Make sure you know what your Board really wants. Really, really wants.

Sometimes, when organizations are struggling, trustees will hope to bring in a new CEO who can stir things up a bit, make change, and alter the trajectory of that organization. As someone who has sat on not-for-profit boards, who has consulted to such groups, and who has served as CEO for mission driven organizations, I have observed an interesting phenomenon: Boards will often state that this is their desire, but that desire should be pressure tested.

For all the reasons I detail in my book, Saving Organizations That Matter, organizations that are in decline or which chronically struggle to improve their fate, must undergo a transformative process, one that gets down to the root level of the weeds that befall them. A more superficial approach will solve the weed problem… but only temporarily.

A leader (or CEO candidate) will need to understand whether that board has the resolve to participate in and actively support such a transformation. These initiatives are difficult and may lead to tension in the organization, among board members, and with some external constituents – but such tension won’t be sufficient reason to prematurely abandon the effort. Transformation initiatives often fail because once the going gets tough, there’s not enough support for the tough to get going.

For example, disaffected employees may cry foul, some board members may see their own personal interests challenged, in health care settings, clinicians may seek to disrupt the changes that they feel weaken their own position, and others will have little tolerance for the risk that such activities require, taking the short-term view instead. They prefer to shave the tops off the weeds, leaving the roots intact.

So, any leader undertaking such a process will need to understand just how committed the board is to the changes that will be required. I’m not suggesting that boards give full and free reign to leaders to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences, but I am recommending that leaders and board have a serious and frank discussion at the outset about what may be required of them in order to ultimately succeed.

I have worked with a number of organizations that took the time to develop this deeper understanding of what the future might hold early on. And what a different that made to the eventual success of those organizations!

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