You're It!

Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Tips to develop strategic and business plans for your non-profit

When Franca Gucciardi accepted her first CEO position at the Loran Scholars Foundation she quickly realized the immensity of the task ahead of her and contacted her mentor, Alan Broadbent. What followed was a series of conversations, and a process of learning to ask (and then answer!) the right questions. You’re It! is mentorship in book form, the collected wisdom of two experienced CEOs — a practical and accessible guide to leading an organization. It’s everything you wanted to know about being a CEO but were afraid to ask.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Four “Making plans.” To purchase a copy of You’re It!, click here.

Making plans

Once you have a comprehensive understanding of the key drivers of the organization, you are ready to develop strategic and business plans. Good plans are used to galvanize your team to reach agreed-upon and measurable goals. Plans outline future growth and development by prioritizing an organization’s work for the next three to five years.

This article is focused less on the nuts and bolts of plan-making than it is with the process of preparing a good plan and, in particular, the way to ensure that your plans get the necessary buy- in throughout your organization.

There is a three-level hierarchy of plans that every organization needs.

  1. The Strategic Plan identifies key corporate priorities and sets broad organizational
  2. The Operating/Business Plan defines the tactics that the organization will pursue in attempting to meet the key objectives set out in the strategic
  3. The Sub-Operating/Sectional Plans provide the specifics on how the work will be done. This last level is the one that lets team leaders (or, in a smaller office, individual employees) know what they should be doing, and what they will be held accountable
Plan Sets Who should write it Who approves it
Strategic Overall vision and strategy CEO Board
Operating/ Business Achievable goals CEO with staff CEO (given to board for information)
Sub-Operating/ Sectional Specific activities to be pursued by individual units or employees Staff Senior staff responsible for implementing the work

Part A. The strategic plan

A strategic plan is, in essence, a collection of a few key statements about what the organization is going to prioritize for the next few years. Some organizations redo their plans every couple of years, sometimes spending months and months undertaking elaborate consultation processes that culminate in weekend-long board retreats. While consulting with your stakeholders is often useful, good strategy isn’t episodic. The process of scanning the environment and making necessary adjustments to goals is something you should be doing on a regular basis. All organizations should have built-in feedback loops so that top management is aware at all times of where its donors, clients, staff, and stakeholders stand. When this is the case, there is no need to engage in a formal consultation process to determine what improvements and changes you need to make; you see them as they emerge and adjust accordingly.

A strategic planning process can be more helpful in determining priorities among goals rather than in setting them. Linking the strategic plan with sub-operating or sectional plan is also helpful in identifying how you will measure success, allocate the resources, and set the schedules for achieving goals.

Some people may argue that the principles of good governance dictate that the board develops the strategic plan and then the CEO implements it. In reality, as CEO, you need to take full charge of drafting a strategic plan to be approved by the board. The board is ultimately responsible for ensuring it is the right plan for the organization and for overseeing its implementation, but as the day-to-day manager of the organization, you need to be providing the options and possibilities for the strategic direction.

Boards of directors are usually diverse collections of individuals with different personal strengths and interests. The primary job of boards is to hire the right CEO and ensure that the organization maintains realistic standards of performance. It is also their job to ensure that the organization has a strategic plan that is doable, desirable, and measurable. It is not their job to come up with the plan in the first place.

As a CEO, you are the full-time employee whose responsibility it is to provide the strategic direction for the organization. Board and staff members should not be asked to spend large amounts of time on this process; their talents are needed elsewhere. Remember that no one likes surprises; as CEO, you need to be constantly taking the pulse of your board, staff, and stakeholders and assessing how they see the world evolving. One of your main jobs is to make sure everyone stays focused on getting things done and accomplishing the mission. One way to do this is to assume the responsibility of setting the strategic direction yourself.

FRANCA: Before I use a board member’s time, I assess whether this is the best use of the talent they have to offer. Often I would rather they make five phone calls to potential donors or send five letters of introduction to potential new friends, rather than spend the same amount of time sitting through another committee meeting. I only get so much of someone’s time. I want to make sure it is used to advance our mission.

Your strategic plan should be obvious and within reach. You don’t want to get caught up in overly lofty goals that aren’t going to translate to practical plans.

A good place to start any planning process is simply to have informal chats with a few of the key directors and staff members. Let them know that you are developing a strategic plan, and provide them with some broad strokes of your own thinking. This will give you an opportunity to gauge initial reactions to your ideas.

Ask if there is anything you should be thinking about in particular, any big concerns that people have regarding the next three to five years. These informal chats will provide you with insight into their ideas about the direction of the organization, give you a number of solid ideas, and clarify who will be supportive and who will need to be brought along.

It is a good idea at this stage to avoid formal strategic planning meetings so as not to commit to including anything specific in the plan before you have had a chance to think thoroughly and holistically about it. All you need at this point in the process is some input.

Once you complete this initial phase, you should get down to writing the first draft of the plan and identify the three or four key goals in broad terms. You want to go back to the key decision-makers and show them this draft. Then you can start dealing with any fundamental disagreements.

Remember that keeping the board informed is your responsibility. You do not want to surprise them with any major change of direction or new program. You want to test ideas with board members and have an opportunity to discuss your ideas one-on-one with both your directors and your key staff members.

Boards don’t like surprises, but many a CEO has been bewildered when she has triumphantly tabled a fully formed plan only to have a number of board members rebel. Eventually the plan may be adopted with few changes, but surprised and disgruntled board members can delay approval and cause more work. “No surprises” is a good thing to keep in mind.

By the time you take the draft plan to the board, it should be quite familiar to people around the table. Make sure that the plan is discussed as part of a regular meeting of the board. Don’t fetishize strategy by making it the subject of a retreat or a special meeting; discussing a strategic plan should simply be considered regular board business. You should plan to have a good discussion on these initial broad strokes, and you should expect to make some revisions based on the group discussion. At the next board meeting, the strategic plan should be brought back for final approval, alongside the business plan.

Part B. The business plan

Once you have a first draft of the strategic plan, you will want to develop the business plan that identifies the tactics on how you will accomplish the goals outlined. Essentially, you will need to take the strategic plan, break it down, and then build it back up. For this you need to involve your staff and, together, identify the specific tasks, the timing, and the resources needed, as well the feedback loops that will measure how you are doing. If the strategic plan is about what you are going to do (for example, diversify and increase revenue), the business plan is about how you are going to do it (for example, launch a major gift campaign that will add 20% to the revenue).

There are various ways you can go about meeting the target, but the most likely road to success is one rooted in the strengths and opportunities of your organization. As a result, you will set the course by identifying what you will and will not do: for example, launching an annual major gift fundraising campaign instead of running an event; or running a grassroots direct-mail campaign versus a large-scope endowment drive; building an entrepreneurial venture rather than a capital campaign. All of these might be viable options, but determining which to choose is dependent on the organization’s mission, resources available, and other factors.

The business plan is the place to look to determine if an organization is committed to achieving its strategic objectives. If, for example, a strategic goal is to increase public awareness of an issue or problem, you’d want to see that staff and resources are allocated to communications. If the goal is to engage volunteers in mentoring youth or artists, then there should be a well-supported plan for the recruitment, training, scheduling, and monitoring of the mentors. You want to test if the funds are appropriately allocated. If something doesn’t appear in the budget, it means it isn’t important to the organization.

Part C. Sub-operating/sectional plans

The sub-operating plans will provide you with the nuts and bolts of what tasks are in each part of the operation, when they will be rolled out and completed, how much each will cost, who will be in charge and involved, and how it will be evaluated along the way. The CEO needs to approve these plans, but much of this needs to be delegated.

Your staff must provide you with detailed sectional plans for their areas, such as fundraising or communications. At this stage you may be able to see if you have overextended your commitments. If so, this is the time to make some choices between competing priorities.

Both the business plan and sub-operating plans should include budgets outlining the short- and long-term financial implications of each tactic. You will need to look not just at the numbers for the next twelve months, but also at the projections for the next four years.

This will provide an understanding of where you are heading based on the assumptions embedded in the plans. A new idea might not result in a substantial increase in the first year, but by the time it is rolled out, the idea may cost more than revenue projections can handle.

When you are facing uncertainty, develop scenarios. You may decide that you want to grow the revenue by 20%, but what will happen if you don’t? What would the impact on the organization be if you grew 10% or 30%? It will help to have a few scenarios and contingency plans so that you can be bold in your ambition without putting the organization at high risk. Knowing what alternative scenarios look like will make mid-course adjustments easier.

The business plan should be flexible enough to adapt to changes in the marketplace. If you are launching a pilot program that turns out not to show the expected results, you want to be able to adapt and change course. If the market crashes or a key donor decides to stop funding you, you will probably have to change your priorities.

The plans should be concise and written in everyday language, without acronyms or archaic language. You want to be able to tell people what your plans are for the organization within a few minutes; if you need a ten-page PowerPoint presentation to explain it, you need to go back to the drawing board.

ALAN: The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement started in 2002 to help communities across Canada build effective collaborations across sectors to deal with key issues, as defined by the communities themselves. Its main project, Vibrant Communities, was a wide range of anti-poverty initiatives, working with upwards of thirty Canadian communities. For years the work was intense and very active. A part of Tamarack’s plan was always to harvest the knowledge being created by the work: how do we build collaborations, what works, where does funding come from, what are community levers for change? Now, because the plan to harvest knowledge works, Tamarack has a new way of operating, primarily as a distributor of knowledge through training and conferences. It facilitates conversations between activists to keep generating new knowledge that is included in the knowledge transfer. Without the original strategy to harvest knowledge, without an operating plan to record and store it, and without each part of Vibrant Communities and Tamarack implementing the operation plan for each locale, the current robust knowledge exchange would not exist.


At the end of your planning process, there will be stated expectations for your staff about what they are being asked to do, as well as agreed-upon targets that your board will help you achieve. These plans make up the road map for you, as CEO. They provide clarity for stakeholders and staff, and will provide you with the focus and discipline you need to ensure you are steering the organization to the agreed-upon and desired destination.

Tips and resources

  1. James Appleyard’s “Strategic Planning” chapter in Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success (Coach House, 2011) provides practical, sound advice on how to most effectively use the strategic planning process.
  2. If you think your board might be unclear in its role, consider giving it the article “Planning to Prevail: A Practical Guide to the Board’s Role in Strategic Planning and Performance Measurement” by David A.H. Brown and Debra L. Brown (Conference Board of Canada, 2000). It outlines how an integrated approach to strategic planning can set the course for a highly successful organization.
  3. “Delivering on the Promise of Nonprofits” by Jeffrey Bradach, Thomas J. Tierney, and Nan Stone (Harvard Business Review, 2008) highlights the unique challenges faced by non-profit leaders and the ways these challenges can be overcome by confronting questions related to strategy, capital, and talent.


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How to craft the vision of your non-profit organization

Compass points to word "Vision"

When Franca Gucciardi accepted her first CEO position at the Loran Scholars Foundation she quickly realized the immensity of the task ahead of her and contacted her mentor, Alan Broadbent. What followed was a series of conversations, and a process of learning to ask (and then answer!) the right questions. You’re It! is mentorship in book form, the collected wisdom of two experienced CEOs — a practical and accessible guide to leading an organization. It’s everything you wanted to know about being a CEO but were afraid to ask.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three, “Crafting the vision.” To purchase a copy of You’re It!, click here.

Crafting the vision

If you are leading an organization, you probably believe in its work or mission. Whether it is designing software, awarding scholarships, providing shelter to homeless people, or protecting the environment, you are clear on what the organization’s purpose is. Often, the factors that will help the organization achieve that goal are less obvious. In other words, what is the core business for the organization? As a new CEO, you must take some time to figure this out. If you don’t, your operations can go spinning out in all directions very quickly. Defining your core business is not always simple, but once articulated, it results in a clear vision.

We are using the term “vision” in a very different way than people are accustomed to using it. For most organizations, a vision is a lofty, often unattainable statement. In fact, it has become de rigueur for organizations to plan weekend-long board and staff retreats and spend resources coming up with lofty visions such as “eradicating poverty” or “developing a sustainable world.” In addition, vision statements are often followed by an equally generic list of values such as “we will act with honesty,” “we will operate at the highest ethical standards,” “we will be entrepreneurial.” The warning note with this approach is that it can lead to non-specific or unrealistic statements that leave management with little guide for decision-making or accountability.

For us, “vision” refers to a set of practical statements that identify the organization’s core business and are used to guide the strategic decisions of the organization. Each individual statement identifies a key driver of the organization’s work. These statements are practical enough that management and board could have a healthy debate on whether they have identified the right ones. These drivers collectively provide a clear picture of what you, as a leader, need to focus on to ensure the success of your organization. Taking the time to define the key drivers early on in the job is an indispensable first step.

Part A. The value of the key drivers: Organizational examples

Two or three key drivers are at the root of most organizations’ work. A good manager must be able to identify them and state them simply and concretely.

Clearly articulated drivers will provide leaders with a solid way of testing whether new ideas fit the purpose of the organization. Since not everything is equally important, these drivers will help you to focus on the priorities of the organization. In a profit-making organization, the drivers must identify what makes the business more profitable and distinctive in the marketplace.

For a non-profit organization, articulating the drivers can at times be a little trickier. When you manage an organization based on the generosity of donors or government resources, for example, it can be quite easy to start to let the funding sources guide the business decisions and divert the mission of the organization. It becomes about “what can we get money to do?” as opposed to “what do we need to do?” A new CEO could suddenly find that the organization is doing all kinds of things it should not be doing. Teasing out what is core to the work may at times be a matter of survival.

FRANCA: I faced a critical decision in my first few months on the job with the Loran Scholars Foundation with regard to budget cuts. The organization was facing a deficit, and we needed to make tough cuts. I needed to have a clear idea of what was core to our work. I identified three key drivers: a selection system aimed at finding unconventional students with potential for leadership; a stewardship program that provides scholars with opportunities to realize this potential; and a fundraising program that ensures renewed and diversified revenue sources. Once I had done that, it became obvious that we could not afford to reduce the travel budget to visit regional committees in any meaningful way as our regional selection system is a key driver. But I could reduce costs by outsourcing our bookkeeping, our tech support, some of our communications activities, and our events planning.

Part B. Deciding on the key drivers

Before drafting the key drivers, of course, you want to make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of the organization. Start by breaking down the work and identifying the various programs, processes, and products of the organization. The next step is to look at the full picture and figure out what the business couldn’t do without by separating the things you need to have to run the business from the nice to have. This is a subtle but essential difference that requires vigorous testing. You are prioritizing the organization’s needs.

The key roadblock in articulating the drivers is often one’s own resistance to making decisions for fear of potential negative consequences. Figure out what is behind the resistance. For example, is a board director or a donor connected to the thing that you know needs to change? Is a popular or powerful staff member running a part of the operation that may be expendable? Make plans that will minimize the negative reactions, as noted previously, but don’t let this stop you from being clear on what your core business is.

ALAN: I joined the board of a venerable national organization in the mid-90s and realized that the institute had an extensive news-clipping service. It was something they had been doing for the last seventy years, and they had developed quite an extensive clippings library. In fact, it was the best in the country. For an organization with limited resources in the Internet age with its free, accessible media, it was quite apparent to me that this was an area that needed to change. The problem was that there was a woman who had been running this service for the last twenty years, and no one wanted to eliminate her position. It took three years to finally stop this practice. I remember I finally spoke with her and asked how she would feel if we gave her a pension that was equivalent to working at the institute for another three years. She said she would take it in a minute.

Part C. Organizing the work around the drivers

Once you have the drivers clearly articulated, start to embed them into all aspects of the organization. A good next step is to break down the budget in terms of these drivers to see what resources are going into each major task. This provides a good tool for evaluating the current situation and ensures that the appropriate resources are marshalled in support of the drivers, rather than spread thinly and evenly everywhere. As a leader where are you focusing your time and that of your team? What resources are being poorly spent? How many resources are you allocating to the top drivers of the organization?

After you have broken down what the organization is currently doing, the next step is to set goals for improving performance on the drivers. What needs to change to make a greater impact? What works perfectly and should not be changed? Who needs to be involved to achieve the goals? What needs to happen first? What team do you need? Who are the most vital new recruits? For example, depending on the organization, it might be the chief information officer or chief technology officer or it could be front line workers or nurses.

By letting the drivers guide the goal setting process, work plans evolve quite naturally, and they form concrete strategic and business plans for the organization whose progress and activities will be quite straightforward to measure. That said, even if an idea sounds like it fits with your drivers, it must still be tested.

In short, the drivers make the entire organization more manageable and understandable. They take the ambiguity out of strategic decision-making and provide guidance to the staff on their daily activities, but they cannot be seen as static. As CEO it is your job to keep yourself up to date and to be sensitive to any changes in your market or operating environment. Although you might rely on key people to help you, such as the fundraiser to let you know of changes in the fundraising community, or your operations or finance person to let you know of any shifts in the regulatory environment, as CEO you are ultimately responsible to make sure the organization is responding adequately and in a timely fashion.


The CEO should always be aware of the key drivers: their state of play and how they are operating in the larger context. Conditions can and will change, and you need to be ready to adjust what you do and how you do it. The organization and its leadership should have enough flexibility to adapt and adjust. It is not appropriate to say that the current business plan or the current budget does not allow you to look at something, or that you’ll wait until next year. Change the plans or the budget when you need to change them. If there is a need to reconsider the drivers, don’t wait or it might be too late.

Tips and resources

  1. Peter Drucker’s Managing the Non-profit Organization: Principles and Practices (HarperBusiness, 1992) is a must-read classic. It is written on the premise that non-profits are more complex to manage because they don’t have the single purpose of profit. It will help you think through what your organization’s purpose is and how important it is to organize the work around it.
  2. Nick Saul’s chapter “Reimagining Your Organization” in Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success (Coach House Books, 2011) tells the story of how he reimagined The Stop from a food bank to an organization with a more comprehensive and successful approach to food security. He provides practical advice on what matters the most when you lead these types of changes.
  3. Choose your tools. There are many tools that will help you work through your thoughts and explore possibilities as you craft your vision. Depending on how you work best, you might consider online mind mapping software such as MindMeister, or you may prefer a flipchart with multicoloured markers. Either way, exploring possibilities from different angles will only enrich your vision.


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Three experts talk about good board governance and relationships

For this blog post, we have selected three Five Good Ideas sessions that look at good board governance and relationships. Five Good Ideas is Maytree’s lunch-and-learn program, where industry or issue experts discuss practical ideas on key management issues facing non-profit organizations.

JoAnne Doyle: Five Good Ideas about good governance in disruptive times

JoAnne Doyle is the Chief Operating Officer at United Way Greater Toronto. She stresses that good governance is a major driver of organizational success. To achieve the latter, a smart, creative, and hardworking board is necessary, especially during times of change or disruption. Good governance during such times is about positioning your organization against crisis and emerging opportunities.

Here are JoAnne’s five good ideas:

  1. Know your environment and your place in it: Develop a deep understanding of your entire ecosystem.
  2. Step outside the echo chamber: Gather insight from more than management by using third party sources like auditors, accreditors, community consultations, satisfaction surveys, and complaint reports.
  3. Know the rules and play within them: Build a solid understanding of the rules so you’re not caught flat-footed when it really matters.
  4. Recruit true diversity: Bring in diversity that represents a spectrum of cultures, ethnicity, genders, age — but don’t stop there. Diversity of experience and perspective is equally vital to a board’s success.
  5. Start now: The distance between the ideal board and the current state of your governance might seem far — but you don’t have to do it all in a day. The most important thing is that you make a commitment to ongoing board development and that you start right now.

Watch JoAnne’s presentation:

Access more resources here.

Richard Powers: Five Good Ideas about strong governance for strong organizations

Richard Powers is National Academic Director, Directors Education Program and Governance Essentials Program at the Rotman School of Management. In this Five Good Ideas session, Richard talks about how non-profits should deal with a climate of increasing demand for their services and a decline of revenues. He believes that a strong board governance culture is important for an organization’s survival and a must to maintain and grow the organization’s mission.

Here are Richard’s five good ideas:

  1. Embrace increased transparency. Organizations need to be able to respond to requests for information, and to be forthcoming in their dealings with media and donors. This is not about sharing confidential board information.
  2. Be aware of the need for increased accountability. Following Good Idea #1 is the notion that organizations have to be more accountable to their stakeholders. This does not refer only to donors and funders but also to those groups charged with ensuring that the organization operates within the regulations and laws applicable within their sector.
  3. Pay close attention to conflicts of interest. Direct conflicts of interest are usually pretty easy to identify. Indirect conflicts are more difficult. Just as important, the perception of conflicts of interest needs to be addressed with the same rigour.
  4. Determine the skill sets you need. Regardless of the organization, strong governance requires particular skill sets. Representative boards are no exception. Determine what you need and get to it – where there is a will, there is a way.
  5. Go for commitment and engagement. Governance isn’t a hobby; it is hard work and it takes time. So rather than focus on resume building, board members should consider what they are really passionate about and not overextend themselves.

Watch Richard’s presentation:

Access more resources here.

Medhat Mahdy and Tim Penner: Five Good Ideas about successful board-executive director relationships

In their Five Good Ideas session, Medhat Mahdy and Tim Penner emphasize the need to invest time and energy in a successful board-executive director relationship. It is an essential catalyst toward organizational performance and community impact. Medhat and Tim used their experiences as Chair of the Board and President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toronto, respectively, to lead this session on how to build successful board-executive director relationships.

Here are Medhat and Tim’s five good ideas:

  1. Start with a shared vision and values.
  2. Define the diversity and skills matrix needed to help you achieve your vision, and recruit board members around it.
  3. Invest the time, and open yourself up to the vulnerability needed to build trusting relationships.
  4. Play your positions. Like in any sport, volunteer-staff partnerships work best when team members complement, rather than duplicate, each other.
  5. Measurement matters. Put in place a measurement system that will allow the Board to focus on strategic oversight over time (the big picture, long view) and not get lost in the weeds.

Watch Medhat and Tim’s presentation:

Access more resources here.

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Your first 40 days as a CEO

When Franca Gucciardi accepted her first CEO position at the Loran Scholars Foundation she quickly realized the immensity of the task ahead of her and contacted her mentor, Alan Broadbent. What followed was a series of conversations, and a process of learning to ask (and then answer!) the right questions. You’re It! is mentorship in book form, the collected wisdom of two experienced CEOs — a practical and accessible guide to leading an organization. It’s everything you wanted to know about being a CEO but were afraid to ask.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two, “Getting the job and getting started.” To purchase a copy of You’re It!, click here.

Getting the job and getting started

Congratulations! You got the job! Now, what do you do? First, avoid the temptation to make promises and set strategic goals in the first few weeks. This is a common impulse for new leaders, especially first-time CEOs with heroic notions. They run the risk of setting expectations that are too high, making promises that are unrealistic, or acting before thoroughly understanding the organization. Equally troubling, they miss the opportunity that a CEO only truly has in the first few weeks on the job — to get honest and direct feedback from the organization’s stakeholders. Once you are fully integrated in the organization, these stakeholders may not be as willing or able to openly share their thoughts with you.

Part A. The first meeting with the board chair

As soon as you have accepted the position, you should plan to have a conversation with the person responsible for good governance who sets the tone for the board — the board chair. A key question to ask is why you were chosen over the other candidates who were interviewed for the position. We usually assume that we were picked because we were better than the other candidates, but it may be that we were just different. It is useful to understand that difference, so ask. First-time CEOs, in particular, may feel too awkward or too grateful for having been chosen to ask the question directly.

Usually a search committee selects a candidate for the CEO role because the committee believes that the individual will be able to provide the type of leadership the organization needs at that moment in time. In other words, it is valuable to know what kind of leader the search committee expects you to be. Equally interesting is to find out what kind of leaders the organization did not choose. Were the other candidates perceived as being too conventional? Too risky? Or did they not demonstrate enough of a vision? You know this from hiring your own staff. You do not necessarily hire the candidate with the best resume, but the person you think best fits the specific job requirements.

Another useful piece of information is why the previous CEO left the organization. Is your hiring a distancing from the past, or is there an expectation that you will continue the work of your predecessor? Is the organization hoping to enhance and maintain the same course of action, or does it see this as an opportunity for a considerable shift from the status quo? What was the relationship like between the CEO and the board, and between the CEO and board chair?

At this first meeting with the board chair, it is also helpful to ask again some of the questions you posed during the interview process. Ask the chair to elaborate on a few of the answers, and address any issues that were too sensitive to deal with during the interview. You will want to ask, again, who will have the final say on important organizational decisions, and who the most influential stakeholders and donors are. Who holds the trump cards?

At this meeting, you may also want to ask the chair about the background of the board directors and his or her thoughts on their performance. You want to know what are the two or three key issues that the board is dealing with, and which critical issues need to be addressed immediately.

You may also want to let your board chair know of your intention to consult stakeholders and ask who, in his or her opinion, the key individuals to meet with are and why. You should also set a regular meeting time with the chair in the next few months to ensure you get to know each other and to keep him or her informed of your initial plans.

Part B. Consulting stakeholders

For the first thirty to forty days, it is a good idea to meet with the key stakeholders of the organization: past board chairs, key donors or investors, and key volunteers. The list will most likely evolve as you speak with people. The chair will probably give you names at your initial meeting, and those individuals will in turn suggest other people. The list should include stakeholders who have not always been happy with the work of the organization, have a critical opinion, and are willing to share this with you.

The purpose of these conversations is to pose the question, “What does success for the organization look like?” The research and preparation you did for the job interview should have resulted in a detailed environmental scan and a clear understanding of how the organization fits into this larger picture. This information is a good foundation for you to build on as you draft questions for the stakeholder meetings.

Overall, these conversations will be listening exercises. The old adage that you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion applies. This is an opportunity to hear people articulate the vision of the organization and why they have decided to support it. This is also an opportunity to have them express some of their concerns and frustrations. These visits are fact-finding expeditions.

It will be tempting to address any concerns they may have with promises about what you will be able to accomplish for the organization and how you will bring the organization to the promised land. Resist the temptation to get out there and make promises before you know you are able to keep them. A new leader needs time to form her vision of what success looks like, independent from the need to please or appease one or two individuals. Thank people for sharing their thoughts and remind them (and yourself) how useful it is to have the information. But even in the face of contentious feedback, don’t engage in an argument. There will be opportunities for you to share your vision. The first few months in an organization is the only time that you can enjoy being the new person around, so sit back and listen.

These conversations are also a great way of getting to know the key stakeholders. As you develop the vision for the organization going forward, you will have a clear idea of who will need to be brought on board and who will be your strongest supporters. It will help you to identify potential relationship pitfalls so that you can devise a way to address them.

ALAN: Murray Ross, the first president of York University, once told me, “you can never go wrong listening to what people have to say.” I’ve found that to be sound advice. But you also need to develop some defensive tactics when the conversation turns into a rant, slander, or character assassination. In this consultation phase, where confrontation would be gratuitous at best, it would be good to claim “overload” and ask if the rant or other unpleasantries might be put over to a subsequent discussion. That discussion might never need to occur.

Since the purpose of this consultation is to get a good read of the organization, at some point it will become clear that the returns are no longer there and that you have the information you need. Put an end to it and start planning.

As you progress through the planning stages, you may want to go back to a number of the individuals with whom you met. Once you have put together your vision, you will want to ask a few of the people you initially consulted for their help in refining and implementing this vision. This is an opportunity to establish some key allies of your own.

Part C. Confirm your fit

 As you are doing this information-gathering work, you may come to find that things may not have been fully disclosed; that something happened that materially altered the conditions of the work; or that you failed to do your due diligence. You will quickly have to assess whether you can be an effective leader in this environment. Face up to it sooner than later and be realistic. If the changes are material enough that they make you question your ability to do the job, or that they alter the fit of your skills to the job, then it is best to own up to it fast.

Of course, the situation has to be materially different from what you’ve been given to understand, not just annoying or hard. The organization has invested time and resources in its search for you. You have a responsibility to take this seriously and do your homework before the job is offered and accepted. Once you’re the leader, you can’t back away simply because things have gotten difficult.


The first few months as the CEO are particularly important and can help you set a tone with the people inside and outside the organization. Spend most of your time listening to your stakeholders and understanding clearly why you have been chosen to lead the organization. Resist the temptation to go with the tide, and don’t allow yourself to make any promises until you are well-grounded in what the organization needs.

Tips and resources

  1. Get a theme song in your head: It could be Ani DiFranco’s “Smile Pretty and Watch Your Back,” U2’s “Beautiful Day,” Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” or Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold.” In those early days, when things are coming at you quickly, having a few notes in your head will bring you back to yourself and the energy, positivity, boldness, and patience you require.
  2. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) is a fantastic read that argues that the best way to grow and develop as a leader is by action and by experience, not by introspection. For a first-time leader or someone changing leadership roles, it’s a wonderful, practical reminder that at some point you need to stop thinking and start doing.
  3. Set your priorities and boundaries. As you become familiar with the expectations and workplace culture, think about what you need to do to maintain your health and a good home–work balance. The role of a CEO does not typically end at 5:00 p.m. How will you make time for personal relationships? Will you establish a regular exercise schedule? Setting positive habits from the beginning will enhance your role in both your professional and personal lives.


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Different approaches to leadership: Learning from Maytree’s Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas is Maytree’s lunch-and-learn program, where industry or issue experts discuss practical ideas on key management issues facing non-profit organizations. Each expert presents five ideas and explores with the audience how these ideas can be translated into action. In this blog post, we have selected three particular sessions that take different approaches to leadership. The videos are 20 to 40 minutes long, and packed with knowledge for new or experienced non-profit leaders.

Glem Dias: Five Good Ideas about how to grow as a leader and engage your staff in an environment of constant change

Glem Dias is Program Director, Talent Management at the Schulich Executive Education Centre; he also runs an independent talent practice. He encourages leaders to reflect on how they interact with their staff.

Dias offers the following five ideas as one approach to leadership.

  1. Ask critical questions to your staff such as: what are the three core issues that define your organization.
  2. Have in place a development plan for yourself.
  3. Hold “stay conversations” with your employees.
  4. Use high impact and personalized recognition methods.
  5. Build transparency by using the leadership hot-seat exercise.

Watch Glem’s presentation:

Access more resources here.

Andrea Cohen Barrack: Five Good Ideas about leading your organization in a time of disruption

Andrea Cohen Barrack is VP, Community Relations and Corporate Citizenship, TD Bank, and former CEO of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. She uses her experience to talk about disruption and how to adapt to it as a leader. Andrea was asked to lead the Ontario Trillium Foundation in 2012, a year after a report from the auditor general of Ontario questioned the value of the foundation in relation to grants allocation. During her hiring process, the board and committee expressed the need for a change in leadership — they wanted someone who would increase the profile of the foundation, and showcase its impact and values.

Here are Andrea Cohen Barrack’s five ideas on how to lead in a time of disruption.

  1. Know the difference between leading change and managing change.
  2. Reach beyond the usual suspects to find disruptive ideas.
  3. Be mindful of those who benefit from the status quo.
  4. Social disruption is about the means, not the ends.
  5. Achieving impact is rarely linear.

Watch Andrea’s presentation:

Access more resources here.

Kofi Hope: Five Good Ideas about putting values at the centre of your leadership

Kofi Hope, Executive Director of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, takes us on his personal journey of working with youth. He asks: “How do we lead our teams in an industry where people are overworked, underpaid, undervalued, and surrounded by some of the most raw traumas in this city?” He admits frankly that he does not have all answers, but that in his experience, putting values front and centre is one highly effective approach to leadership.

Here are Kofi Hope’s five ideas for developing values-based leadership.

  1. Recognize that all actions begin with values.
  2. Explore your own values and communicate them through your leadership story.
  3. Build shared organizational values over time, starting from your own values.
  4. Consider values in hiring your team.
  5. Focus on policies and practices that live out your values.

Watch Kofi’s presentation:

Access more resources, including a full transcript, here.

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