It’s the board’s job to hire and fire the executive director. When the firing comes, however, it really never happens in a vacuum. Both parties — the board and administrator — generally make mistakes along the way that lead to the executive being dismissed. Sometimes, there are even factors outside of the administrator’s control that cause a termination.
When one board decided to terminate a West Coast executive director, it unanimously voted to “make a change.” But dig a little deeper into what led to this administrator’s firing — peel away the layers — and you can see this board and administrator relationship was troubled right from the start. Here’s why:
- The previous administrator fired a popular employee who headed up a popular program right before the board hired its new executive director.
- Community members voiced their displeasure publicly about this firing, but the new administrator would not respond to their concerns.
- The board gave its prior executive director a contract for consulting services during the first year the new executive was on the job.
- As problems mounted, the board solicited opinions from employees and others about the administrator’s job performance.
Consultant Terrie Temkin (CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., Miami, Fla.) said that in an executive director firing like this one, there is plenty of blame to go around, from problems the new CEO could not control to her own missteps and the board’s mistakes. Here’s more:
Out of her control
When a new administrator follows a long-time popular director who carried a great deal of respect, problems aren’t uncommon, Temkin said. “Board members and other stakeholders can go around the new executive to see the previous director, and that is unfair to the current executive,” she said.
That’s a problem because the new administrator can’t build her own following, reputation or style when she is always living in the shadow of someone who held the job for years, Temkin said.
Another issue arises when the new executive enters a small, tight-knit community. “It’s hard for a newcomer to break in when everyone knows everyone else so well,” Temkin said.
Finally, who knows what information the administrator was provided upon her hiring? Was the board clear about the direction it sought for the organization? The previous executive director had fired an employee for a reason and the new executive became the collateral damage as that drama continued to play out. “There had to be an uproar when the long-time staff member was fired,” Temkin said. It’s quite possible the board told its new administrator to head in a new direction programmatically, and when that didn’t work well, the ax fell on the new CEO, Temkin said.
The executive’s missteps
“The first rule of crisis communication is to get out in front of a problem,” said Temkin. You need to own the crisis before the media begins to frame it in its own ways, she said.
In the case of this terminated executive, she blamed the media for reporting on the controversy instead of owning the problem. “Blaming the media is a great way to make enemies, especially in a small community,” Temkin said. “That’s a big misstep.”
When a hiring goes bad and ends in the executive director’s firing, the question of due diligence on the executive’s part always comes up too. The administrator needs to learn when seeking a new job, for example, if the board has a history of burning through executive directors quickly, Temkin said.
When taking a new position, you have to make learning the new organization’s culture and building allies your first priority, Temkin said. “Whenever you move into a new job, even if you know people in the organization, you need to learn the organization’s culture,” she said.
If you take a position where you are inheriting a problem like the termination of a long-time employee and popular program, fix that issue as soon as possible, Temkin said. “You need to do something to make amends,” she said.
Always communicate fully with the board. If a media coverage problem develops and your board starts getting phone calls before hearing from you, you’ve failed as a communicator. “If your board gets blindsided by the community, their first reaction is going to be ‘We don’t want to take the blame,’” Temkin said.
The board blew it too
When a long-time administrator retires, the board has a responsibility to make a well-informed hire. “The board needs to determine what direction the organization should go and what type of executive director they need to make that happen,” Temkin said.
Mistakes in hiring at the top are less likely to happen when the board assesses what its previous administrator did well and not so well, what direction the board wants to go in the future and what qualities the board is seeking in the person to get the organization to where it wants to be, Temkin said.
In the case of this executive’s termination, the board didn’t appear to understand its mission and programs well, along with the intensity of the community’s feelings about the popular program. “If the board did, perhaps they would have given more direction to the new executive at the beginning,” Temkin said.
It’s the board’s responsibility to direct and coach a new executive. “When the board hires someone new, it needs to communicate the direction the board wants to go in the first place,” Temkin said.
Finally, if you inherit a position where the previous administrator will continue working as a consultant, boundaries need to be placed on that involvement, Temkin said. “In this case, the previous administrator is left standing and the new one isn’t,” she said.
For more information, go to www.CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com.