Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

Your first 30 days as the new CEO of a nonprofit organization: meeting with stakeholders

Congratulations, you got your first CEO 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.

Put together a list of who you want to meet

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.

Before visiting with someone, do your homework. Although individuals will not expect a new CEO to have developed a plan for the organization at this point, they will expect you to know the contributions they have made and the roles they have played in the history of the organization. They will also expect to see that you are committed to the mission of the organization.

This is the time to listen

Overall, these conversations will be listening exercises. 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.

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.

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.

This consultation process will result in a fuller, more detailed picture of the organization. It will most likely provide you with an understanding of what the organization values. It will also give you a good sense of the culture of the place and how decisions are made.

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.

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.

Hear from Alan Broadbent about the importance of listening:

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.