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January 20, 2022
Survival Tips for First-Time Executive Directors
By Diane Franklin

Over the next five years, a large number of baby boomer executive directors will retire from positions they have held for many years and will be replaced by newer, younger executive directors who may never have run a nonprofit organization.

Although many of these new leaders will have academic training or nonprofit experience in other positions, they will not have experienced being the person ultimately responsible for a nonprofit organization.

If you find yourself in this position, here are 12 tips to help you survive and ultimately thrive:
  1. Be clear about expectations. One of the biggest pitfalls for new executive directors is not achieving clarity about expectations. Work with board members to develop objectives that are mutually acceptable to you and your organization. Understand which objectives are crucial for you to accomplish and which are desirable, but not essential. Also, expectations are a two-way street. If you have expectations or concerns, clearly state these when you negotiate your contract.

  2. Become aware of any organizational red flags that must be addressed immediately, and then address them. As organizations approach leadership transitions, they sometimes let things slide or sweep them under the rug. Find out if there are any organizational issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Do this by having individual conversations with staff and board members as well as with outside constituents who know your organization well. Anything that is likely to impede the organization's ability to receive continued funding, jeopardize its nonprofit status, or keep it from accomplishing its basic mission must be addressed as soon as possible.

  3. Learn about your organization before you make major changes to it. Some executive directors are so eager to make their mark that they make major organizational changes before learning enough about why things are the way they are. With the exception of critical issues, making changes too quickly can lead to major mistakes as well as annoy long-time staff members. By instituting change gradually, especially in non-critical areas, it will be easier to enlist the help and support of staff and board members, use their considerable expertise and knowledge, and ensure their cooperation.

  4. Establish your authority as soon as possible, but do so gently. As a new executive director, it is necessary to make it clear that you are now the person in charge. This will require building credibility and establishing your authority with staff, board members, and outside constituents. However you do this, it's important to demonstrate your leadership skills and establish your authority within your first few months on the job. This initial period will set the tone for the rest of your time at the organization.

  5. Build trust in all your relationships as quickly as you can. Board members need to trust that you will serve as the organization's steward, carrying out its mission and increasing its sustainability, visibility, and reputation. They also need to believe that you will behave ethically by taking care of organizational funds and avoiding conflicts of interest. Employees on your staff need to trust that you will serve as their advocate, care about their development, and help them accomplish their work goals and personal objectives. Outside constituents need to trust that you are working on the organization's behalf and see you as a highly visible symbol.

  6. Operate from a strategic place. There are more demands on an executive director's time than are possible to meet. To be effective in a time- and resource-constrained environment, you must operate strategically, in accordance with a written strategic plan if one exists, or by using the initial expectations that you set with your board as a guideline for focusing your activities until a more comprehensive strategic plan is developed. In addition to helping you decide how to focus your own time and energy, a strategic plan serves as a blueprint for the entire organization, keeps board and staff members focused on the same goals, and provides decision-making guidelines that help allocate resources most effectively.

  7. Keep a laser focus on what is essential. Although it's tempting to learn as much possible about everything in the organization and spend time improving things that may have been neglected, resist those tendencies. Instead, focus on the things that are most essential. In today’s competitive funding environment, it's important to concentrate your initial efforts on the things that will ensure your organization's sustainability, help retain valuable employees, and increase external visibility.

  8. Seek the appropriate balance between “inside” and “outside” work. Figure out the appropriate balance between inside and outside work, especially if your organization needs a lot of internal improvement. Most likely you've been hired to increase your organization's visibility and resources, both of which require that you spend much of your time out of the office. Focus only on those internal tasks that you alone can do and delegate the rest.

  9. Leverage your board. Having a good relationship with your board is crucial for your success as an executive director. On the simplest level, the board is your "boss," and it's important that board members are aware of and happy with your work. On a more strategic level, your board is one of your greatest resources, and, if properly leveraged, can contribute immensely to your organization's sustainability and growth. Learn your board's strengths and weaknesses and then capitalize on their strengths, and work to remedy their weaknesses, using the support of your board chair.

  10. Communicate. Frequent and transparent communication is essential for effective organizational leadership. Communication, coupled with a clear strategy, holds organizations together and allows people to work toward common goals. The more that board and staff members know about what is going on in their organization, the more they will be able to act coherently to accomplish the organization's mission. Good communication also decreases rumors and reduces the time wasting that occurs when people believe essential information is being withheld.

  11. Develop the talents and skills of your staff. Pay attention to staff development. Take advantage of free or low-cost training opportunities, and then expect staff who attend such trainings to share what they have learned with other staff members. The more staff members learn and grow, the more satisfied they will be with their jobs. Satisfied staff tend to stay longer, reducing the time and money spent recruiting, hiring, and training new staff and the loss of institutional knowledge that occurs when staff leave.

  12. Begin succession planning immediately. Just after you start your new position, you and your board should plan for the day that you step down. While this may seem strange, it reflects the reality that most organizations do little succession planning despite the fact that the average tenure for executive directors is a little more than three years. Successful succession planning requires having a current strategic plan, guidelines for recruitment, hiring, evaluation and compensation, and a strong board.

Diane Franklin, Ph.D., is principal of Impact Collaborative, a consulting company that provides executive leadership development, strategic planning and implementation, organizational assessment, program evaluation, and transition planning services to nonprofits and their leaders. Call her at 617-524-7598 or email
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