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Working with your new board of directors - the first ninety days

I work with many nonprofit executive directors during the first year of their tenure. Generally, I find that they are overwhelmed by board management or pay far too little attention to it (or – surprise – seesawing between the two!).

Of course, in your first three months, you need to get to know the team, see your programs in action, meet with donors, and connect with other organizations in your space. You may even need to meet-and-greet with the public, depending on your organization.

Even with all of that overfilling your plate, the question is not whether to engage your board in the first three months, it is how to engage your board in the first three months of your tenure – strategically – with the limited time you have at your disposal.

You might think that you should be buttoned up before you bring your board into your thinking by first engaging with community members, sitting in on staff meetings, and checking in with donors. But no. When it comes to the executive director job, “buttoned up” isn’t about having all the answers. “Buttoned up” is about involving your board (and all your stakeholders) as your thinking evolves.

What happens when you underinvest in board management in those first three months? You are embroiled in board member problems:

  • They are interfering in day-to-day operations (how dare they!)

  • They resist everything you try to do (can’t they tell how smart you are?!)

  • They are ignoring your emails, phone calls, and texts (really, you’re ghosting me?!)

  • Committee meetings have the energy of a memorial service (zero help!)

You do not have all the time in the world to spend on your board in your first three months (or ever), but how can you spend time strategically with your board members and board president to set you and the organization up for success?

An important factor in how you go about board engagement is that often, when you arrive, your board is very tired. They are excited to have you start, but they are tired. Tired from ensuring the organization was functioning during the transition period and tired from executing the search that brought you to them. An executive transition asks more from boards than any other time in their service.

Of course, your energy and curiosity are high – you are in a new job, after all. So, how can you kick this relationship off on the right foot from day one? Like anything, you should be clear about your goals from the outset:

  • Vision. You need to have a clear vision, not just for the organization, bur for a board culture that will support the kind of changes you want to build toward. To develop that culture over time, you need to start by diagnosing the current culture of the board – its level of engagement, its ability to collaborate, its understanding of its duties, its standard processes. Once that is in place, you can lay out an intentional plan for developing them further – as a group and as individuals – to set the stage for change.

  • Trust.  You need to gain the trust of your board (which was not instantly bestowed upon you by being given the job). You gain the trust of all of your stakeholders by meeting their expectations consistently over time. As their trust in your leadership builds over time – as you amass that capital – you can suggest increasingly bold moves for the organization.  

  • Responsiveness. During the interview process, you learned about concerns and questions board members were sitting with during the exit of your predecessor and the transition period. You need to carry with you the awareness that they are waiting to hear your perspective on those questions (not necessarily tapping their toes and snapping their fingers but waiting all the same). You do not need to agree with the concerns, but you can be responsive in scheduling a call, understanding the reason for their request, and building an honest relationship that helps build that ever important trust between you.

The changes you want to make will be sustainable only if the board trusts your judgment and also played a part in developing them.

With that in mind, how do you complete your diagnosis?

Learn what motivates your board president

Your relationship with your board president is the #1 determinant of success for your organization, so make your greatest investment there. Schedule a weekly check-in and be ready to pick their brain about the things you are finding during your diagnosis period. If your board president is confident that you are diagnosing the organization well while cultivating all of its resources, you will have your most important advocate lined up. To make good use of your time with your board president, I recommend organizing your time with your board president into Brief Updates, Input, Longview Discussions (BUILD). You can read more in this LinkedIn post.

Learn what motivates your board members

I suggest emailing your board first thing on your first official day as executive director to let them know how thrilled you are to be leading the organization in partnership with them and to request an individual meeting or call at their earliest convenience.

What should go into those one-on-ones?

  • Make sure that you fully understand what brings each board member to the work. By understanding their passion for the mission and connection to this organization, you will also understand the degree to which the change you envision might be one that they also envision.

  • One of my favorite questions for a new board member is whether there is some topic that has been frequently discussed by the board but never resolved. Finding out where there are tensions and unresolved issues within a board can help you to understand how the ideas you bring to the table may be received – with open arms or the Heisman.

  • You can also ask if there is some way they imagine contributing to the organization that they have not been able to yet. Engagement increases when we believe we have had an impact. It’s a big part of your job to help each board member make an impact in a way that serves the organization well.

  • Finally, be sure to ask each board member if there is a way they see the board needing to grow or change that they would want your support in. The question gently reminds board members that the board’s development is something they own with your support. Always ask if you may share their perspective with the board president as part of your helping to support them and the full board in this work.

However you choose to structure these meetings, remember that at least two thirds of the talking should be done by your board member, not you. A listening tour is only a listening tour when you do most of the listening.

Watch Committee Meetings

The final aspect of the diagnosis is to watch committee meetings closely – again allowing your board members to do most of the talking. Here, you can see the culture in action – do board members show up, engage in respectful discourse, and come to consensus? Do they understand the charter of the committee? The engagement of a board is often the sum the engagement of its committees. You will develop valuable insights into a board’s functioning by watching at the committee level first.

Putting it all together

Your diagnosis probably won’t change your vision for the board, but it will inform the strategies you choose to pursue and the timing of your plan.  

With your diagnosis in hand, you can have discussions with your board president about how to evolve the work of the board incrementally in partnership. Landing on a shared vision for the board of directors and a mutually agreed upon action plan will help bring about the changes in the board that will lead to long lasting organizational changes.

To learn more about how you can manage your board, follow me on LinkedIn  or check out some of the posts linked at the bottom of this page.


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