What New Executive Directors Have in Common with a TV Host

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Last week, I wrote a bit to encourage new executive directors, especially those following a founder. On Sunday, I read the piece in Sunday’s print Washington Post Arts & Style section on current host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah (similar but different story by same writer, WaPost online). What jumped out were the observations and quotes that sounded like reflections on so many nonprofit organization transitions. The young comedian and new executive directors seem to have a lot in common.

Nothing like the original. Last year, after a 16-year reign, Jon Stewart was replaced by a young comedian who is nothing like him: foreign, biracial, cool, GQ photogenic and utterly unknown to Americans. It’s not uncommon for boards to hire someone from the outside, sometimes from another industry, with a personal identity, approach, skills, and or networks opposite to the founder. Usually one of the differences is age, outgoing founders typically being older and incoming executives being younger. People are attracted to change and boards often act on the positive impulse to seek innovation. They want someone different to bring fresh thinking and different experience. And that’s progress. However, too often, they stop short of preparing stakeholders for change or reinforcing the new executive’s different approach.

Unfair challenges. Noah was given six weeks to create his own version of the program, all during a presidential campaign that became so absurd and unprecedented as to seem the work of deranged comedy writers. Everyone seems to want a fresh vision and smart strategy right away, and sometimes the context is crazymaking or unfamiliar and sometimes fraught. And inevitably, a new executive will run into one or more big problems left behind, thanks to the founder’s particular blindspots. At the time, the move seemed unfair, not only to the show’s devout audience but also to Stewart’s replacement. Calling out those familiar situations as problems, as a necessary step in fixing them, risks alienating the staff and maybe the top brass (in our case, staff and board), as well as the audience (in our case, donors and constituents).

Fearless. And naïve. “I had no fears, because I was extremely ignorant,” the 32-year old says. “Only an idiot would take the job after Jon Stewart, and I was that idiot.” Following a founder who has been successful and adored is a tough act. The positives, negatives, and interestings of founders are well-documented elsewhere (look up Founders Syndrome). Even when successors come into an organization that has lost its original lustre or is stuck in a rut, the job will take courage and an attitude of openness.

Joining what exists. Most of the writers and producers —as well as the work culture— from Stewart’s tenure on “The Daily Show” were retained, but Noah asked [Ugandan comedian Joseph] Opio and comedian David Kibuuka to join the writing staff. Says Opio, “We share an outsider’s voice.” New executive directors join an existing staff and jump into an existing organizational culture. They may soon hire a few familiar professionals who share elements of their identity, approaches, or values, but the new hires must figure out how to fit in. And how to break out.

Go slowly to run quickly. Noah learned quickly that to work with a successful program and a large production team, “you really have to go for evolution rather than revolution. Because anything you do initially is seen as incorrect.” The opposite case might be made in business, and perhaps also in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors — to come in and disrupt everything immediately. But where mission is the primary shared motivator, radical change is uncomfortable and risky. Too much or too fast change, without building trust and relationships, meets resistance.

Tempered ambition and authority. Making the show his own requires patience, though he didn’t understand this when he first arrived. “When I started, I had lofty ideas of what I was going to do, and I thought I would do it within 100 days, and I would change everything.” What new executive directors discover in real time is that organizations are shaped by unique structures, narratives, relationships, and roles. They learn that their leadership has to serve multiple stakeholders. In Noah’s case, it looks he and his team feel like the show works essentially as it is and that he can bring in fresh perspective, offering a dynamic and increasingly international perspective over time. I trust his strategy, but then I’m not a tv critic, but more of a nonprofit and philanthropy critic.

Sometimes new executives join organizations delivering strong programs and from positions of relative health. Other times, they join organizations that need to shift messages or culture or to improve and expand relationships. And sometimes, the organizations are in crisis. New leaders of organizations in transition need to determine focus and aim early on, asking themselves whether their organization may improve incrementally or must change radically to meet current and future needs. That focus and aim sets the direction and pace for renewal, renovation, or a revolution.