Communicating To Build Momentum During An Executive Transition

An executive director transition, as with any organizational change, can be stressful for staff, volunteers, board members, donors and members or clients of a nonprofit organization. When a retirement, resignation or other departure happens, it can create an environment of uncertainty. There often are questions surrounding the departure that can’t be addressed due to personnel issues. This can create more anxiety and distractions.

During the last six months, three of the largest nonprofits in St. Louis named had departures of executive directors–the Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri and St. Patrick’s Center. The combined annual budgets of the three organizations is more than $40 million and they have tens of thousands of donors and clients or members.

Communications and marketing professionals play an important and pivotal role for the new executive director during this period. Social media and web 2.0 functions can help communicators do a better job at helping the new director make a good first impression and provide a channel to communicate vision and priorities.

How important are first impressions?

Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, recently defended the importance of chief executive officers getting off to a good start. He was challenged by Kevin Kelly in a post, The CEO Revolving Door, on the blog, CEO Insight on the Bloomberg Business Week website.

Kevin Kelly

“Business readers have snapped up 500,000 copies of a book called The First 90 Days, by Dr. Michael Watkins, who has served as a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School,” Kelly wrote.  “And since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s days, voters have thrilled to hear politicians describe all they will achieve in their ‘first 100 days.’ It makes for entertaining reading or political theater. But as for substance, it’s as thin as spun sugar.”

Watkins responded on a post, Improving Leadership Transitions Is Not Short-Termism, on on Harvard Business Review’s, The Conversation, blog. Leaders always will be judged during a transition. They must be quick to learn and absorb information while creating a positive and productive atmosphere.

Michael Watkins

“It’s that transitions are times when momentum builds or it doesn’t, when opinions about new leaders begin to crystallize,” Watkins wrote. “It’s a time when feedback loops — virtuous cycles or vicious ones — get established. Significant missteps feed downward spirals that can be hard to arrest. So it’s far better for new leaders to get off to a good start by building personal credibility and political capital, rather than dig themselves into holes and have to clamber back out.”

This period of transition for an executive director of a nonprofit is a critical time for communications and public relations professionals. In some cases, quickly establishing the presence of a new executive director helps move the organization rapidly forward. Introductions are made. Visions are communicated. Styles are expressed.

An example of a poor first impression took place almost a decade ago. The executive director held a staff meeting on his first day on the job. A staff member asked how the new director wanted to be addressed. Would he prefer to be called by his first name? Mister?

“I don’t care what you call me,” he told the entire staff. “Just don’t call me dumb a – -.”

Two things were clear after that first meeting. One, the executive director was previously called by that description. Two, the executive director’s previous performance probably warranted that description.

A communications plan to introduce the executive director during their first days on the job is essential. However, executive directors must be willing, aware and humble enough to see how important an effective communications plan can be during their first days.


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