Welcoming a New Chief Executive

If you’ve been paying attention to CEO Update, you’ve probably noticed that announcements of CEO retirements are increasing and, as a result, the listings of CEO openings are picking up.

That means a lot of CEOs are going to be starting new positions soon. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the new CEO welcome team in previous associations, and I picked up a few ideas along the way:

First of all, whether you’re the new CEO, part of the staff welcome team, part of the rest of the staff, or a board member, I recommend starting with the excellent article Jackie Eder-Van Hook wrote for Associations Now a little over a year ago. It clearly and concisely lays out what the board, the new CEO, and the staff can do to help prepare for and facilitate a smooth transition.

Secondly, I’ve noticed that your new CEO’s background and your internal structure have a major impact on what you need to prepare to help her transition. If your new CEO comes from an association background, she’ll know how to run an association, but she’ll need to be quickly brought up to speed on your industry or profession, particularly if you have any major advocacy issues in play. And she’ll need to be quickly introduced to key players inside and outside the association. She’ll need a group of advisors (maybe the board, maybe additional people) who are known and respected in the industry who can teach her about it.

If your CEO comes from the industry or profession, she will know the key players and issues, but she’ll have to be educated about thinking about them and relating to people as a representative of the whole industry, not just her own company. And she’ll need a primer on how running an association is like and not like running a business. And a solid #2 or senior team to help keep the business of running the association going while she learns.

If your CEO comes from Capitol Hill…well, I don’t recommend doing that unless you have a strong internal structure, including a true COO (not just a glorified director of finance) who is responsible for running the association day to day. Because a high-profile lobbyist is just that. You’re buying influence, and expecting that person to run the organization as well is a big mistake.

Regardless of where you find your new CEO, she will need:

  • The current full financial and membership picture. And don’t even try to hide bad news. If you do, you’re setting her and your organization up for failure.
  • A list of the true decision makers in the organization. Which may or may not be the same as the board and/or senior team. If she really can’t make a decision without running it by the assistant conference director (for whatever reason), she needs to know.
  • The time and structured opportunities to get to know people. It’s hard to do this, because a new CEO will want to hit the ground running with all her great new ideas, and that’s good and appropriate (that’s why you hired her, right?), but she also needs space to get familiar with the staff and internal dynamics and current culture.
  • Clarity about people’s real expectations. Does the board expect her to lead, or to manage process? Is she supposed to be a change agent, or not upset the apple cart? What level of interaction do staff members want and expect?
  • All your policies, processes, procedures, work plans, strategic plans, audited financials, board books, committee books, schedules, style guides, branding rules, annual reports, etc. But don’t dump it all on her in a big pile all at once. Create a clearly labeled library on a shelf in her office so can review and assimilate all the information at her pace.
  • A group of CEO peers she can turn to when she has questions that aren’t appropriate for the board or her #2. That’s probably something she needs to put together for herself, but you could do worse than suggesting ASAE’s CEO membership and symposia and, if appropriate and offered in your area, something like DC SAFE.

CEO transitions are scary for everyone – the new CEO, the outgoing CEO, the board, the staff, the membership – but with some preparation, transparency, and cutting everyone some slack, they can also be a springboard to take your association to even greater heights.