Three Tips for Brand-New CEOs

A new association needs to expect the unexpected, but the author of The New CEO's Guide has some guidance for surviving the first year on the job.

As CEO orientation processes go, it’s hard to beat 17 straight hours on the road with your board chair.

During her session at last week’s ASAE Great Ideas Conference on tips for first-year CEOs, Texas Society of Association Executives CEO Beth Brooks, CAE, related her experience just starting as the executive director of the Texas Pest Control Association. TPCA had just decided to shift from being run by an AMC, and the strain was showing—meetings that weren’t being prepared for, the lack of an office space. But during a long car trip to a conference and a committee meeting, she said, “I learned so much about the association.”

If that seems like an overly ad hoc way to get to know the lay of the land, consider one study that says nearly half of all new nonprofit CEOs receive no onboarding guidance from their board at all. After a lengthy application, vetting, and interviewing process, the committee in charge of finding a new executive is likely exhausted, so the new leader will probably have to take matters into his or her own hands.

When your board doesn’t understand what their roles are, or what your job is, they start making it up.”

Brooks has written a new book, The New CEO’s Guide, on how new and aspiring executives can do just that. Here are a few highlights from her talk:

Make sure the board knows what it’s doing. “When your board doesn’t understand what their roles are, or what your job is, they start making it up,” Brooks says. And that, as you might imagine, is bad news. Don’t assume that somebody else will step in to clarify the duties of board service to volunteer leaders—you’ll need to do it yourself. That clarification largely involves a review of bylaws and governance structures, ethics, strategic planning—and the consequences, sometimes legal, of noncompliance with their duties. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a slog through legalese—the experience can inspire the group to modify or reject processes that aren’t working. Especially those needless standing committees that can easily be remade into short-term task forces or simply sunsetted.

Build trust. New executives can expect at least a little micromanagement during their first year on the job. Getting through that requires being personable with staff and volunteers, but also knowing that those people need to rely on you as a steady hand. So don’t hide bad news, and make clear you understand your role as helping the board fulfill its goals: “You need to make sure that everything you’re doing is in alignment with what the board wants you to do,” she says. This kind of work happens on a personal level too: When a publishing snafu led to badly produced member publication, Brooks said, she got a grudging but disappointed sign-off from the chair. But she hustled to make sure that chair got a little face-time with a political figure he was eager to meet. “If you don’t have trust, you don’t have any staying power with that association,” Brooks says.

Get help. A CEO’s first year goes by quick—it’s a lot of time on the road, a lot of meetings with a variety of people (all of whose names you need to remember), and a lot of putting out fires. And it’s nearly impossible to manage alone. Every CEO, Brooks says, needs to spend time finding people who can provide guidance and support, especially when it comes to your weak spots. “Have a group that you can call on,” Brooks says, be it leaders at related associations or a “kitchen cabinet” of coaches on particular skills. In addition to finding people who can help them sort out the nuts-and-bolts questions, leaders also need to spend a some time understanding themselves. “Find out about you,” Brooks says. “What are your strengths? How do you deal with stress? How do you deal with strong personalities?” Knowing the answers to those questions, and building up the skills to manage your answers, goes a long way toward making that first year on the job a smoother journey.

What advice would you give to a CEO in the first year of his or her job? Share your suggestions 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

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