Do Boards Do Enough to Support New CEOs?

It's lonely at the top: A new study suggests that new nonprofit CEOs get little guidance from their boards during their first months on the job.

Last week, Associations Now’s Rob Stott wrote about a great success story: Amy Snell, CAE, the relatively new executive director of the Wood Component Manufacturers Association, has revived an organization in the doldrums, in part by lighting a fire under the board.

When she joined the association, Snell says, “the board had become somewhat stale…. They weren’t engaged in any sort of planning or looking at the future of the organization, there was no committee structure, and they only met once a year.”

Onboarding is a two-way street: It’s not so much the board guiding a new CEO as much as the CEO and board working together.

Snell was put in a position of being a CEO who was helping to lead the board strategically. In a more stable situation, the roles would more properly be reversed, or at least in some kind of balance. Snell’s predicament is frustrating. But on the evidence of a recent survey, it’s also not unusual.

At the website of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, three staffers of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy, discuss the lack of a hands-on role that boards take when “onboarding” new nonprofit CEOs—that is, preparing them for their new role and helping them settle into the job.

A few data points from the Bridgespan study:

  • “39 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, ‘My board was effective in helping me set priorities the first year.'”
  • “50 percent of executive directors did not clarify with their boards how they would work together in the first few months on the job.”
  • “66 percent of executive directors disagreed with the statement: ‘The board and I worked effectively together to establish concrete measures and milestones for the board to use to assess my performance in my first year.'”

The story’s authors attribute this general apathy to the exhaustion that comes following the CEO search. “They are often burned out from a demanding executive search, and eager to hand things off to the new leader and go back to their day jobs.” That’s just as true in the association world: As Jackie Eder-Van Hook wrote in Associations Now in 2011, “[The board members] are tired and have done their job. Yet, there is a rich and untapped opportunity to jumpstart an executive’s tenure and help ensure that the new executive starts out on the right foot.”

One point underlying those statistics above is that onboarding is a two-way street: It’s not so much a function of the board giving guidance to a new CEO as much as the CEO and board working together to make sure they’re both moving in the same direction. The Stanford Social Innovation Review article makes five prescriptions for how a board can help onboard a CEO—”collectively set the new leadership agenda,” “get clear on roles’—but they all effectively boil down to one thing: communication. That goes beyond communication between the board and the CEO but with staff and members too.

That kind of communication is hard work, and something that CEOs in the association world seem to be hungering for: One of the more packed Learning Labs I attended at last year’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Atlanta was on CEO performance evaluations and how CEOs can get better feedback from their boards about how they’re doing. Many of the recommendations at the session involved repairing a dysfunctional relationship. But the session stressed the importance of having forward-looking conversations regardless of whether the relationship is smooth or rocky. “Instead of measuring against past metrics, turn the evaluation conversation that looks at the association’s future needs,” the speakers emphasized.

Amy Snell did it when there was pressure to turn around a struggling association, but the conversation doesn’t have to—shouldn’t—wait until things come to that point.

How well were you supported by your board during your first months of the job? How do you keep lines of communication open about your performance? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!