June 20, 2023

The New CEO’s Challenge: Starting Strong

By Karen Schuler, Partner, Nonprofit Search, Transition & Planning

The New CEO’s Challenge: Starting Strong Executive Search

Too often, nonprofit boards invest significant time and resources into searching for a new executive but view their work as done once the new CEO has been hired. A lot of moving parts and demands compete for any new CEO’s time and many executives, particularly those in this position for the first time, struggle under such intense pressure. Any new CEO needs time to learn the people, work, systems, finances, and priorities of the business they’re leading, and a first-time executive is at a real disadvantage when it comes to prioritizing all the competing demands. For an internal hire and promotion, the challenges, while different, can be just as daunting. Their challenges might include letting go of a former role and its responsibilities, building a new relationship with the board, staff, and funders, and understanding, adapting to, or compensating for the strengths and limitations of the former executive.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce stress and support the success of new executives.


Three critical moments in an organization’s lifecycle can increase the odds that a new executive will be successful. The first occurs two to three years before an executive departs. Establishing a sustainability and leadership continuity plan will prepare the Boards and executives to act when the time comes to transition to new leadership.

The second opportunity occurs in the months preceding the search for a planned internal succession. At this stage, the organization and its key stakeholders should define any changes to the organization’s strategy or business model that may be necessary and outline any plans to leverage emergent or unexpected opportunities. Having this strategy in place prior to initiating the CEO search or planned internal succession will help the organization hone-in on the experience and skills they need in the new executive to lead the organization successfully.

The third opportunity comes with devoting attention and resources to the successful onboarding of a new executive and their active support through the first few years of their tenure. Too often, Boards are exhausted from the search and abandon the executive following the initial message of “Welcome – we are delighted that you are here.” In some cases, the Board does a better job with a reception that introduces the executive and even remains attentive for the first three to six months. Even then, business as usual often takes over, the Board pulls back, and the organization risks misalignment between the new CEO and Board.


Designing a successful CEO onboarding plan is among the most challenging aspects of executive search and transition work. Challenges include:

  • A Board that is tired, distant, or believes the new executive already knows everything they need to lead.
  • Self-reliant executives who are not comfortable admitting limitations or asking for help.
  • Real or perceived deficiencies in the time or resources invested in the success of a new executive.

The key ingredients of a successful onboarding process include:

  • A relationship map that identifies important relationships (funders, partners, etc.), how the new CEO will connect with them, and timing priorities.
  • A listening tour to enable the new CEO to gather input from internal and external stakeholders and discuss their learnings.
  • A workable Board-executive relationship and leadership agenda that affirms goals and priorities, clarifies the respective board and executive/staff roles and responsibilities, and incorporates regular updates on progress.
  • An annual organization calendar that identifies significant activities.
  • A professional development plan for the executive, including the potential for executive coaching, conference attendance, and education/training opportunities.
  • For internal successors, the space to structure their senior management team in a way that complements their leadership – backfilling the position they left is not always the best path forward.

Experience shows that onboarding is most successful when it is acknowledged as a key part of the hiring process, where the culture of the organization values learning and relationship building, and where there is an organization wide commitment to leader development.

Effective nonprofit organizations are vital to the health and vitality of our communities. Well-led organizations contribute more to the community they serve than under-performing organizations. Reducing the challenges facing new CEOs is a gift to the executives, organizations, and communities we care about.