Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 5: starting a new job as a nonprofit’s CEO

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on November 7, 2012

This is my fifth installment in a new series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-270 for Parts 1-4.) I began this series with a brief orienting discussion as to the similarities and differences between a for-profit and a nonprofit business. I then went on to consider the issues of finding and bringing in the right new chief executive officer for an established nonprofit, at least briefly considering this from the job candidate’s perspective and also from the nonprofit’s board’s perspective. I continue this discussion and here from the candidate’s perspective as they are offered that job and accept it and as they begin work as a nonprofit’s new CEO. And I begin that with some basic, orienting questions:

• What are the most important challenges that this nonprofit, your new employer faces and both immediately and short-term?
• Are they on the business side of this organization and on how it operates as a business, or are they on the mission and vision, and the more ideals-driven side of the organization, or do they span both?
• Is this organization focused and heading in the right direction or are you coming in to in effect, chart out a new path forward? And closely aligned to that, how is morale, and both within the organization and for its employees, and outside of it in its supporting community?

Think of this as starting out performing at least an informal nonprofit-oriented SWOT analysis so you know what you are walking into and so you can be more prepared from that, for getting off to a strong start. Now take a deep breath and set aside any presumptions that you can in some way ride in as if a savior on a big white horse and simply set things right on your own. As a leader your job is to lead, and in this case that means working with others and for any organization of any significant scale, lots of others.

• You need to find an early opportunity for a quick if small success where you can begin to bond with these people if they are to find the confidence to follow your lead on more challenging issues: a confidence-building measure.
• You have to do this with an acute awareness of the dichotomy of the nonprofit as I began discussing in Part 1 of this series.
• And as a leader you have to take the initiative to step forward and communicate your positive vision and particularly if you have to start out making difficult and challenging decisions.
• Here, by way of example, consider the situation where you may have to start out by closing a program that has been hemorrhaging the organization’s funds without correspondingly meeting any of its business or its mission and vision-driven needs. Or consider a situation where even a relatively preliminary evaluation shows that you need to close an office or carry through on at least a limited downsizing and staff reduction.
• In most cases a new CEO to an organization does not find themselves immediately walking into a crisis remediation situation, but that can happen, and once you are there and actually working there, new issues and challenges as well as positive opportunities will come to light. You need to be prepared for all of that. And starting from day one you have to be thinking and planning as to how to bring the entire organization and its staff and its connected communities along with you as you do this.

And as a new hire (even if from inside the organization), you set out to do this while still on probation as a new hire. So along with meeting with and working with your senior managers and your staff and your external communities, you need to work with the board that formally hired you and that you formally report to.

• This is all about learning curves: yours and theirs and about taking thought out steps.
• And this is all about communicating, and listening as well as speaking, and with goals of both accomplishing tasks and developing trust-mutual trust.
• Build a supportive constituency and plan from day one for doing so.

Be a student of organizational culture, and particularly if you come from more of a for-profit background; learn the culture there in your nonprofit with an acute awareness of its importance. And learn the history of this organization and of how it has functioned with its ups and downs. Reach out to people who have been there long-term: twenty years and more and pick their brains for insight and perspective. This can tell you a lot as to the organization’s default ways of doing things and that is invaluable for understanding and anticipating both easy paths forward and paths that would face organizational resistance.

• You can fight trends and sometimes you will need to, but you can sometimes achieve the exact same goals by framing them and the tasks for accomplishing them in more familiar terms.
• And this can also help you identify the stakeholders you need to win over and work with and any members of the overall team who would be more barriers than anything else, and who you will also have to work around and deal with.

I am writing all of this in terms of day one on the job and clearly I have been discussing issues and approaches that can only actually play out over weeks and months and even a year and more. But you want to start on day one with this larger framework approach in mind so you can begin carrying through upon it.

I have discussed the issues of getting oriented and set up as a new hire, with email and business cards, a login to the intranet and so on elsewhere and will leave those discussions to those postings for here. The point to focus on here is on getting off to a strong start from day one and with a plan in mind for proceeding in that. And as a final thought for this posting, make sure that your plan allows for flexibility in the face of the unexpected because unexpected is one thing you absolutely can expect.

I am going to turn to the issues of feedback and follow-through in my next series installment with that leading up to your first formal performance review and your first formal presentation to the board, which might or might not amount to the same thing. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. You can also find this and related postings at Nonprofits and Social Networking.

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