After 2 years providing executive coaching, mentoring, and leadership development services as part of my consulting practice called Leaders 4 Futures LLC, I realize that besides preparing the next generation for senior and executive leadership positions (including the Executive Director/CEO position) in nonprofit organizations, leaders who are new to the E.D. or CEO position are at a critical point in their leadership development and experience.
I remember when I first became a CEO back in 2002 and how I thought having worked alongside my predecessor for 14 years, I knew what to expect and I could fairly seamlessly move into the CEO position. Boy, was I mistaken! On day one, I was surprised to realize that the E.D./CEO job was distinctly different than other executive leadership positions (I had been, at that point, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer for 9 years and had done a lot out in the community building partnerships and representing the organization). Two immediate insights I had when I became CEO that I have shared with others I have coached and mentored over the years were: 1) It truly is lonely at the top and buck stops with you was something I felt immediately. Some of my other retired colleagues have commented on how when they retired they physically felt a weight lifted off of their shoulders, the weight of the responsibility for leading an entire organization. How true that is! 2) While I had worked closely with the Board as a whole and on specific board committees and was well known to them, the reality of reporting to the Board as my new boss (bosses) and as the only employee the Board hires also hit me right away. Being in the “second in command” position as COO really shielded me from this reality. I was accountable first and foremost to the CEO who was the bridge to the Board for staff leadership and the organization.
I have participated in and presented in multiple leadership development programs in the nonprofit sector over my career, but based on my experience of becoming a CEO for the first time, I still think we are not doing enough to prepare new E.D.’s or CEOs for how to work effectively with the Board of Directors/Trustees.
As I wind down coaching a new executive director, I realize that executive coaching can be most needed when a leader becomes a new E.D. or CEO for the first time. Boards of Directors should consider offering this support to the incoming leader, especially in the first 6 months to a year in the position. It is a great way to improve the chances that the new E.D./CEO will be successful which benefits everyone, but especially the organization with a new leader at the helm.