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On-Boarding Your New CEO

In September 2011, Meridith Rentz joined Atlanta-based MedShare as President & CEO, and started a comprehensive on-boarding process headed by Board Vice Chair, Charlie Evans. As a follow up to their panel discussion at GCN’s April 2013 Member Expert Series event, Planning for Leadership Succession: Success Strategies & Live Case Studies, Rentz and Evans offer their joint perspective on the necessity of a formalized on-boarding process, drawing on their recent experience navigating a transition together.

This year, thousands of nonprofits across the country will invest lots of resources – both dollars and invaluable time – to recruit a new chief executive for their organization. A dedicated board search committee crafts just the right position description, reviews resumes, and interview candidates. Meanwhile, a host of stakeholders anticipate the transition —staff, board, funders, partners, volunteers. Hiring a new nonprofit CEO is widely (and rightly) understood to be a very, very big deal.

Finally, the ideal candidate is identified. An offer is made and negotiated, terms are reached, and, thankfully, the candidate accepts. The committee breathes a sigh of relief: high-fives all around. They make sure the incoming CEO connects with the right staff to get an email address and office keys, wish her good luck, and say, “See you at the board meeting next month!” And then, the tired search committee members scramble back to their day jobs and try to catch up on all the things they’ve set aside during this strenuous process.

Back at the nonprofit, the newly-minted CEO shows up on her first day, looks around at the nervous faces of staff who are wondering what they should do next, and tries to figure out where to begin. As she digs in to try and get her bearings, at the same time she’s reviewing a backlog of urgent needs, a terrifying question comes to mind: Will I survive the first 100 days, let alone the first year?

Too many organizations throw caution to the wind when it comes to CEO on-boarding and transition support.

Nonprofit CEO turnover is a serious problem. Compass Point’s 2011 Daring to Lead study found that around a third of all CEOs replace someone terminated by the board. Findings around job satisfaction indicate problems often begin right away: just 52% of CEOs reported being satisfied in the first year on the job, dropping to 37% by year two. 

What is it that goes wrong and what can we learn from it? Unfortunately, it appears that too many organizations throw caution to the wind when it comes to CEO on-boarding and transition support. While executive search is viewed as a high-priority, high-stakes event, executive transition may be treated as little more than an afterthought. As a result, the incoming CEO is too often left to fend for herself, navigating the organization’s relationship maze by trial-and-error, tackling a myriad of pressing needs without the necessary level of board support.

Here’s a look at how we did it at MedShare. While there is always room for improvement, our experience shows that commitment to a thoughtful, extended on-boarding program can pave the way for CEO success and—hopefully—longevity.

MedShare’s CEO Transition

When MedShare embarked upon a CEO transition in 2011, the board recognized it as a critical milestone for the organization. A.B. Short, MedShare’s first CEO, had created the organization from the ground up in 1998 along with co-founder Bob Freeman. Headquartered in Atlanta, MedShare‘s mission is to improve the environment and healthcare through the efficient recovery and redistribution of surplus medical supplies and equipment to underserved healthcare facilities in developing countries.

After 13 successful years, the organization was poised for additional growth. Much of its success with funders and partners was tied to the energy and commitment inspired by Short, a smart, charismatic, and authentic leader. In 2010, when he decided it was time to pass the MedShare reins, it was clear he was going to be a tough act for anyone to follow; the board was frankly concerned that his immediate successor would face significant challenges. (For her part, incoming CEO Rentz also had doubts about succeeding a founding CEO, and was strongly encouraged by others to wait until the first successor inevitably failed before considering the job.)

MedShare conducted a national search process supported by Sam Pettway from Boardwalk Consulting. MedShare board member Joanne Bauer, president of Kimberly-Clark Healthcare, led the six-member search committee, which included then-board chair Jim Arnett and co-founder Bob Freeman. Working in partnership with Pettway and the board, the committee established screening criteria and a process designed to create the highest probability of selecting the best candidate.

After many months, the committees identified MedShare’s next CEO. After celebrating, the search committee did something far too uncommon in the nonprofit sector: they asked two board members with years of experience in corporate leadership transition (Charlie Evans and Paul Hofmann) to serve as the official “CEO transition team.” Rentz reports that this was a “tremendous relief.”

Their goals were to clarify CEO expectations, minimize the risk of unstated expectations, and assure a systematic approach to the process. While there have been inevitable bumps along the way, the MedShare board, along with other stakeholders including funders, partners, staff, and advisory council members, generally agree that the on-boarding process was a success. 

Now 20 months into the job, we hope that our experience and hindsight provides the impetus for fellow CEOs and board members to take their own succession and transition planning process seriously, recognizing that it can—and likely will—make the difference in whether your next CEO is prepared to lead your organization forward.

Keys to On-boarding Success

In reflecting on our process, we’ve identified several key components applicable to any senior leadership on-boarding process, as well as a few areas where we’d do things differently:

Split the search and transition processes.
The skills required for a search committee are different from those required to lead a transition. In addition, it’s good to bring in ‘fresh legs’ after the search committee has completed its work.

Plan for an 18-month process.
Many organizations focus on the first few months, but that’s not enough. While initial support is vital, more challenging is the year that follows. Our transition team did a good job of meeting regularly during the first year to discuss the plan (often via conference call), but it would have helped to keep up those meetings in months 13 to 18.

Start with guiding principles.
We tend to want to jump straight to the required tasks, rather than spend time reaching an agreement on the guiding principles for the transition. At MedShare, we formalized a set of guiding principles, drafted by board members and finalized in consultation with the new CEO.

Be transparent and collaborative.
Don’t make the process mysterious. Instead, share information about the process being used with board and staff. This is a prime opportunity to engage stakeholders by asking them for advice on priorities during the transition.

Make the time for check-ins.
The transition team and CEO should meet regularly to discuss the transition, even when you don’t have time and wonder if it’s essential to do so. Just carving out space to pause and reflect can allow important issues to surface before they become actual problems.

Create a safe zone for communication.
Now is the time to be brutally honest and confidential. It’s important for the transition team and CEO to feel comfortable speaking freely and directly about the inevitable issues that will arise during any on-boarding process.

Formalize the CEO evaluation process at the outset.
As part of the on-boarding process, it’s important to be crystal clear on objectives for a structured CEO evaluation process. Decide who will participate and when the review will take place. At MedShare, we got about 50% clear at the beginning of the transition, then figured out the rest of the process at the end of the first year. In retrospect, we needed to be 100% clear from the start.

Be flexible.
Expect that some things won’t go as planned. Our plan was updated and modified as necessary as we moved through its implementation.

Celebrate successes.
It’s important to celebrate key milestones in the transition with both board and staff members. Acknowledge when one phase of the on-boarding is complete; evaluate what’s gone well and what hasn’t; and celebrate achievements, both big or small.

Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more.
When you think you have said enough and communicated sufficiently with each other and with other stakeholders, take a deep breath and keep talking.

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