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…
- A board that micromanages the living daylights out of her
- A staff that can’t seem to get through a meeting without saying “Oh, we tried that before and it didn’t work”
- A board that makes poor choices about what to do with the former E.D.
- A staff that is still in love with the old boss and the new E.D. gets treated like the new evil stepmother
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.