By Kathleen Fromm Cohen, PhD and Nanette R. Fridman, MPP, JD
In the healthiest of organizations, the board, the staff, and other key stakeholders share a unified vision of the organization’s mission, objectives, and priorities. When hiring, the board of trustees hopefully looks for an executive whose vision and skill set highly align with the organization’s aspirations. A key factor in the successful onboarding of a new nonprofit executive is the process of the executive and board setting mutually agreed upon goals for the executive to accomplish in the first year of work. These goals should be mission appropriate, reasonable, and narrow enough in scope to be achievable.
Ideally, the board will have defined the institution’s strategic plan and will have used that plan to inform its search well before the executive arrives. With the strategic plan as a guiding instrument, it seems a fairly straightforward process toward defining goals for the executive. Logical steps are to:
- Break down long term goals into smaller achievable objectives that address key priorities.
- Put a timeline in place for achieving the objectives and goals.
- Allow the executive to run the day to day operations of the organization and utilize the board as thought partners and strategists.
Once the board and executive have agreed upon the goals, it is the executive’s role to communicate the strategy and plan to staff. The executive and staff can then work on implementation together and address the opportunities and challenges that lie therein.
Boards are anxious for new executives to jump in and implement their vision and goals. After all, they often have a lame duck year with the previous leader. Accordingly, they are understandably tempted to follow the prescribed process above.
If only it were that simple.
Imagine a new executive of an independent K-8 school who is hired after an extensive search process by the board. For the executive, the recruitment process is fantastic. The board, the teachers, and the parents all believe that the school has strong academic programming and is the “best kept secret in town.” These key stakeholders also agree that for the school to maintain its steady enrollment and grow into the future, its afterschool program needs a complete overhaul with updated and greater variety of programming as well as longer coverage. The board and executive determine that the executive’s major goal for the first year is to design and oversee an entirely new afterschool program.
This seems reasonable and achievable until the executive presents the objective in an administrative council meeting. The board had a strategic direction, but it is up to the staff to operationalize it. When the executive presents the idea, the administration feels it is not viable and articulates obstacles that appear reasonably grounded in the day to day running of the school. The objections include: (1) How could one overhaul the afterschool program before deeply understanding the curriculum of the school; (2) Where would additional physical space be found to run the program; (3) Where would teachers find the time to develop new programming; (4) Would teachers be compensated for that extra work, and (5) Could families already facing the burden of paying tuition afford the increased costs of improved programming?
Before the executive’s goals can be determined and a thoughtful plan can be implemented, the executive must make sure that both he or she and the board have a clear enough understanding of the day to day reality of the organization. While the board may identify seemingly appropriate goals for the executive, a new executive may not yet truly know if these goals are realistic, achievable, or even advisable. Without the time to make an informed judgment, the executive can’t perform the important role of liaising and interpreting between the board and staff and creating a shared understanding.
As the executive gets to know the operations, programs and stakeholders, they will also bring their own opinions and experiences to bear. The executive should have the opportunity to add his or her stamp on the vision and stated objectives.
Whether an executive is in the process of goal setting now or has already stumbled across these particular obstacles, there are concrete steps the executive can take to manage the process of joint goal setting successfully. First and foremost, remember the executive is new to the culture of the entire organization, including that of the board and the staff. This is a great opportunity to remind all that for the organization to be successful the executive needs time to see the organization in operation, develop relationships with key staff, and ultimately, get the buy in from both the staff and the board.
Rather than the board and the executive determining the goals at the very beginning of the tenure, executives should take some time to get their “sea legs” and then think through with both the board and staff the following seven questions:
- Why are these the right goals? In other words, what objectives do they achieve or what problems do they solve?
- Do these goals actually further the organization’s mission and long term vision?
- If the organization had no limitations or obstacles, what would the steps be to achieve the goals?
- What are the organization’s actual limitations and obstacles?
- What are the organization’s actual resources?
- Does the organization have few enough limitations and enough resources to achieve the goals successfully or do the goals need to be reevaluated?
- Based on the executive’s prior experience and skills, it this the right pursuit at this time?
A few iterations of this process may need to take place before final goals are determined. Consequently, it is often very helpful for the executive to work with a small board task force to help determine the executive’s goals. This may be a transition committee, the executive committee, or a support and evaluation committee.
As much as organizations do not want to loose time, it is crucial to give the new executive a chance to assess for himself or herself the environment and operations, build rapport with colleagues and partners, and be fully engaged in an educated and informed goal-setting process. In fact, these are perfectly reasonable and important objectives for the executive’s first six months of work, and once they have been achieved, goals that further the strategic plan of the organization can be much more easily determined and undertaken. To quote Peter Drucker, “There is nothing worse than doing the wrong thing well.” It is well worth it to take the time to build a joint understanding of the right strategy moving forward to benefit the organization and to fulfill its vision.
Dr. Kathleen Fromm Cohen, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president who provides governance and development coaching for nonprofit organizations. Her practice is focused on helping nonprofit executives and trustees become more focused, efficient, collaborative and impactful. She can be reached at email@example.com
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for mission driven organizations. She is a frequent speaker, trainer, workshop presenter and facilitator. Nanette is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” Nanette is an experienced board leader who has participated in many leadership transitions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.