Your New Boss Stinks: Now What?

by Joan Garry

If the new boss at your nonprofit is destroying the place, should you go to the board? If not, what else can you do?

After last week’s post about how easy it is for a board to hire a rotten Executive Director, I received lots of comments from staff members now reporting to the newly hired stinker.

Let’s name her Stinker.

There is a whole rock / hard place thing going on. Put yourself in my commenters’ shoes. Imagine for a moment you work at a nonprofit (tough to imagine, I know.) You’ve been there a while and have done great and important work. You care deeply about the mission. You’re beloved by the board chairs. There’s a new Executive Director.

And it’s Stinker.

Stinker has already done real damage to the organization’s reputation, brand, donor base, staff quality, and attrition.

You decide to go to the board. They must know what’s going on!

But Stinker has friends on the board. That’s how she got the job in the first place. So your “confidential” board discussion gets back to Stinker.

She rakes you over the coals. You plan your exit strategy. Not exactly the outcome you were hoping for. Not exactly the outcome the organization really needed.

So what in the wide world of sports should you do when your new Executive Director is terrible? When the board hired Stinker…


Here’s a quick checklist that will help you figure out if your new boss stinks:

When it comes to your staff, did your new Executive Director…

  • Meet with each and every staff member during her first 30 days and actually LISTEN to them?
  • Thank you for your commitment to the organization and tell you that she feels lucky to be working with such a committed group?
  • Spend enough time with the finance person to know the budget and YTD actuals cold?
  • Ask each senior staffer to put a list of 5-10 key stakeholders she should meet in first 60 days (or call in first 2 weeks)?
  • Say the words, “What do YOU think?” to senior staff members a few times during the first two weeks?

When it comes to your board, did your new Executive Director…

  • Have a coffee or Skype with each and every board member in month 1 and ask each of them what successful board service looks like for them?
  • Ask each of them for the names of 5-10 key stakeholders she should meet in her first 30-60 days?

When it comes to external stakeholders, did your new Executive Director…

  • Reach out to the top 20 donors in the first 2 weeks?
  • Meet with either a colleague or an expert in the sector for lunch during that first month?
  • Exercise her fundraising muscle by making one significant ask before her first board meeting (minimum)?

Maybe this is too much, even for a rock star. But I will tell you that I am working with a client who starts her gig in 30 days. We are putting these very wheels in motion NOW so that the calendar is strategically full on day one. It can be done.


Before you throw in the towel, blow the whistle or any other football-like activities you may choose, hold on one second and ask yourself these three questions:

1) Is your new boss making decisions jeopardizing the overall mission of the organization or client services? If this is the case, this is a five alarm blaze! Do others you respect (internally and externally) think so too? Do you have some concrete evidence? You better confirm all of this with others before taking action. There’s too much on the line.

Consider building an alliance. There is strength and safety in numbers. Be sure you have a quorum of folks who feel exactly as you do. Gather, brainstorm, and create a mutual support group. What can you do individually and as a group to get your concerns where they need to go? One more thought — maybe you are not the right messenger. Is there someone else your board would listen to? A donor or a leader in the sector who has seen a serious misstep? It should be someone the board would be up in arms to hear was dissatisfied.

2) Is your knowledge and expertise being disrespected? Then say so. To your new boss. Directly. No dishing or venting at the Keurig. Get it out there early. There is a great book I encourage you to read, “How to Have Difficult Conversations.” Train yourself to have a difficult conversation and give it a go. The book is helpful in guiding you through a respectful conversation that will be a real conversation and not an attack. And please remember to be a leader yourself. Model the behavior you want to see in your colleagues.

3) Did you love the previous E.D.? Maybe YOU are the problem. Take a good long look in the mirror. Are you bereft? Can you get over it? Just because the new ED is doing things differently doesn’t mean she’s wrong. If you seriously evaluate and see that you cannot judge fairly, you need to get out of the way and let the new person make her/his mark. You owe this to the organization you care so deeply about.


If the E.D. is a stinker, a board will eventually see the true colors shining through. Honestly evaluate just how bad it is. Determine if maybe (just maybe) you are not giving her/him a fair shake. Lead by example, don’t undermine.

Last and most importantly, if you have a five alarm blaze, do not sit idly by. You will regret it personally and professionally and you will compromise an organization you’ve thrown your heart and soul into. Your mission is too important to do anything else.


Do you know somebody else who just got a Stinker new boss? Share this article. Maybe it can help.

And finally, if you haven’t already, subscribe to get more nonprofit leadership advice like this. You can click the link here. And, as always, thanks!

7 thoughts on “Your New Boss Stinks: Now What?”

  1. After being just about every side of transition possible, I
    appreciated this article, Joan. Two
    thoughts came to my mind as I was reading.
    At a nonprofit I volunteered for the outgoing ED set the new ED up to be
    viewed as the Stinker because the outgoing ED had been on cruise control for
    2-3 years leading up to her retirement. So
    many decisions were put off and bad behaviors overlooked. Secondly, sometimes the Stinker can smell
    their own stink and would love to work with a staff ally to right the
    course. If the hiring process is done in
    a sloppy way, the new ED can come into a job dramatically different than the
    job he signed up for. Of course he is
    going to stink.

  2. Interesting article, Joan! Thankfully, I’ve never been in that situation (whew!) Hey, great choice of images, and I love the name you gave Ms. Problem E.D. I also really appreciate point #3: “Did you love the previous E.D./you may be the problem”. Terrific point, and so true. Thanks for sharing your insights with us, as always.

  3. In a 2 person nonprofit office, we hired a new ED. The ED is the second person. I was part of the hiring process and totally supported and endorsed the hiring of the new ED. Month 1 was excellent. I was loving the different and positive environment. I supported the new ED every way I could. Then it got to a point where my work was a month behind, the new ED still wanted to talk for hours on end to gather info. Problem that started surfacing was that it was noticed by many that this new ED could talk for hours but not actually say anything. The new ED also exhibited some very controlling, and ECD behaviours. The new ED was getting consultation from me, the board, other people he met in our sector, the old ED, the accountant, and the auditor. He actually submitted a 23 page report to the board of directors at a board meeting. I read it but it didn’t say anything. There was absolutely no definitive information, data or details in it.
    During a staff meeting (all 2 of us) the conversation was droning and unproductive. We began disagreeing with each other and then I stated that I couldn’t continue the meeting and must go for a walk. When I returned, instead of consulting with me to ask if I was okay, he walked out. During the following week I was sick for 3 days which seems to have exacerbate the situation. For the next 2 weeks he did not talk to me (except a “good morning”), he shut himself away in his office and set up a meeting a day to get out of the office. A 10:00 am meeting meant he would be gone all day.
    Complaints to the board -he against me and me against him – led to a mediation meeting with both of us together with 3 board members. He denied much of his behaviour and expressed to the board that it was I that was unprofessional and I that had some serious behavioural problems. Now that we both called each other out in front of the board and totally dislike each other I don’t know what to do. The board’s decision after the meeting was to do nothing, tell us to figure out how to get along, read a book (EQuotant) and well meet again in 5 weeks. He has a 6 month probationary period that ends in 7 weeks.
    Should I just get another job?

  4. The reason for my resignation three months ago from the organization I love and invested 11 years in to. I did all I could.

  5. It makes me sad to read your comment. And with all my readers and clients, I hear comments like this FAR too often. I do hope you have landed in a place where you can do great work and work for a great person.

  6. After 7 successful years at my org, including raising millions, I am considering the same thing. I have reached out to new ED and, that failing, even the board, with no response at all.

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