THE BLOG
12/01/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Top 9 Priorities for Your First Month as a New Executive Director

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Congratulations, you're the new Executive Director of a social-change organization.

You've taken on a very hard job. One where your learning curve is often public. The hours are long, the priorities seem endless, the work is deeply fulfilling, and you are personally responsible for something that MATTERS. What you do, and more importantly what you don't do during your first month will set the tone for your long-term success. Welcome to the family - this hit-list is for you.

1. Go on a listening tour. Gain context and demonstrate discipline during your first month on the job. Fight the urge to "get things done" and don't get pressured into making quick decisions. You lack perspective at this early stage and can get suckered into fools' choices or shortsided decisions that will linger. Calm down, and give yourself permission to be the kind of thoughtful leader your organization deserves. Set up meetings with your board members, your direct reports, and representatives of all of your constituent bases (investors, clients, etc.), and prepare thoughtful questions for each of these meetings. These should not merely be "relationship building" conversations where you establish trust and rapport. These are fact-finding missions where you will be assessing the health of your organization. Pay attention to consistent messages, and pay even more attention to inconsistent messages. Take notes. You may not know how to process all of the information you hear right now, but in a few weeks you will look back at your notes with a new set of eyes. Let your first few choices as ED be ones you've made with a clear head.

2. Contact former EDs. Be a gracious new leader who understands and respects the legacy of those who came before you. Your predecessors have unbelievably helpful context for you - and if you can establish a meaningful relationship with them, they will prove to be invaluable allies. Call them. Thank them. Ask them a ton of questions. What is their assessment of the opportunities and challenges ahead? Who should you reach out to right away? What would no one understand but them? What do they wish they'd known when they got started? Even if they didn't leave on good terms (and in some cases especially if they didn't leave on good terms), they have enormously valuable insights.

3. Taste the soup. Observe your own organization in action at the most granular level. You run afterschool programs? Attend an entire evening. Not a pop-in for five minutes where you will inevitably observe a show tailored just for you. Find a way to meaningfully experience your product. Do not criticize, interject, or change the course of the experience at all - be there simply to take it in, to reflect, to consider where it meets your bar and what it makes you want to do. Observe from a variety of lenses, and be sure to place high value on any instance where people allow you to see the vulnerable truth. One challenge EDs face is that wherever they go people put on their best performance. As a result, EDs rarely understand the authentic experience of their constituents. Those who share it offer you a much needed perspective.

4. Inspect the financials. Immediately. Understand your monthly expenses, your biweekly payroll, your "operations costs", and where every dollar you raise is spent. You want to know where you are burning money, where bad ideas have been grandfathered in, and where increased spending would be important. Take time, and make sure you actually DO understand the numbers. If you don't, ask again. Nonprofit coach Joan Garry urges new EDs to hire an outside auditor immediately, and to ensure that they can explain the financials as if they're talking to a 5th grader. Considering the devastation that can occur if there's something wrong in the back office, this is sound advice.

5. Professionally develop your assistant. Your assistant is a reflection of you, your leadership, and your organization. More often than you realize, people interact with your assistant (not you) and those interactions can make or break your organizational brand. Regardless of their title or salary, that individual is one of the most important people on your staff and their customer service orientation and attention to detail will define your leadership to many people before you even walk in the door. Invest time in giving your assistant the context and perspective necessary to make smart decisions in the way they engage with different people and topics.

6. Understand the state of staff. Although you may feel pressured to focus externally during your first few weeks, there is nothing more important than getting a handle on the strength of your team.

  • Hold a brief all staff meeting: Take the time to acknowledge the group, to share what you're focusing on, and to value their leadership and contributions as you step into your role.
  • Meet individually with all of your direct reports: Don't rush these meetings. Learn what big decisions, deadlines, and goals are coming up the pike, and consider the way that you want to engage with those items. Begin to understand the cross-functional dynamics between different departments, and how large decisions on each team intersect with one another.
  • Consider performance: It is important to gather information about which teams are hitting their goals, and which team members are exceeding expectations or not meeting them. Are there people on the team who have a significant negative or positive impact on culture or results? Are there performance reviews or impact assessments that can help you piece together the state of your team? Regardless of how talented you are, you can't succeed alone, and having the right people in the right roles will be a make-it-or-break-it factor for your organization. **Keep in mind that sometimes a change in leadership can lead to shifts in people's performance for the better or worse. A fresh start can be a powerful thing, so allow people to reboot while still being knowledgable about prior track records.
7. Draft your initial vision/pitch. One of your most important roles as a leader is to inspire others around a united vision. Use this first month to begin refining your pitch, and don't stop fine-tuning it EVER. Keep in mind that your vision serves as a rallying cry, giving clear, inspiring, and actionable direction to your team, your board, and your supporters. It's not something for you to use alone in your meetings - it asserts values, goals, and energy to all involved in the organization. Regularly check in with people across your organization to ask them to share the organizational vision as a way of seeing whether you have crafted something clear, consistent, memorable, and meaningful enough. If people are not verbalizing a united vision, your organization doesn't have one.


8. Align your calendar to your priorities. If you focus on everything, you will in essence focus on nothing. Figure out which dominoes matter most and identify the things that only you can do. Hone a list of your top priorities and then align time in you schedule each week to address those priorities. The way you spend your time should be a direct signal of what you value most. Meet less, cut the time-sucks that don't align to results or core priority areas, and find ways to delegate things that don't truly need to be done by you. Not only will that leave time for your higher priorities, it will enable other people on staff to step into increased leadership.

9. Find your people. You're going to need to regularly reflect and process, yet you will likely need a peer group outside of your organization so that you can speak without judgment, and without the power dynamic inherent in a boss/employee relationship. Find your mentors, and invest in your relationship with the small group of peers who will support you as you adjust into your new role. Build time for that reflection space just like you would any other priority. The stronger you are personally, the better you will lead.

Best of luck to you as you start your journey as Executive Director. Although your role can feel lonely at times, you are most definitely not on this journey alone.