Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 13: working with an established nonprofit and its board of directors

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on December 17, 2012

This is my thirteenth installment in a series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-278 for Parts 1-12.) I began a discussion of nonprofit boards as viewed from the perspective of the founder and/or chief executive officer in Part 12: building and working with the starting-stage board of directors where I focused on newly forming organizations. I turn here to consider boards of directors as they have developed in support of ongoing, established nonprofits. And I note here that even if the first chief executive officer was the mission and vision driving founder, that might no longer be the case.

• With time a founder and first chief executive officer can step down from day to day executive responsibilities, transitioning to a more advisory or elder statesman position. This might or might not include board participation and it might or might not include ongoing fundraising and other directly supportive activities with all of these options and more depending on the organization and the people involved.
• People retire and move away from their work life activities.
• With time we all die and a founder or first chief executive might only continue on in memory, and as interpretation of what they would have thought and done, and at times under circumstances for which they had no direct or comparable experience.

My goal for this posting is to focus on a situation in which a chief executive officer is brought into an established, and even a long-established nonprofit – one with history and tradition and a long-standing organizational culture and perspective. And while some of its board members may be fairly new to the organization too, others will have been there for years and even decades.

In Part 12, I focused on nonprofits for which the founder and initial chief executive played a significant role in forming the basic pattern. Here I turn to consider situations where a nonprofit leader steps into and has to lead an already well-established pattern and with all of the history and momentum that implies. And for what I have to say here, it does not matter if this new chief executive is brought in from the outside or from inside the organization.

• An insider moving into CEO position would start out with an advantage – hands-on experience working in the specific context of that organization, and direct experience working in and at times around its culture and organizational mind set.
• And insider would also start out as CEO with an established reputation and with the momentum, only sometimes a positive, of expectation. Picking up on the last of that sentence – only sometimes a positive because as chief executive officer a new leader might have to take positions and make decisions they would not have pursued when they were not making the final executive decision and when they were primarily responsible for just one functional line on the table of organization.
• An outsider moving in as a new chief executive for a nonprofit starts out with a clean slate, and perhaps more of a honeymoon period as they find their way around and settle in.
• But they do not start out with the networking connections and insider knowledge within the organization that the insider would bring to the table, that could help them prioritize and get things done.

But much of the differences that I raise in those bullet points primarily affect how this new CEO would work within the organization and its table of organization. My focus here is on how they work with and relate to the board.

• Either way, they will need to network and build effective interpersonal relations with board members.
• And either way – coming into the CEO position as an insider or an outsider they are new to that job so they are going to be building new relationships.
• An effective CEO has to know and understand where board members have their own priorities and agendas. This means finding areas of potential alignment as well as potential areas of disagreement.
• And sometimes the board members who disagree most on some issues might be the strongest potential allies for building a consensus of support for executive decisions made. In this, communications with a goal of promoting mutual understanding and respect, and compromise where that would make sense are of core importance.
• And addressing this to the chief executive officer I would state that they hold primary responsibility for this and for making it work. (If I were posting this from the orientation of addressing board members I would state that they hold primary responsibility for making their relationship with the CEO work – both sides should see this as their responsibility and both should proactively work to make this relationship work.)

I am going to turn outward and consider the building of community support in my next installment, and the role of a nonprofit’s leadership in facilitating that. 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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