The Best Way to Sabotage Your New Executive Director

sabotage new executive director

I hear a lot of crazy stories from readers, listeners and clients. A lot of them are about Executive Directors who feel undermined.

So riddle me this, Batmen and Batwomen…

Based on what people tell me, what’s the best way to sabotage the new Executive Director? You get 5 options…

  1. A board that micromanages the living daylights out of her
  2. A staff that can’t seem to get through a meeting without saying “Oh, we tried that before and it didn’t work”
  3. A board that makes poor choices about what to do with the former E.D.
  4. A staff that is still in love with the old boss and the new E.D. gets treated like the new evil stepmother
  5. A board that is quite clear that fundraising was never a priority before

Good list right? You can’t choose.

If you’re a board leader, maybe you read this and feel a touch defensive? And if you are an Executive Director you are wondering why I haven’t added (f) “all of the above.”

Sure. All of these items will indeed chip away at the motivation and/or credibility of an Executive Director.

But one thing is worse than all the others. And it shape shifts. It can look like a lot of different things and none of them – trust me – none of them are pretty. It creates nothing but mess. The last thing you need if you are trying to build a thriving nonprofit.

So what is the correct answer? Or should I say the very incorrect answer?

WHEN THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR HANDS IN THE KEYS

The stories you are about to hear are true. This is one of those blog posts where you might say – Joan please stop writing about me again! Or I can’t believe you cut and pasted from the email I sent you.

But please don’t worry. I only selected true examples that I have seen in many situations.

Here are six real things said by boards after the E.D. quit:

  • We cannot lose the institutional memory and he was tied to a number of donors. I think he might even be insulted (and go away mad and take his relationships with him) if we don’t ask him to be on the board.
  • She is such a valuable asset. She wasn’t the perfect executive director but boy oh boy she is good at X. Let’s keep her on as a consultant working for the new leader.
  • In a narrow vote, the board votes to fire the E.D. Those who voted to keep her are on the verge of mutiny. Let’s try to keep everyone happy. We’ll give her a new role in the organization. Wait. Here’s an idea (because many people are hopping mad). Let’s make her President of the organization. She can report to both the new ED and the board. She can focus on X.
  • We really have to let the new E.D. make his mark. So even if the former E.D. was there for decades, beloved by many, let’s forget about her. Tell the new E.D. to keep a distance so he can establish his own identity and leadership.
  • That E.D. has some nerve quitting on us. It’s his fault he burned out. Not ours. I don’t care if he was ridiculously passionate about the organization – he screwed us and left us in the lurch. Let’s excommunicate him from the organization. We can’t make the rule hard and fast but you would all be well advised to eliminate his contact info from your phone.
  • Let’s be sure to include the beloved exiting executive director as part of the search committee. He’ll know exactly what we should be looking for.

WHY IS THIS SO BAD? 

This question can be answered with a single word: power.

Where does it rest when the former Executive Director has a vote on the board? Where does it rest when the former E.D. is given a job reporting to the new E.D.?

Not entirely with the new E.D. And that’s a big problem.

In one of the scenarios above, the board offered the E.D. stepping down a job on staff, reporting to the new E.D. OK, so that is bizarre, right? But it can worse.

What happens if the new E.D. unearths all kinds of problems that seriously jeopardize the viability of the organization? All created on the watch of one of the new E.D.’s direct reports?

You simply cannot make this stuff up.

HOW DO THINGS LIKE THIS HAPPEN?

This question can be answered with two words: weak boards. The board is fearful that losing the E.D. will cost the organization something. Like what? Relationships. Donors. Institutional memory.

Or in the worse scenario above, some board members felt firing the E.D. was the obvious answer and an almost equal number disagreed. How could that possibly be? Because a weak board was at the helm and unable to look at what was in the best interest of the organization, its mission and the clients it serves.

Weak boards make bad choices. A weak board does not see the implications of its choices. A weak board makes decisions from a place of fear and in so doing undermines a new Executive Director in the worst possible ways.

Sorry to be so blunt but I call ‘em as I see ‘em.

PREVENTATIVE MEASURES EVERY NONPROFIT SHOULD TAKE

I’m writing about this because there is a huge impending gap in nonprofit leadership right around the bend as baby boomer Executive Directors step down. The choices that are made by the board regarding the ongoing role and influence of these folks can make all the difference in setting a new leader up – either for success or failure.

I beg you to take the following steps and make the following commitments.

Executive Director

  • Step away from the organization when you leave. Agree to absolutely no formal role. Your board may push hard. Please don’t let flattery or ego get in your way. Give the new Executive Director the run room she needs to be successful.
  • Make a standing offer to be of help. You’ll learn a lot about the successor by his response to the offer. If the new guy doesn’t work to keep the former E.D. close, that is a big red flag on the field. The new guy is fumbling one of the most important relationships in the organization. And when I say, “keep the former E.D. close,” I am not suggesting that the new E.D. ask for permission for changes. I am suggesting that institutional memory, intangible knowledge about board members, donors, and colleagues can be of tremendous value. Your new leader should see that value.

Staff

  • Regardless of what happens, remember that the organization comes first. Its reputation, its mission, the clients, the cause. If you loved your old boss, talking smack about the new person is simply not helpful.
  • New people make changes. Change is hard. Go with it. See how you feel about it. Don’t rush to judgment. And don’t pick up the phone to complain to the former E.D. Not good for either of you.
  • Keep the former E.D. close. Stay in touch. About all the good stuff that will continue to make that person feel proud to have led the organization. Pleased that the good work continues. She may have passed the baton but she wants to win the whole race. And deserves to be kept in the loop.

Board

  • Don’t ask the former leader to be on the board.
  • Don’t ask the former E.D. to stay around as a consultant.
  • Don’t ever ask the former E.D. to be on the search committee. Do you think s/he can be even remotely objective?
  • Don’t do any of the things that you think will keep the E.D. formally connected to the organization.
  • Hold the staff accountable to their three items (the ones I listed above.)

Provide what the new leader needs to be successful. With the ghost of E.D. past in the room with a vote, on the payroll or part of her annual evaluation, there is simply no way that the organization will get the best out of its new leader. No matter what you think, the former leader will carry just enough power in every conversation to undermine the new Executive Director’s authority and credibility.

The road ahead will have potholes. The ride will be bumpy at the least. And at worst, you may end up with an Executive Director who decides to exit the highway at the next stop.

HERE ARE 3 MORE HELPFUL LINKS FOR EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS

Joan Garry
Follow me

Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
Follow me
  • Laurie

    How about a post about how the new ED sabotages the former ED’s reputation and intentionally drives out the staff who the new ED feels threatened by?

    • How about that? It’s true Laurie. This also happens with greater frequency than folks think. And those staff don’t have much recourse b/c who can they tell? The board is enamored of the new ED OR wants so badly for the new ED to be successful that they ignore big flags.

      • Laurie

        Absolutely Joan! Very difficult situation for staff to be in often resulting in the departure of some valuable employees!

  • Sandy Nadeau

    I had the opposite problem. I ran an organization for 13 years. I was one of their largest donors. When I left, I did not get any thanks from the board. I left 3 years ago and it still hurts.

    When the ED leaves…at least write a note!

    Phew…I feel better.

    • Sandy. This scenario happens very often. Too often. Yet another sign of a weak board.

  • Gary Ravetto

    If the board of directors even considered any of the retention options listed here for the exiting ED, as the incoming director I would not take the job. Issues with boards tend to be the #1 cause for EDs to move on. As for Ms. Nadeau’s experience, with all due respect, you essentially raised that board. 13 years is a long time. If you didn’t even get so much as a pat on the back you had to have enabled their bad behavior during your tenure or [again with all due respect] over-stayed your welcome.

    • Gary. You are totally right. Interviews should run both ways but far too often new folks don’t see these things as significant impediments to success. It baffles me when I encounter EDs who are in these situations. And chose to do so knowingly. And as for Ms. Nadeau, it’s just hard to know without all the details.

      • Gary Ravetto

        Folks are either so eager to have a job or they are on Cloud 9 with the prospect of being an executive director. So they see what they want. I’ve been one several times and I’ve worked with close to 100. Rarely are there kumbaya moments. My most commonly used analogy is comparing heading a nonprofit to raising a child. Everyone is excited when it is born & there for all of its milestones. However, when it’s time to change its messy smelly diaper only the ED is there to do what needs to be done.

        • Gary. Now there is a vivid image. And yes, either enthusiasm or deep passion can blur thinking and lead to choices that are not always well thought out.

  • Rick J Fritzemeier

    Sigh…so Joan, I totally hear you. I’m sure your years of experience from several perspectives makes what you are saying true “most” of the time. BUT, LOL, have you ever seen it work? (When the ED stays around in some official role (staff or board)? And if so, why would you say it went against the strong norm and worked?

    Honestly, in a few years time, I’ll reach 30 years with my current organization, always as the ED. I have several hopeful scenarios that I’d like to think could work well…for the organization, for the new ED, and well, obviously for me. Am I just being totally delusional (please be kind)?

    P.S. Mr Ravetto, may I humbly suggest that rarely are things 100% true. So while your thoughts for Ms. Nadeau may be correct, that’s doesn’t mean they are correct in her situation. Case in point I’ve had terrible boards, so-so boards, and incredible boards during my 28 years and not necessarily in a linear timeline. As a non-voting ED, I only control how good or great my board is to a certain degree, especially since I’m committed to letting my Board Chair fulfill and fully grow into his/her role. Sometimes despite my best efforts, I just can’t get them to move, and then I have to (again) go through the very slow and painful process on getting new apples in the barrel and letting a new (preferred, desirable) culture reestablish itself. And of course, that’s from a “leading from behind” position. Critical in my mind to do, ultimately effective, but not necessarily efficient. Sorry, just a thought.

    • Gary Ravetto

      Certainly there is always more to each dynamic. I’ve been in this sector for 35 years and consulting for 13 years. The one generalization that is absolute is weeding out the good board members from those just taking up space. Climbing to the top of the nonprofit food-change and thinking of one’s own legacy are what should be guiding all seniors members [paid & volunteer] of your organization. To be clear, I am not talking about self-focused narcissism.

    • Kimberly Grady Brock

      While I don’t disagree with Joan, if the exiting ED has very good intentions and makes a great effort not to impede the new ED, I have seen this be very helpful. In most of my nonprofit positions the previous ED disappeared, but one time she stayed around and her input – especially that first year – was invaluable.
      Kim Brock
      http://www.Philanthropy.Solutions

  • Kimberly Grady Brock

    I agree that the board/ED relationship is always hard, especially during a transition. The fact that nonprofit executive turnover is 35% while for-profit executive turnover is 2% shows their are obvious problems.
    I have several suggestions for my clients to avoid these problems as much as possible:
    1. Keep the board SMALL.
    2. Keep continuous communication between the ED and each individual board member.
    3. Implement board member orientations that not only make expectations clear, but open dialogue for ongoing communication.

    Kim Brock
    http://www.Philanthropy.Solutions

  • Lynn Hatfield

    We have an interesting situation that we don’t see happen very often. The current ED and the Asst. ED are switching positions. We are a very effective team as is and expect to become even stronger going forward. The ED is stepping down for health reasons but loves our organization and feels that the Asst.ED position is just what she needs for a revival. She get to change focus to program development and I get to try my hand at the helm, focusing on agency promotion, “communications”, and funding diversification. Ready, set, GO!