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Research shows that 50-60 percent of new executives fail in their first 18 months on the job[1] and unfortunately, nonprofits are not immune to this all-too-common problem. But there is some good news: there are steps that organizations can take at the beginning of a new executive’s tenure to help ease the transition for both the newcomer and the existing team. By creating and adhering to a sustainable, practical onboarding strategy, nonprofits can help their staff adjust to new leadership and the incoming executive avoid common pitfalls that often lead to underperformance.

There are several ways to be proactive and encourage successful transitions when undergoing a leadership change:

  1. Prepare the team. No one likes to be blindsided, especially when it comes to a shift in leadership. Equipping other employees for the addition of a new leader is crucial to helping the executive join the company successfully and mitigate growing pains. Communicate the new leader’s role and responsibilities clearly, capitalizing on the opportunity to provide a refresher for all employees. If possible, encourage and provide opportunities for introductory discussions with the executive’s immediate superiors and/or subordinates prior to his or her official start date. Connect the executive with key clients and/or customers as well as any internal individuals with whom they will work closely. Investing in these relationships early on will help the transition go more smoothly when the official start date arrives.
  2. Minimize the “firehose” effect. When bringing on a new leader, it can be tempting to thrust all the necessary information, introductions, and culture immersion on him or her at once. This scenario would be overwhelming for anyone, and the executive may end up feeling like they’re drinking from a firehose. Though it is important to communicate expectations, responsibilities, and company culture, it is neither effective nor productive to require the new leader to attend lengthy, detailed sessions on each topic. Brief, practical overviews are much more digestible and do not deter from an executive’s busy schedule, allowing the leader more time to determine where he or she would like to follow up with more detailed training in the future.[2]
  3. Set clear expectations and goals for the new executive. One of the most common ways a new leader fails is by under-delivering, and in many cases, this failure stems from an initial lack of clarity about expectations that exists from day-one. To establish a strong foundation and minimize the risk of under-performance, well-defined expectations should be made clear from the very beginning. This includes a thorough understanding of all aspects of the product or service the organization provides. Setting measurable goals, however small, within the first few months not only allows the executive to understand exactly what is expected of him or her, but also builds confidence among the broader team. When possible, define an easily-achievable goal for the executive and the team, so they can celebrate their accomplishment together early on. This will serve to strengthen trust in the new leader and unify team members under his guidance.
  4. Connect the new executive with stakeholders and decision-makers. For a new leader to be truly successful in their role, he or she must become familiar with the “who’s who” of the company. They must understand how departments interface and develop a high comfort level approaching various stakeholders about their respective responsibilities. In this area, a little context goes a long way. The new leader can benefit greatly from listening to board members and other leaders to familiarize themselves with the ‘state of the union’ and recognize areas for improvement within the organization. Identifying key decision-makers and hearing their perspectives helps integrate the new executive into the company and allows them to take ownership of their unique role.
  5. Check in with the executive throughout the first year, and be patient. Consistently and thoughtfully assessing the new executive’s emotional and professional well-being as well as his or her performance is crucial to maintaining quality leadership over time. And remember that leadership transitions are never “once and done” circumstances – they require flexibility, open-mindedness, and the willingness to invest time and energy along the path to success. Thorough executive onboarding is undoubtedly daunting and may even seem impractical at times, but it is well worth the initial effort to avoid an even more costly potential failure. By being flexible and patient, your company will be able to work with the new executive toward a mutually beneficial role and even greater levels of success.




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