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Successful Leadership Transitions: Embracing Your Role as Executive Director

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

You nailed the interview, impressed the board and got the job as executive director. Congratulations! Now it’s time to step into your new role and start making a positive impact for your organization. Some might say this is easier said than done. After all, nearly half of all leadership transitions fail.

Leadership transitions are high-stakes, and the success or failure of the transition has ripple effects on the organization as a whole. In a successful transition, the new leader’s team is 90% more likely to meet their 3-year performance goals. On the other hand, when the transition is unsuccessful, the performance of the new leader’s team suffers and team members are 20% more likely to leave the organization, according to research cited by McKinsey & Company.

The good news is that you have the power to set yourself up for leadership success.

This is the second blog in a 3-part series on how to pave the way for a successful leadership transition. Our first blog explains what you should know before you take on the job of executive director. In this blog, I’ll share ways to prepare for your new role before you start. In the final post, I’ll share advice for new leaders when starting the job.

To those board members out there - you also play a critical role when transitioning a new executive director. If you support your new leader before they even start the position (using the advice below) you can reap benefits as a board and organization for years to come.

To make a smooth leadership transition and embrace your new role as executive director, you must first prepare. This requires a little homework.

Learn & Lean Into the Organization

Emotional intelligence, a high IQ and functional knowledge of one’s industry are key characteristics of effective leaders. But, the most successful leaders also embody another characteristic: organizational intelligence. Organizational intelligence is the ability to understand how to get your organization to do what you need it to do. Begin fostering your organizational intelligence before your start date.

As one Storied Awareness interviewee said, “There is no perfect situation. There are land mines somewhere, you just have to figure out what it is with that particular gig and decide if you can live with it. Homework on any job is the best thing you can do.”

So, how do you lean into learning about the organization? Here are 4 avenues:

1. Get clarity about expectations.

To thrive in your new executive director role, you’ll need to have a clear understanding about what needs to be accomplished and when. Engage with board members to identify which objectives are crucial for you to achieve and which objectives are worth pursuing, yet less essential. By taking the time to establish your top goals and priorities, you can begin your role with greater clarity about resource allocation, and start creating a plan for you and your team to achieve the right goals.

2. Take stock of the organization’s internal processes and culture.

Gaining honest insights about the organization’s current culture, including what’s working, what’s not working, who you’ll be working with, and what their personalities are is hugely helpful. Start scheduling introductory meetings with board members and your new direct reports for your first week on the job. These informal video chats, coffees or lunch meetings give you a chance to learn about valuable resources, such as especially helpful employees or community supporters. Informal introductory meetings are worthwhile because they are an opportunity to get candid feedback about the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They are also a good opportunity to obtain any intel the board didn’t share during the interview process.

3. Identify issues that should be addressed sooner rather than later.

Before you start, you should determine whether there are crises that will require your immediate attention. Anything that could prevent your organization from receiving funding or hinder it from accomplishing its core mission should be addressed immediately.

To begin understanding the organization in detail, request these documents from the board and learn them inside and out:

  • Latest financial statements

  • HR manual

  • Organizational chart

  • Strategic plan and other plans

  • Policies and procedures

  • Board by-laws

  • Board committee descriptions

  • Board meeting schedule

  • Organizational calendar (milestone and annual events), etc.

  • Programming descriptions, goals and past impact

Additionally, the introductory meetings you scheduled are a key way to identify any issues that you should be aware of from the get go. Ideally, team members will be transparent about any pressing problems that exist, unlike one organization that surprised its new executive director with an office full of mousetraps on her first day.

Finally, ask around about the organization. As a Storied Awareness interviewee said, “the great thing about non-profits is there's so much transparency in their partnerships. Asking [non-staff and board], ‘what's the reputation of this organization?’ helps you understand the position of the organization and its context in the community”.

4. Plan how you’ll build trusting relationships with stakeholders.

As a new executive director, you will need to establish your credibility and authority with your team, the board, volunteers and other outside constituents. Trust and candor is key here. For advice on how you can lead with openness and candor, check out my previous blog post.

Ultimately, board members need to trust you to carry out the organization’s mission and increase its visibility. Your team should trust you to be an advocate for their career development and empower them to accomplish their professional goals. The constituents in your community need to trust that you will act in the best interests of your organization.

When planning for your first few months on the job, pinpoint opportunities to build trust early. Properly leverage your board’s strengths and keep members informed of your work. You should plan to communicate often and with transparency so that the board and team members are clear on the organization’s goals and what it will take to achieve them. This helps ensure everyone stays focused on the right initiatives.

Learn & Lean Into Yourself

Not only should you learn the ins and outs of the organization, you should also be self-aware as you begin your leadership transition. Executive directors must carefully focus their time and energy on the right activities, and also guide their team to operate strategically. This is tough work.

Now is the time to be real with yourself. Honestly assess your strengths, passions and knowledge gaps as they relate to the organization’s strategic plan. This will help guide your decision-making, and enable you to delegate tasks and allocate resources more effectively.

Self-Assessment Questions to Ask Yourself

1. What do you know how to do?

Perhaps you have extensive fundraising or public speaking experience. Or maybe you have practical experience with the nonprofit’s mission. Whatever your strengths may be, analyze them and understand how you will use those strengths to their full potential. Whether directly using your fundraising skills on a donor call or indirectly using your program skills through managing strategy and staff, get clear about what you know how to do and how this will support the organization.

2. What do you love to do?

There are many traits of a successful executive director, such as excellent communication skills, strategic visioning prowess and the ability to motivate others. Chances are, you have a unique skill or activity that you enjoy and can leverage for the benefit of your organization. For example, maybe you enjoy using social media to engage with your network. Consider ways you can use your social media profile to raise awareness for your organization and its mission. By aligning some of your favorite activities with your organization’s strategic plan, you’ll be able to maintain your energy and enthusiasm while enabling your organization to grow and thrive long-term.

3. Where are your knowledge gaps?

No one has all the answers. However, as an executive director, you will be expected to find the right answers. Assess where your knowledge gaps are and start identifying who you can ask for help and how you can improve your skills. Becoming self-aware of your knowledge gaps will also allow you to assess whether you have the right team members in place to achieve the organization’s objectives.

4. What do you hate to do?

Make sure you know which activities drain your energy and enthusiasm. Perhaps there are projects or tasks that could be accomplished by others with greater enjoyment. Sharing responsibility with another team member conveys a message of trust and confidence. Oftentimes, staff members want to broaden their role in the organization and have the skills to take on the tasks that you don’t enjoy as much, so go in with a clear picture of which activities you’d like to delegate.

5. What real skills do you possess?

Your resume doesn’t tell the whole story about your skills arsenal. Real skills (sometimes called soft skills), such as adaptability, persistence, curiosity and empathy, support a smooth leadership transition. According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 89% of talent professionals said that when a new hire doesn't work out, it’s because they lacked critical soft skills.

Take some reflective time to consider how you showed up in past positions. Make a list of what types of interactions and situations brought you joy and which dragged you down. Can you identify any themes? Do you love communicating about big ideas, yet hate giving feedback? Do you thrive in uncertainty, yet have a hard time making decisions? What about your ability to empathize with others, and set boundaries for yourself at the same time?

This type of reflection can help you understand which intangible skills you are adept at and which ones you can improve upon. They can also help you be aware of potential blocking points. Fortunately, there are many resources that can help with this, like my New Executive Guide coaching program, which helps new leaders capitalize on strengths and improve where needed, or Akimbo’s online altMBA program, which is designed to help leaders level up in a worldwide community - and where I’m also a head coach.

Stay Committed to Your Values

My last piece of advice is arguably the most important: be yourself and stay true to your core values. Although you’re stepping into a new role that will entail new responsibilities, keep your values as a foundation for your decision making and actions.

To deeply understand what your core values are, you must look at your actual behaviors and decide which activities are fulfilling to you and why. I recommend using Heather Chavin’s exercise, which you can read about here. This will ensure you are intentional about the opportunities you pursue, and ultimately, help you engage with others in a genuine, authentic way. This is the secret to a smooth, successful leadership transition.

If you enjoyed this blog, join my newsletter for more insights, stories and actions for ambitious nonprofit leaders. And in the meantime, keep up with me on LinkedIn!


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