and resources to ensure its success.
Being a new executive director is exhilarating and challenging. Having a plan, securing the right team, balancing internal and external roles and establishing an engaged board will make your job easier and position you on the path to success.