I received feedback from quite a few readers after posting my last story about selecting a new CEO or ED. One reader said that before selecting a new CEO, it is important to have some foundational aspects in order, specifically:
- The board is clear about its role and about the difference between governance and service.
- Board and staff are aligned around a strategic plan.
- The board has an emergency plan if the ED is not able to continue to serve.
- The board focuses on professional development and meets frequently with the ED to discuss progress toward the strategic plan as well as strengths and weaknesses of the ED, the organization, and the team.
A different reader made this same point and shared the following story which illustrates what happens when the Board fails to onboard the new ED, set objectives for them, and monitor performance.
Collapse Happens Fast
As told by a board member somewhere in the US
When organizations start to become dysfunctional, they become dysfunctional very fast.
I was on the board and chair of an organization that was about seven years old when the founding ED gave notice that she was leaving. The organization had a good product that was at the intersection of several sectors and was quite successful. But it was a small organization with a budget of about $600,000 and five or six staff. Because the organization was so tiny, the board was doing operational tasks, such as finance.
I had been on boards of much larger organizations; I got involved with this one because the work was intriguing and because of the ED. She was an extraordinary individual. A PhD but also with a good business head. A visionary. She set the tone for everything. Even the office revolved around her. They were all in one room and she sat in the center. She was not perfect. Right before she left, she hired someone who was not a great fit. Remember, everyone is working in one room and this person did not fit in. The staff started griping. She had a strong enough personality and people trusted that she could manage the situation. But it was the start of a cancer. One that grew after she left. She left because she was burned out.
I was not a founding board member. They were expanding the board when I came on, bringing on more talent. Other board members had started to run out of energy. Some of them stayed, some of them left, and we got some new members.
As a Small Organization, the Board Ran the Search
When the ED gave notice, we formed a search committee. There was not money to bring in someone from outside of the organization, so we ran it ourselves. One board member was head of HR at a local company. She had done lots of searches. We read all the Bridgespan information. We figured out the requirements. We posted the job announcement. We got 120 responses. Many of them were train wrecks. I read all the applications. I could not believe who applied: For example, one applicant wrote, “I am a hairdresser now, but I would like to do something else.”
We got maybe five credible applications. We interviewed these people. And we narrowed them to two finalists. They gave us references and we checked their references. All the references checked out. But I knew someone who had worked with one candidate in the past, so I called her. On the QT she said, “Under no circumstances do you want to hire this candidate” – and gave some reasons. We were then left with one candidate. And I have to say, I was excited about him. He had good energy. We thought he would be passionate. I admit, we had a worrisome discussion with the board chair of the place where he was currently ED. We were told that he would never fundraise. But we decided we could solve that, and we hired him.
Distracted Board Members Did Not Set Objectives or Check In
We found out later that he had put on an act. He was not high energy. He was not engaged. He never became engaged in the organization. I place a lot of responsibility on the board. We did not pull it together. We did not onboard him. We did not set up goals. We did not check in frequently or in a structured manner. We did not talk to staff.
Part of the reason for this is that life intervened. Lots of things happened after we decided to hire this new ED. My mother-in-law died and I was cleaning out her home and organizing her memorial. One of the board members was getting divorced. Another was having their third child. Another had work issues – juggling two jobs until a replacement for a colleague could be hired. The woman on the board who had HR experience – and who we thought would be the next board chair – decided to move to Africa. It was this funny confluence of events where everyone who could have – who should have – intervened was focused elsewhere.
When we realized that things were awry, we also had the human side to consider. The new ED was getting married and heading to Europe for a honeymoon. How can you fire someone at that time? We waited until he got back but we had to let him go. The staff was demoralized. They had been shocked when the founding ED left. The new “misfit” hire was messing up collegial relationships amongst the rest of the staff. Now the new ED did not work out.
The search was a failure. We ended up with someone we did not like. The situation was going downhill fast. We hired a consultant to come in and set things straight. She told us to shut the organization down. We should have decided to walk away and shut down the organization before hiring the consultant. I do not think anyone on the board had the spirit to go through another process. And I also think things collapsed so fast and so completely, no one could have saved the organization. So, we closed down.
I think the biggest lesson is around communication and goals. We should have set milestones and held regular meetings with the new ED. Then we would have known early on that goals were not being met. Then we could have intervened to help him be successful.
I think scale matters as well. We did not have resources, so the search was done by volunteer board members. Then board members got distracted by issues in their private or work lives so were not paying attention. I also think once we got the new ED on board, we were relieved to be done with the search so we could focus on other things.