Changing Aspirations Is Hard

I spoke to a CEO who was brought in to make changes. The organization was being passed over for funding. The previous CEO had been there a long time, had created an aspirational vision for the organization, and was well liked by staff. Board and staff had embraced the aspirational goals of the previous CEO. The new CEO had to lead board and staff to embrace a new vision.

Be Clear About a New CEO’s Mandate

As told by a nonprofit CEO somewhere in the USA.

When you come into a job as a new CEO, there are all kinds of mandates. You are very cognizant of that. They board wants this. They want that. They hired you to clean up this mess. They hired you to improve something. They hired you to do this other thing. It is always in the back of your mind as you make decisions and go about your day-to-day work, trying to meet those mandates and make them happy.

This is not the first time I took over from someone in a leadership capacity. Looking back, I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about my predecessor. More time than it deserved. I heard lots of things about their successes and failures. I was asking myself — How much should I be like them? How much should I be different? I was acutely aware from the staff’s side that I needed to maintain certain ways of doing business.

But the board had different ideas. They were “Well, we actually hired you and wanted you to be different than what we had before.” They were impact driven and we were not meeting our performance measures. We were being passed over for funding. They wanted me to address things and they gave me a lot of leeway. But I had to balance how the staff — and even the board — would accept changes. I had to go carefully.

Lack of Programmatic Rigor Impacts Funding

When my organization was founded – decades ago – it was the only one providing our type of services in our geographic area. Then under my predecessor, they focused on a growth trajectory, expanding to other geographic areas. What happened is that our bandwidth was constrained. There was not rigor in our programs which meant we were not having the impact that we wanted. We heard this from our clients – they wanted services we were not offering. And we were not always timely providing the service. We were mostly providing the same services that we had when we were founded. But things have changed. There are new norms about the types of services that have the most impact.

And it follows that because we were not having the impact we wanted, it was harder to raise funds. If we cannot get funding, we cannot operate, and our clients are just screwed because we are the only service provider in our geographic area.

As I said, my board was – and is — very impact focused which is a good thing for me. All their performance indicators measure impact. I told the board that we needed to go deeper rather than wider. We needed to focus if we wanted to be top in class. We had some generative discussions. One was about aspirations. They had aspired to expanding. I was challenging that aspiration.

I came up with a new aspiration. I told them, if someone comes to us seeking our service, we want to guarantee that within a certain amount of time they will receive that service and they will be better for it. I want that to be our guarantee. They liked that. But it took awhile to get there.

Honor What Your Board Knows and Bring Changes Incrementally

I started by trying to lead them to a new aspiration, to focus and have rigor. I wrote a white paper with my ideas and presented it to them. They had the usual, legit concerns. Where are we going to get the money? How do you know this will work? Many of them had been on the board for a long time. They knew a lot. I realized that I could not go in thinking they don’t know a lot. I had to change my approach. I had to go in saying I am not going to violate what you know, what your intuition is. I am going to share what I have seen and tell you what I believe matches up with what you know. In addition, instead of presenting them with a big swath, I made smaller changes. They could digest this better. I went to them and said, “Okay, here is one slice of what we do. Here is my proposal to make sure our clients are served best. They started embracing my ideas. They like the idea of being able to say, “I am on the board of this organization, and I know if you need these services, you will be in good hands.”

Challenging the board on aspirations is intense. The conversations were hard. But we did end up focusing. More importantly, we were able to improve our services. I see the impact on the funding side too. Funders know which organizations are capable of providing various services. We focused and made our services more robust. We can go to funders and show them outcomes. We have gotten grants we did not get before.

Lessons Learned

What did I learn from this? I think it is all about building relationships, communicating, being honest. I think good Board-CEO working relationship are built on those things.

  • Don’t spend too much time dwelling on your predecessor.
  • Build a strong relationship with your board based on frequent communication and honesty.
  • Be best of class and the funding will follow.
  • Make sure you are clear about why the board hired you – what they want you to do.

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