We host quarterly Executive Forums for Nonprofit CEOs

Successfully Managing Your Executive Team: A Guide for Nonprofit CEOs


Successfully managing your Executive Team can be one of the biggest challenges for nonprofit CEOs.   It can be a nightmare if not done intentionally, so it requires careful planning and execution.  This was the topic of a recent quarterly Executive Forum we hosted.

Illuminating Data:

Anonymized survey data from Forum participants reflected almost half of leaders found themselves facing a team not unified in direction, or they were stuck constantly putting out fires.

Seventy percent face existing openings on the executive team or recognize the wrong people were in key positions. 

Again, seventy percent see some collaboration happening and are working toward more collaboration, but it is not yet woven into the fabric and culture of the organization.

Eighty-five percent report significant challenges in the hiring process. 

These included:

    • they can attract candidates with necessary hard skills, but in the end candidates are not a good culture fit.

    • the internal pool of candidates is not as strong as they desired.

    • the hiring process is too complicated causing the loss of good candidates.

    • salary competition is stiff or other factors make attracting well qualified candidates difficult.

Seventy percent reported internal talent not prepared to step up.  Leaders recognized high-potential employees existed to fill executive level positions but had no intentional development planning in place to get them there.

Fifty-four percent experienced significant challenges with retention – seeing turnover rates of 20 to 30% and higher among the Executive Team. 

These results algin with other data we see across the field.  Your organization may be experiencing some of these things too!

The Talent Management Cycle

Linday Brown, one of our Talent Management experts and I want to share some simple things you can begin to do to address some of these challenges.

Talent Management has a life cycle.

Let’s focus now on onboarding and development, as attention here will address some of these painful challenges most effectively.

Rethinking Onboarding:

We have probably all experienced onboarding that was less than effective.  “Here are keys or FOB to the front door.  Here are your passwords.  Get started.”

Lindsay tells the story of starting her first day of work as a senior executive only to be asked to come to a meeting two days later with a plan and budget to completely restructure her department for the next year.   Not a good start…

Effective onboarding typically spans one year.  The first six months, however, are an especially critical phase, as this period sets the tone for their tenure and can greatly influence their long-term success within the organization.

The First Six Months:

Here are some suggestions for what the first six months of effective onboarding can look like:

Month 1: Orientation and Immersion

    • Provide a comprehensive orientation to the nonprofit, including its history, mission, values, and culture. Set this up to rinse and repeat!

    • Introduce the new executive to key stakeholders, board members, and other team members.

    • Start building rapport and trust by fostering open communication.

    • Set thirty, sixty and ninety day goals together.

    • The direct supervisor checks in every few days to see how things are going, answer questions, provide support.

Months 2-3: Training and Skill Development

    • Identify specific skills and competencies required for success in the executive role.

    • Develop a customized training plan that includes both technical and soft skills development.

    • Assign a mentor within the organization to provide guidance and support.

Months 4-6: Integration and Responsibility

    • Gradually increase the executive’s responsibilities, allowing them to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills.

    • Encourage active participation in decision-making processes.

    • Continuously monitor progress and provide constructive feedback.

Months 6 – 12:  Begin to ease the new executive into the cadence of the organization’s established performance management system (assuming you have one – reach out if you don’t!).

Rethinking Talent Development: 

Developing talent within your executive team (honestly, within the whole organization) is essential for long-term success.  Start by identifying the key leadership competencies and success profiles that align with your nonprofit’s goals. Here’s how to go about it:

Identify Core Competencies:

    • Work closely with your executive team to define the core competencies required for each leadership role.

    • Consider both technical skills and soft skills, such as communication, adaptability, and strategic thinking.

    • Tailor competencies to match the specific needs and challenges of your nonprofit.

    • These competencies can then be used to develop individual development plans, which can be used to plan training and coach and mentor individual team members. They are also a useful metric in performance reviews.

Implement these things and watch engagement and retention rise!

As you apply this to team members down more deeply into your org chart, the strength of your internal candidates will increase substantially as well.

Success Profiles:

    • Create success profiles for each executive role, outlining the expected outcomes, responsibilities, and performance expectations.  Answer the question, if someone in this position were wildly successful in this role, what would it look like?

    • Establish clear KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that align with your nonprofit’s strategic objectives.  This can go a long way in getting people out of ‘fire fighting’ mode. 

    • Review and update these profiles annually to adapt to changing organizational needs.

Ongoing Development:

    • Implement a continuous learning and development program for your executive team that is aligned with your organization’s strategic objectives.

    • Encourage executives to pursue professional development opportunities, attend workshops, and seek mentorship aligned with their development plans.

    • Foster a culture of feedback and improvement, where executives are open to learning from both successes and failures.

In Conclusion:

Successfully managing an executive team in a nonprofit organization requires a well-thought-out approach to onboarding and talent development.  You can create a virtuous cycle where you are attracting, growing and retaining top employees.

By dedicating time and resources to these critical areas, you can cultivate not only a strong and effective executive team, but a whole organization that is equipped to lead your nonprofit towards its mission with confidence and competence.

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