New leader, you thought the board wanted what?

Nonprofit boards are prone to seek a change-agent as their next CEO. You know, a visionary who can inspire the masses and kick a few strategic asses. A “savior” who, without breaking a sweat, rights all wrongs, separates wheat from chaff, and sets the organization on the path to success.  Within the first 90 days on the job.

It’s little wonder then that so many new leaders arrive on the job assuming a mandate to shake things up. And no surprise that they expect the board will have their back.

However, unless the newly appointed CEO asked and got answers to three critical questions during the interview process, the anointed one is more likely headed for a crucifixion than a celebration down the road. Or so caution the authors of a Harvard Business Review blog article.

The questions?

  •  What does the board want to see changed over the next 12-18 months?
  • What does the organization wish to preserve over the next 12-18 months?
  • What does the organization wish to avoid at all costs over the next 12-18 months?

In other words, it’s important to know if the board is asking for change, Change, or CHANGE.  Unfortunately, search committees “tend to focus only on what’s to be changed while ignoring the other dimensions.” On top of that, all references to change sound pretty much the same to the casual ear.

But what a difference emphasis makes. Get the inflection wrong and it’s trouble ahead.

Woe to the newly appointed leader who comes in with both barrels blazing. And greater woe if a “sacred cow” is caught in the cross-fire. When the smoke settles, it’s likely the board can’t be found.


If board members struggle to clarify the scope of change they seek, savvy candidates know to dig a little deeper. There’s risk to doing so, but better to annoy a search committee with probing and potentially uncomfortable questions than to assume instant clarity once on the job. As the authors advise, “By bringing up all three dimensions during the interview process, you not only increase your chances of getting hired, you also make sure that once you’re on the job, you’ve set yourself up to succeed.”

Which is precisely what the board wanted. No question about it.

What's your take on this topic?

%d bloggers like this: