Recently a small nonprofit I have worked for began advertising for a new Executive Director. I spoke with one of my former co-workers and was told that a recruiter had been hired and had already talked to staff.
I was pleasantly surprised by that news.
When the current ED was hired, staff wasn’t consulted at all. And when it became clear that the new ED’s style was significantly different from the way staff was used to, there was nearly a revolution. The new ED didn’t handle it well (part of the new style was a “my way or the highway” perspective) and eventually the situation degenerated into something like the villager scene from “Frankenstein.” The Board had to intervene and several staff quit in anger. It wasn’t until 60% of staff had left the agency that things started to settle down and the work of the agency could be done in something less than an atmosphere of anger and distrust.
How could this have been avoided?
Definitely the board should have run the candidates for the position by staff before making a final decision. It surprised the heck out of me that at least one member of the Board didn’t insist on that. It’s terrific if the Board feels the candidate will work well with them, but they’re not the ones actually doing the work on a daily basis. Hiring a new ED without giving staff a chance to look at the candidates and offer their opinion will just increase the anxiety and let staff know that the Board couldn’t care less what they think; not a good situation for a new ED to walk into.
But even before that, when the Board was still looking for suitable candidates, wouldn’t it have been nice to ask staff for an evaluation of the previous ED – what they felt had been on target and what they thought could have used work? And a rundown of what areas of the agency were strong and weak? That would have provided a good outline of the strengths they would be seeking in the new ED and clued the recruiter in on possible red flags, too.
Even better than that, how about letting staff review the ED every year when the Board does? How else will they know if there are communication problems that need to be addressed? When you meet formally only a few times a year and then at the occasional event, you aren’t likely to pick up on daily work tensions. Having a method in place to uncover areas of disagreement can keep them from escalating. You want to spend your time volunteering to help the agency move forward on its goals, not refereeing some smackdown.
And what about a transition plan? A way for the new person to ease into the role, taking into account background and experience. This new ED had never been an ED before – and shouldn’t have been tossed into the deep end of agency waters without so much as a floatation device. Meetings with each staff member to explain how the agency works and the staff member’s viewpoint on what works and what doesn’t as well as a clear set of expectations for the first 90 days would have reduced tension on both sides, making the changeover easier.
It Has to be About the Mission
I’ve been talking about the ED, but this advice could pertain to any staff position in your nonprofit. In a small nonprofit, usually working cheek-by-jowl with others, each staffer contributes substantially to the environment, positive or negative. It’s in the agency’s best interests, and therefore the Board’s, to make sure that the mix is as productive, professional and supportive as possible. Because if it isn’t, it’s those who benefit most from the agency’s mission who will suffer the most.