By Natasha Dresner
A year ago, I was asked by one of my clients to participate in an interview for their Executive Director. Nearly every sentence out of the candidate’s mouth started with the word I – I will make your organization great again… Only I know how it’s done… Trust me! Surprisingly, when asked, he offered little to no detail as to how he was going to do these things, preferring to go back to grandiose, but empty promises. Sound familiar?
While I’m happy to report that this candidate was not hired, many people on boards discover that the top professional they’ve hired was big on promises but is short on execution. What does a board do when it fears it has hired someone who will not move the organization forward as hoped? If you find yourself in that position, here are some suggestions to consider:
1. Check the contract to see if it includes a three-month trial period. Collect and track performance and feedback data, and prepare to conduct a formal evaluation at the conclusion of the trial period. If you didn’t realize soon enough whom you hired, you can agree to begin a new trial period at any point based on the results of the performance evaluation. The key is to know and be in agreement about when that period begins and ends.
2. Review the job description to make sure that it explicitly states duties and qualifications required for the job, and use it to guide your executive.
3. Now support your new executive (through the trial period) by showing her the organizational ropes, introducing him to the organizational stakeholders, and further discussing strategic goals and priorities to focus on. Listen well, in general, as well as for the kind of support they need from the Board. Be prepared to spend a portion of every day communicating, debriefing with, and providing regular feedback to your executive. Be direct, be specific, be relentless! Allow the feedback to go both ways, and don’t take it personally. Keep in mind, that it takes two to tango, and you may be the one stepping on your executive’s feet. If you have an executive coach, it would be a great time to utilize him/her to lead you (and the Board) through it. What is my/the board’s role in our executive’s “failures”? Where did I/we fail in establishing a common purpose? Is our organizational structure in any way responsible for the unwanted behaviors? Etc.
4. If you don’t already have an executive coach, hire one. It could be particularly beneficial if your board chair isn’t very good at being direct. The right coach, among other things, can help the executive recognize harmful personal traits and behaviors, develop compensatory mechanisms, and develop a team that can help – if approached right – offset his or her deficiencies.
5. A month and a half into the trial period, schedule an executive session of the Board (a session during which minutes are not being taken and only the final decision gets entered into the minutes). Your executive is aware of the executive session being called, but she is not invited to it to ensure and encourage an open and honest discussion about his performance. The important thing here is that as soon as that meeting is over, the president of the Board shares the outcomes of the meeting with the executive – another piece of constructive feedback with some agreed upon solutions. If you are the board chair, you may be thinking “Awkward!!!,” but it does you and the Board no good otherwise, and, actually, may do you some harm, should the executive be fired down the road. If need be, go with a partner – the coach, if you hired one, or the Vice Chair of the Board.
6. Evaluate your executive (in a formal way) at the end of the trial period using, of course, his or her job description and the agreed upon goals and priorities. The evaluation should be filled out by the board members as well as other relevant stakeholders of the organization, including the Executive Director (self-evaluation). Consider offering people anonymity, and make sure that everything is carefully recorded.
7. Now, analyze the data and be ready to make some hard decisions. The data you’ve collected during the trial period and through the formal evaluation(s), has to be carefully analyzed to offer one coherent story of both your Board’s and your executive’s successes and challenges, some facts-you-can’t-ignore behind that story, along with the rate and the trajectory of improvements. It should also offer a logical answer to the central question: Should we continue investing in this executive and why, or should s/he be fired?
And, of course, if your difficult executive does something unethical and/or illegal, or something outrageous that your organization cannot tolerate for another minute, you are not going to go through all these steps – you’ll fire him or her right away.
Which is why my final suggestion to you today is to invest the necessary time to do your due diligence BEFORE you hire an executive to try and avoid this very costly mistake – emotionally, financially, and in terms of your reputation. I’ll tell you how to do this in my next post. Trust me, it’s gonna be huge!
Natasha Dresner is an Organizational Development Consultant and Mentor with JCamp180, the program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, Massachusetts. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org
This article first appeared in The Berkshire Eagle; reprinted with permission.