‘I’m new here’: Effective onboarding for executive directors

Volume 41 Number 4

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Bar associations are built around changes in leadership. At most bars, a new president takes over each year, and may or may not change the priorities for association efforts for the upcoming year. The bar staff understands this, and plans accordingly.

Less frequent are changes in executive directors, who tend to stay for many years, providing continuity and institutional memory. So, what happens when there’s a change at the top? Are there certain practices that can help make the “onboarding” process as smooth as possible, for both the new ED and the bar?

The not-very-long goodbye

One key question about onboarding is whether the outgoing and incoming executive director should be in the office at the same time—and if so, for how long?

“I saw too many times where the outgoing executive director hung around and was looking over the shoulder of the new executive director for such a long time that it created an uncomfortable work environment,” says Ev Albert, who retired as executive director of the Lancaster Bar Association in late 2016, after 28 years. “I didn’t want to be a part of that.”

The board hired Steve Grumm, who had previously worked at the American Bar Association, to replace Albert beginning in November. Grumm and Albert worked in the office together for three weeks, Albert says, adding that the transition process was less formal than she had thought it would be.

“I had in my mind, ‘I need to show him this, this, and this,’ ” Albert recalls, noting that the questions Grumm actually had were different from what she had anticipated.

For his part, Grumm says the time he spent with Albert, and the ability to learn by observing and asking questions, helped make his transition easier.

Albert, who remains available to answer questions by phone or email, also made it clear to bar staff and leaders during the transition period that questions that ordinarily would go to her should now be referred to Grumm.

That’s the approach that Patience Burns took during the five-week overlap with her successor Carla Tharp Brown, though she put it more bluntly: “I’m not your boss. Ask Carla” became her response to questions.

Burns, who had been at the Palm Beach County Bar Association for 36 years, notes that the size of the bar association can affect the length of the ideal transition time. Smaller bars have fewer staff resources that the new ED can call on for information, she explains, so having the outgoing person around to answer questions, and also to be available after the transition is complete, is important.

Burns recommends that EDs who are retiring or otherwise leaving of their own volition “set aside their ego, and realize that they’ve made this choice to leave. They need to be as welcoming as possible with the new person.”

An overlap of three … days?

At least one new ED believes an overlap period is not necessarily conducive to onboarding.

Susie Brown became executive director of the Hennepin County Bar Association in October 2016, succeeding an interim ED who, in turn, was preceded by an ED who left fairly suddenly. An overlap period is not critical, she says—and if there is one, it should be no longer than three days.

“The new person needs to be seen by their colleagues as the leader and needs to have the opportunity to lead in their own way,” explains Brown, who spent years working in other nonprofits before coming to the HCBA.

That same view is shared by the president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives, John H. Graham IV, who says that while an overlap of a week or two would probably not be harmful, establishing oneself as the new ED or CEO is “very difficult to do with the prior CEO still hanging around.”

And that’s true, Graham believes, whether the departing ED is leaving big shoes to fill or … not.

“If you are the person leaving and you were a good CEO, the new person coming in wants to distance themselves from you so they can also develop themselves as a good CEO,” he explains. “If you weren’t so good as a CEO, which is why you’re being replaced, that’s a really bad dynamic.”

Brown says that while getting the benefit of knowledge, history, and experience is important for a new ED, it’s better, where possible, to receive those from experienced employees who are remaining on the staff.

“It's your new team,” she says, “and that’s who you need to be spending your time with.”

Getting to know you, by Skype

Kevin Ryan got a good sense of his new job as executive director of the Monroe County Bar Association thanks to a rather unusual arrangement: He worked part-time as a consultant for a few hours a week, before he moved from Vermont and became ED in May 2016.

“I was able to attend board meetings, foundation meetings and committee meetings by Skype,” he recalls, noting that the meetings allowed him to “get a sense of what’s going on, what are the issues, and how do these groups work? That was really valuable.”

Marc Smiley, principal at Solid Ground Consulting—and a speaker at the 2017 ABA Bar Leadership Institute—is a fan of this approach.

“Once I’ve hired you, there are going to be some decisions that you’re going to want to influence even before you take the helm,” he says.

Another benefit of “having that little bit of a commitment to each other,” Smiley adds, is that it helps ease the transition by immediately creating “a culture where it’s OK to talk to each other.”

To help continue the onboarding process once he arrived, the search committee that handled the transition also gave Ryan a list of people he should meet in the greater Rochester area, including political figures, members of the media, and community leaders.

How much documentation should the departing ED leave?

At the Ohio State Bar Association, Mary Amos Augsburger had significant help from her predecessor, Denny Ramey, when she moved from legislative counsel to executive director in July 2013. During a three-week overlap period, Ramey included her in any meetings he had, and he remained available for questions after he left—but he had also worked hard to make it less likely that she’d need to call him.

“He created an excellent transition binder that took me through what to expect in a calendar year,” Augsburger says.

When she became ED of both the Wake County Bar Association and Tenth Judicial District Bar, Whitney D.G. von Haam says, she did not derive much benefit from the one-month overlap period, as she received no formal training and only had about two hours of direct conversation where she could ask questions.

But more time might not have entirely solved the problem, she notes; what caused her the most difficulties were “the things that I hadn’t even known to ask about.”

Von Hamm spent time reading meeting minutes, manuals, and “anything I could get my hands on,” especially regarding procedures for the Tenth District’s judicial elections, which were held three months after von Hamm took over. Von Haam says she lacked much-needed clarity regarding the bar's role in those elections.

“The office was covered with boxes of files,” von Haam recalls. “For the first year and a half, my biggest education was going through those files.”

But not all new EDs take the time to go through carefully prepared documents, Smiley says. Before leaving an ED position he’d held for six years, he recalls, he dictated extensive notes on all the procedures he’d created, relationships he’d developed, and other matters he thought would help his successor. He had all the notes transcribed.

After he left, he periodically got calls from his successor asking how he handled certain matters, and he would refer her to his notes. Eventually, he asked whether she’d ever read them on her own—and she said she had not.

“I think it is important to document fundamental details, such as an emergency succession plan,” Smiley says. “I would let the rest of the programs speak for themselves.”

Smiley and Graham both recommend formalizing the previous executive director’s role of providing answers and information by hiring him or her as a consultant for a certain period after he or she leaves.

The importance of cross-training

Sometimes, extenuating or even tragic circumstances mean that the previous executive director isn’t available to be asked.

That was the case in 2013, when Julia Baldini was hired as assistant executive director for the New Haven County Bar Association. Shortly before Baldini was to start, the longtime ED, Carrie Witt, died. Baldini, who had previously been employed by museums and had no experience with bar associations, worked with an interim ED and eventually became ED.

Witt had done most of the work herself and had not left extensive records of what needed to be done, so Baldini and the interim ED had to learn most things from scratch, including where the association’s checkbook was kept.

The situation was made more difficult for Baldini because, understandably, the other staff members, as well as the volunteer leaders and other members “were grieving the loss of their colleague and friend.”

As of March 2016, Baldini is executive director of the Virgin Islands Bar Association, where she is already making sure to leave thorough documentation for her eventual successor. This applies not just to her own job, but also to the various staff positions, she says. Baldini encountered some initial difficulty at the VIBA because—not an uncommon situation for bar associations—staff worked on their own projects and generally didn’t know how the other positions functioned. Adding urgency, she recalls, was the fact that the mandatory bar's CLE reporting was due.

Expect onboarding to take a full year

Even under ideal circumstances, onboarding for a new ED can take quite a while. Baldini says she’s comfortable in a “sink or swim” situation, and she was able to learn the basics at her first ED job within a few months. But it takes at least one full year, she and the other new executive directors say, to get a complete picture of what the bar does and to feel like not everything is new.

But what if you’re the president during that year? Hiring a new ED can certainly have an impact on the president whose term coincides with the search and/or onboarding process.

However, both Smiley and Graham say that this impact is significantly less when the association is properly focused on long-term strategy rather than an individual president’s agenda.

“The transition is a piece of a larger puzzle,” Graham says. “The entire puzzle is the strategic direction of the organization, the role of the board and the staff in that strategic operation, and a constant and continual review of whether the organization is executing as it should be, and do we have the right person at the top to help us do that?”

HCBA President Paul Floyd says that while these processes have taken up much of his terms as president-elect and now president, ultimately it is for the betterment of the association.

“It’s tough when you give up your year,” he admits. “Now, the officers coming behind me have a good person to grow the organization. Now, we need to look forward.”

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