Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Welcome Aboard: Onboarding Your Next Nonprofit Executive

by Jackie Eder-Van Hook | Apr 01, 2011
A nonprofit or association executive’s first months on the job are critical: They can either help a leader understand the organization’s culture and stakeholders or alienate the CEO from staff and board members. With the right onboarding process, you can avoid the early missteps that make for short tenures.

 An association executive’s first months on the job are critical: They can either help a leader understand the organization’s culture and stakeholders or alienate the CEO from staff and board members. With the right onboarding process, you can avoid the early missteps that make for short tenures.

In a recent interview, Kevin Kelly, CEO of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, said an internal study of 20,000 senior-level job searches revealed that “40 percent of executives hired at the senior level are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months.” Other studies don’t paint as dire a picture, but they do show that executive longevity can be hard to come by. A 2008 Booz Allen Hamilton study estimated the average tenure of a North American corporate CEO at 7.9 years. If the departure was due to poor performance, the average dropped to 4.6 years.

Association executives do better; according to ASAE, the average association executive tenure is 9.7 years. But those tenures are never trouble free, of course. In my work leading an interim executive management company and performing executive searches for associations, I’ve spent many hours reading, discussing, and writing about why some executives succeed and others fail. In that time, I’ve become convinced that the one difference is the commitment to executive onboarding by boards of directors, search firms, and the executives themselves.

“Onboarding” is management speak for socializing and assimilating new employees in the organization’s culture. In practice, corporate human resource directors have used the term to communicate benefits information for nonexecutive employees. But it deserves to be discussed in relation to CEOs, because strategies for onboarding executives are weak. They largely consist of passing the baton to an internal successor who learns by watching the retiring executive, on-the-job training when the former executive is no longer available (usually in the case of an unplanned transition), or an information dump as the departing executive dashes out the door.

In the best situations, the departing leader or interim executive paves the way for the new executive’s entry with supporting roles played by the board, recruiter, and staff. Unfortunately, the best situation is frustratingly rare, considering the importance of the job. After investing considerable time and money recruiting the “right” candidate, boards seem to wipe their hands and walk away like a dealer at a blackjack table once the search is completed. They are tired and have done their job. Yet, there is a rich and untapped opportunity to jumpstart an executive’s tenure and help ensure that the new executive starts out on the right foot.

The Board’s Role

Many recruiters recognize that they have an important role to play in onboarding. Korn/Ferry and Heidrick & Struggles offer distinct onboarding services for executives outside of the search contract, while firms offer limited onboarding support as a part of their search contract.

While search firms play a role in onboarding executives, it ultimately is the board’s job to support and orient the new leader. Not only does the board have the responsibility and right to hire and evaluate the executive, but it also has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the new executive has a reasonable chance at success. An executive transition is not a one-time event or transaction, but rather it is a process that begins when the executive or board decides to part ways and ends once the new executive is contributing to the organization.

What’s involved in that process? In my research on leadership transitions and succession, I’ve found that leadership success correlates with learning the formal and informal culture, creating relationships, and building trust in the shortest time possible. Boards can enhance the leader’s success by conferring legitimacy to the executive (as executives can with staff) through personal introductions. Sadly, this doesn’t happen often enough. A number of executives I’ve spoken with indicated that their boards were at a loss to create a list of key members and stakeholders. Because one of the important roles associations play is connecting members, something seems amiss if our volunteers are unable or unwilling to identify key individuals within the profession or industry.


Onboarding is akin to bringing a new
spouse or significant other into the family.
It is easy to know who is responsible for
making introductions in a family, but it can
be more complicated in an association.

Two Good Starts

Onboarding is akin to bringing a new spouse or significant other into the family. We introduce great aunt Mary, deliver a warning about the bean casserole, and give instructions about taking off our shoes in the house. We also share the largely unspoken or whispered family stories. In a family, it is easy to know who is responsible for making introductions, but it can be more complicated in an association.

Boards can decrease turnover by creating a formal onboarding plan focused on socialization (learning the culture), relationship building, and building content knowledge. However, in associations it seems rare when the socialization process or onboarding tasks are explicit. It’s critical for boards and search committees to create an explicit transition and onboarding plan that identifies which volunteers will make introductions, to whom, when, and who will attend events with the executive. Unlike taking your child to kindergarten, the process confers legitimacy and transfers power.

One example of getting a new executive off to a good start was at the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Last year, Christine McEntee, CAE, was selected to succeed my partner at Transition Management Consulting (TMC), Bob Van Hook, CAE, who served in the role as interim executive director for 19 months. He had prepared a detailed transition memorandum and shared his assessment of the interpersonal dynamics at play. “It is easy to get someone to provide an analysis of the business challenges,” says McEntee. “But what was invaluable were Bob’s insights into the people, their working styles, and interpersonal dynamics.”

Working with consultant Seth Kahan, the AGU staff held a transition ceremony to acknowledge their experiences during the extended transition and to welcome McEntee. AGU’s top elected leaders flew to Washington, DC, to join the celebration, and the event brought emotional closure to the transition period and formally and ritually put McEntee rightfully in charge of the organization.

At McEntee’s suggestion, she and the board developed an onboarding plan that dedicated time to learning the staff, organization, and culture, followed by visits to member scientists’ institutions, laboratories, and field sites to learn more about what Earth and space scientists do. When she’s traveling, McEntee meets members in formal and social settings to discuss their hopes and desires for AGU. These visits help her build important relationships, learn the culture and substance of the organization, and identify opportunities. The elected leaders and senior staff also identify key stakeholders from sister societies and policy officials for her to meet and facilitate those introductions.At a previous association, the board provided McEntee with a highly skilled transition consultant. At first, she was concerned that the consultant was selected without her input. But ultimately she was delighted with the selection, because he helped with the critical role of onboarding. “In most associations, I think there is a gap in the governance,” McEntee says. “They really need to do more to orient and introduce the executive.”

At The Obesity Society, where TMC performed the executive search and provided interim-executive services, volunteers facilitated the attendance of TOS’s incoming executive, Francesca Dea, CAE, at a well-regarded weeklong boot camp on obesity issues before her first day in the office. The highly scientific course, designed for medical students, was of little practical use for Dea, but it familiarized her with the language of obesity research and treatment and clarified the expectations of professionals in the field. “One unintended benefit was the board’s comfort with me and the growing trust,” Dea says. “This brought us closer together and more committed to TOS’s success.”

In addition, TOS’s board arranged a site visit to the chair’s medical practice, shared insights about industry leaders, made introductions, and generously shared its knowledge and time.

An Awkward Transition

I recently spoke with an association executive who, a few years back, took the reins of a medical society whose outgoing president was retiring after a long tenure. She and the outgoing executive were to have a three-month overlap, during which he would help orient her to the organization. Arriving at the office that first day, she discovered that the retiring executive hadn’t yet moved out; she was relegated to a small, windowless office. There was no transition planning, no welcome lunch, no written materials, no briefings, not even instructions on using the phone. She was on her own.

At first, she decided she would be gracious and let the situation play out.

In the meantime, she began introducing herself to about 75 board members, staff, and key stakeholders. Within a few days, a senior staff director approached her and said, “This situation is awkward.” She realized that the time for graciousness was over: She called her chair and within days the executive happily departed. During her first year, she retained him as a consultant for a few hours each month for the inevitable background, context, and political advice—a worthwhile investment and one that solidified their relationship.

These early conversations with stakeholders worked well for her, because they fit with what she and the executive committee had agreed to as her first-year goals: building relationships, listening to stakeholders, and assessing the organization. Of course, many associations may not think they have the resources or the luxury of time to allow their new executive to devote energy to making stakeholder calls and studying the organization. We should remember to make haste slowly. 

While she came to the job as a senior leader at another medical association, this was her first role as chief staff executive. “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t wait to call the chair and move into the role for which I was hired,” she says. “While it was a good learning experience, it was awkward for everyone. I recognized that no one would help me feel comfortable in my new role as an exec. People were waiting for me to be the leader. I had to take charge of my own onboarding process.”

She found several resources helpful in her new role, including a sibling who was also an executive. One staff member took it upon herself to accompany her during her first annual conference. Additionally, she took recruiter Leonard Pfeiffer’s advice to create a “kitchen cabinet” or inner circle of unofficial advisors. Entering her third year as president, her kitchen cabinet continues to be helpful.

The association’s board, like many others, didn’t recognize its role in onboarding the new executive. It erroneously assumed that the retiring executive would handle it. After all, they planned and budgeted for a three month overlap. In this and other organizations, the exiting executive is busy dealing with his or her own departure issues and sometimes does not have the inclination or capacity to orient the incoming executive sufficiently.

The Right Questions

As these examples suggest, during the recruitment process candidates should ask the search committee about the planned onboarding activities, including who will be involved and what dedicated resources will help the new executive enter the organization. The successful candidate should ask for information before he or she arrives in the office, including board and staff rosters, job descriptions, bios or resumes, and a list of key stakeholders. (One note of caution: Staff may need some reassurance that their resumes are for informational purposes only.)

Association professionals increasingly orient boards and volunteers, but they have not made their role in onboarding and succession planning explicit. Perhaps when they do, they will tap into the benefits that can accrue to the organization from conscious and strategic executive entrances and departures.

If Kevin Kelly is right and 18 months is the dividing line between executive success and failure, perhaps associations should negotiate an 18-month guarantee as a condition of search-firm selection. This conceivably could cause boards, search firms, and executives to treat executive transitions more like a partnership and less like a transaction. Getting key players involved in planning and implementing onboarding activities for new executives is an important way to improve executive tenure.

Jackie Eder-Van Hook, MSOD, is principal and cofounder of Transition Management Consulting, an interim executive management and succession planning firm supporting associations and nonprofits. Additional onboarding resources are available at www.TransitionCEO.com.

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Reader Comments:

This is one of the best articles I have ever seen on the subject. I'm in the midst of transitioning out of my current CEO job after 20 years. It's a good transition, one of my choosing and the board has employed a good search firm - all according to our succession plan. The problem is, none of my senior staff or international board members have ever been through a transition! I've been on both sides of the table several times (board search committee and as CEO).

Jackie's article provided an excellent vehicle for me to have the conversation with all the parties involved about the stuff that is not IN the success plan. We will be adding some things to that policy as a result of this article. The important thing about having that conversation is that both the board and staff take ownership of the transition, not me. And that they understand their different roles in making sure the new CEO is successful. I will be of limited help because the day the new CEO starts, she's in charge and sitting at the desk in the executive office. Boards and staff need help to know what to do and this article is a valuable and timely resource! Outstanding contribution, Jackie! Thank you. ~Leigh Wintz, CAE, Association CEO

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This is excellent advice. I've seen too many boards think their job is done once the employment contract is signed. And too many new CEOs trying to juggle multiple challenges without any guidance from the board, staff or membership as everyone sits back and waits for them to take charge and solve all the association's problems - without knowing what they are or what caused them to be problems in the first place. The 18-month reassessment is also an excellent suggestion. ~Eileen Johnson, JD, Association Counsel

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As always, Jackie's thought leadership is just what the association community needs. This article offers terrific advice that we should all take into consideration as we manage transitions. Those that were quoted offer practical guidance on what has and has not worked. Anyone who reads this will come away with some very valuable information. ~James Zaniello, Executive Recruiter

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How vividly I recall one association where I felt like I was "thrown into the pit", with no board members present on my first day on the job. The staff were not informed of my arrival nor who I was - just a cursory email by the board chair saying that they hired a new executive director. I will keep this article on file and share it with any association board, or prospective new CEO when I know a search is in progress. ~Michael Nizankiewicz, CAE, Interim Executive & Consultant