The early months of a CEO’s tenure can be tense. One association leadership expert discusses how to go from being the newbie to the leader who’s earned the board’s support.
CEOs often like to remind people that they serve at the pleasure of their boards. Rarely, though, does it seem like they’re eager to discuss that fact as a pleasure itself.
The relationship between staff and volunteer leaders can be fraught. That’s particularly pronounced in the early months of a CEO’s tenure, when the new executive is eager to implement a new vision but has to be mindful of all the things the board carries with it—institutional folkways, firmly held (but frustratingly unspoken) preferences, a general suspicion that the new person who’s arrived is ready to unwittingly wreck the organization. Worse, there’s a disinterest in engaging in such discussions: According to one recent survey, a substantial proportion of nonprofit executives say they received little board support in their first year.
Gaining endorsement from a board for your ideas is rarely unanimous.
Last week Kerry Stackpole, FASAE, CAE, a longtime association executive and managing director of Neoterica Partners, wrote thoughtfully about this predicament. In an extended blog post directed to new CEOs, he stressed the importance of being attentive to the board’s behavior. “Newly appointed CEO’s need to be extremely sensitive to the past—specifically the systems, processes and expectations––built by their predecessors,” he writes. The ways that boards cling to old behaviors manifests itself in a variety of ways: A past CEO asked to “stick around” with vague duties that still muddle with lines of authority, reflexive resistance to new proposals, benign neglect.
Stackpole’s recommendation in response is similar to a line this blog (and the experts I lean on for it) has long taken: Communicate. But, he stressess, do it tactfully and diplomatically. “You need to meet with all key executives and informal leaders in the organization,” he writes. “The tone and tenor of your initial contacts go a long way in carrying your message and setting the stage for your leadership and the organization.”
That’s good advice for a CEO navigating his or her honeymoon period, which ends….well, when does it end?
I put that question to Stackpole: When does the onboarding or transitional period end for a CEO, to the point where earning the board’s respect isn’t the primary concern?
The answer: Slower than you might like, and perhaps never. “In my experience, the transitional period is done when the board begins to endorse and actively support the ideas of the new CEO. Notice I didn’t say ‘accept.’ Accepting is far too passive and lacks the essential elements of enthusiasm and commitment to assure success for the new CEO. The true challenge here is that gaining endorsement from a board for your ideas is rarely unanimous.”
When it comes to getting to the point of active support, Stackpole makes a distinction between the speeds at which the new CEO needs to operate—fast when comes to understanding the board intimately and well, slow when it comes to implementing new ideas. Doing the opposite may force the CEO to play defense. “If a CEO hasn’t worked early in their tenure to quickly build understanding of board members, strengthen personal relationships and mold a general consensus for the future, the only ‘safe’ route for the CEO is to make small changes at the margins and move slowly toward their own implementation,” he says.
That doesn’t mean you need to be timid going in, but your actions need to be meshed with passion for the organization you’re leading. That’s what the board will be looking for when they first get to know you, Stackpole says. And of course they’ll want it for years to come as well. “In many ways the CEO is earning the board’s respect everyday,” he says. “It is an ongoing effort and something that can be easily derailed by the CEO.”
How did you establish strong communication with your board early on, and when did you feel confident that you had the board’s support? Share your experiences in the comments.