New leaders can come to an association eager to make bold changes. That’s a good thing, but you can’t do it alone.
You’re brand-new to the corner office, and much of what the organization does is still unfamiliar to you, despite all the preparation you’ve done. How do you play your first days in charge? Do you jump right in with bold ideas and a fresh agenda, risking the ire of longtime stakeholders? Or do you take time to understand the organization and know its peculiarities—risking accusations that you’re not doing enough to change things?
There’s no right answer to that question—or, rather, the answer will differ from place to place. But it’s a question every new leader will need to address. That’s a point that emerged from a recent conversation between two nonprofit leaders in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. The panel, titled “Leaders Reimagining Social Impact,” featured Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, and Nancy Rhodes, VP of Finance and Administration at Bread for the World.
Rhodes asked every employee, “What do you hope I’ll do, and what do you hope I won’t do?”
Both are organizations dedicated to eradicating hunger with different structures: Meals on Wheels America is a membership association, and Bread for the World is a 501(c)4. But Hollander and Rhodes expressed similar sensibilities about how to step in and make effective changes. Here are a few tips from their conversation.
- Get a grip on the numbers. “When you go into a CEO job, you think you have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into, and that’s your first mistake,” says Hollander. The same week she took over at Meals on Wheels America in 2013, federal government spending cuts removed $52 million that was dedicated for senior programs. That forced Hollander to rethink its financial model, and assume federal dollars wouldn’t be a stable resource. Similarly, Rhodes came to Bread for the World just as the organization was making staff cuts and had a practically nonexistent operating reserve; building one up became one of her first priorities.
- Look for partners. Rhodes arrived at Bread for the World as grant funding for its programs were declining, and private donations for its programs can be difficult. “It’s harder to maintain people’s attention, because [hunger] is so intractable.” That prompted the organization to look to equally committed organizations for assistance—and that want its assistance. She cited work that it now does with African-American nonprofits focused on mass incarceration and Latino organizations focused on immigration to look for common actions they can take.
- Listen. “Never underestimate the power of culture in changing a strategy,” Hollander says. She advises new CEOs to spend the first few months in charge having a lot of conversations with members, employees, and board members. And that’s particularly true when there’s a new agenda to promote. Those conversations build trust for your ideas, but they also allow you to hear about issues you otherwise might miss. When Rhodes began her job, she says, she met with every employee and asked, “What do you hope I will do, and what do you hope I won’t do?” “That was very helpful, to gain intelligence and build bridges,” she says. It was also important, she added, to have those conversations early: Once you’ve been around for a bit, people become more hesitant to talk.
- Don’t be shy about rethinking the mission statement. Early on, Hollander says, she opened discussions with her board about “what we needed to be and why it mattered. It was not simple at all. We spent months asking those questions.” She also put the question to Meals on Wheels America’s members, asking them to respond to a survey intended to gauge how closely their values aligned with Meals on Wheels America’s. That helped the association identify the “tailwinds” and “headwinds” that were either working for or against the organization. Those conversations with the board might be uncomfortable—as Hollander says, “When you make changes, it’s scary for people.” But they were a necessary step to sustaining the organization.
What helped you succeed in the first months of your tenure as a leader, and what advice would you give to leaders starting a new job? Share your experiences in the comments.