Every executive’s departure has a style. What will be yours?

Will you be a monarch, general, ambassador, governor, or steward?

You have to get my successor in here at least six months before I leave so I can train him! That was how Alice Hendrix[1] responded to my question about how she saw the upcoming CEO transition going.

CEO Departure Styles

I had just been engaged by Alice’s board to help them recruit and hire her successor and to help the board manage the transition process. My initial response to her comment could have been, “no cause for alarm”; Alice was the departing CEO and an upcoming transition always produces some level of anxiety. Plus, many departing executives overestimate the amount of overlap necessary with their successor. But, it was how she said it — staccato while jabbing her index finger into her opposing palm to emphasize every word. Now, THAT was a little disconcerting. My thought was, “Is she a ‘general’ or a ‘monarch’ who’s being eased out by her board?” But what does that mean? “General”? “Monarch”?

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Review – Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2017)

When was the last time you read a book on nonprofit leadership – or a book on leadership of any kind, for that matter – that made you laugh out loud, tugged your heartstrings, and compelled you to keep reading? Maybe never, right? That’s about to change if you pick up a copy of Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership (Because Nonprofits Are Messy).

Joan Garry's Guide to Nonprofit LeadershipYou’ll be treated to over 200 pages of wisdom, wittily written. Here are my chapter-by-chapter takeaways:

  • The Superpowers of Nonprofit Leadership – I loved Joan’s use of the Superman-Spiderman-Gumby-Kermit the Frog analogy to explore the challenges and trade-offs inherent in everyday leadership in the nonprofit world and what’s a good fit in various situations.
  • You Got to Get Me at Hello – Nugget after nugget about how to tell the story of your organization, but amidst all that, the discussion about giving your elevator pitch to a 10-year-old was priceless.
  • Copilots in a Twin Engine Plane – As a longtime advocate for the importance of what I call the board-executive social contract, this chapter had me singing. I loved her “five-star board chair checklist,” “telltale signs of wrong,” ”getting it right from the start,” and “feeding the board.” Brilliant.
  • The Key Is Not in the Answers. It’s in the Questions – Compared to the others, I found this to be one of the more conventional chapters in the book, but nonetheless a solid discussion of strategy development and planning.
  • You Can Do This – An excellent discussion of the fear and loathing about fundraising, and, ultimately, the joys of taking responsibility for this lifeblood area.
  • Managing the Paid and Unpaid (or I Came to Change the World, Not Conduct Evaluations) – A rich exploration of managing people, staff, and volunteers. I especially liked the section on managing in 3-D.
  • When It Hits the Fan – Having sat on two insurance company boards and played a small but early role in the formation of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, I know nonprofits do face significant risks in their operations, and some more than others. Having a contingency plan for crisis management and business continuity can spell the difference between survival and early death, if and when it does hit the fan.
  • Hello, I Must Be Going (or Navigating Leadership Transitions) – As a leadership succession consultant, this is “my” chapter. First, I love that she deals with both board and staff transitions. She does a solid job looking at some of the symptoms and challenges of various types of board leadership, especially when it goes awry. (Hey, anybody can fly the plane when it’s smooth going.) Also, Joan does a great job outlining symptoms, challenges, and antidotes to various scenarios involving CEO transitions. But, she won my heart by talking about how too often transitions are couched in terms of crisis. In fact, I think her final quote in this chapter should be cast in bronze and sent to every nonprofit board and executive in the country: “Build a stable, effective organization with great people and I guarantee you the transition will be stable too.” Amen, sister. Amen!
  • You Are the Champions – Oh no, the last chapter! Let’s see how she closes. There are some nice callbacks to some of the points that she made earlier in the book. But wait, only five pages? There’s some discussion about the intensity of the leadership roles, and she nicely ties it to the analogy of sprinters versus marathoners. But I think there’s a lot more that could have been done in this chapter to address personal resiliency in nonprofit leadership roles. Okay, this is a small gripe – sort of like complaining about the caramelization of my crème brûlée after being treated to a rich banquet of ideas.

(Switching metaphors.) I’m a hiker. And I especially love hiking in the spring. That’s how I felt reading this book. A spring walk in the woods is an immersion in an awakening land. There are fresh breezes. All around you there are items big and small that capture your imagination and inspire you. There’s the promise of growth, and you feel enveloped in possibility. If you are a nonprofit executive or board member, take a trip through this book and see if you don’t feel the same.

The fast track to building a winning relationship with the board

A guide for new CEOs

Laura Mitchell reached for the phone and dialed the number. As she was waiting for the answer, she arranged the papers on her desk with the questions she was about to ask. Laura, a newly hired nonprofit CEO, just 23 days on the job, was completing her final “get-to-know-you” conversations with members of her new board.

Fast track guide header image

Because she knew how critical it is to build relationships with board members early, she arranged a series of lunches, coffees, and phone calls with individual members of the board. She knew this investment of effort early on would pay huge dividends later.

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Leadership Transitions: How to Avoid the Mess

I am delighted to be this week’s guest on Joan Garry’s podcast “Nonprofits are Messy” on the topic “leadership transitions, how to avoid the mess.” Join us for a lively discussion that covers:

Nonprofts Are Messy Episode 29
  • Recent trends in leadership transitions in the nonprofit sector
  • How to create a WRITTEN succession plan (and why it’s critical)
  • The single biggest mistake boards make in succession planning
  • The three things a board needs to do when confronted with a transition
  • Pros and cons of hiring internal candidates
  • What to do if you think you made the wrong hire

Here’s the link: Leadership Transitions: How to Avoid the Mess

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Free CEO Succession Planning Guide

Get a free copy of this guide to crafting your exit strategy. New edition.

I just published a brand-new edition of my free CEO succession planning guide, “Take Charge of Your Exit: The Nonprofit CEOs How-to Guide for Developing an Exit Strategy.”

Take Charge of Your Exit Cover

I wrote it specifically for nonprofit CEOs who know they are going to retire or otherwise leave their position in the next few years (1 to 3 years).

This 20-page guide covers the dynamics of CEO succession, especially if you are a founder, long-tenured or transformational leader. It covers:

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Did you terminate your CEO?

Here are five tasks to do a reset and get your nonprofit back on track

The circumstances surrounding most CEO terminations are usually more complicated than they appear. I’ll leave the termination process to the legal experts. Instead, this article covers how to put the organization back on track after the inevitable trauma of a CEO termination.

When a board fires or forces out its CEO, two human tendencies come into play: heap all the blame on the departed executive and rush to hire a new one.

When a board fires or forces out its CEO, two human tendencies come into play. The first is to heap all the blame on the departed executive—to link the organization’s problems to the perceived deficiencies of the former CEO. This attitude can blind the board to the other very real underlying problems that helped to precipitate the termination, including the board’s potential complicity in creating some of the circumstances that led to the departure.

The second tendency is to rush to hire a new executive. Lulled by the idea that the problems can all be traced back to the “flaws” of the former executive, the board often scrambles to hire their next CEO. Many begin by looking for someone who is something of a mirror opposite of the departed executive. Fresh off the heels of the termination, the board usually starts seeking candidates who have strengths where the departed CEO had weaknesses.

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Developing Leaders, Developing Successors

Interview with Allison Bogdanović Executive Director, Virginia Supportive Housing

There are two pervasive myths – false assumptions – that are holding back the development of leaders in the nonprofit sector.

The first myth is that leader development is too complicated and too expensive, which makes it the exclusive domain of the “big guys.” In other words, it’s for those mythic “other” nonprofits. You know, the ones with unlimited resources, lots of staff and plenty of time to do things… Just, not us.

The second myth is that organizations develop leaders. Behind this myth is the idea that leader development is something that the organization provides or does to its people. Unfortunately, this myth is causing many people to postpone leadership development actions that they could be taking today because they’ve bought into the false belief that it’s up to their organization to provide some sort of program or send them to a course that will magically turn them into a leader.

This case study interview dispels both of those myths. We will be talking with Allison Bogdanovic, who is executive director of Virginia Supportive Housing (virginiasupportivehousing.org) in Richmond, Virginia.

Allison was an internal candidate who was promoted to the CEO position in 2013 after a competitive search process that involved internal and external candidates. Allison shares her experience of developing as an emerging leader, her perspective on the hiring process, and the realities of transitioning from a senior leader into the CEO role. 

Whether you’re a CEO or senior manager who wants to do a better job of developing leaders in your nonprofit, or you are a nonprofit staff member who wants to move up the career ladder, Allison shares wisdom and insights that can help you.

Many thanks to Allison and the folks at Virginia Supportive Housing for sharing their experience with us. To learn more about Virginia Supportive Housing, please visit virginiasupportivehousing.org.

Below is a guide to the topics covered in this case study.

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Managing the Nonprofit CEO Transition: The Board’s 6 Tasks

A nonprofit CEO transition is complicated, with plenty of opportunities to make mistakes along the way. But, the biggest mistake made by many nonprofit boards, by far, is seeing the transition solely as a hiring problem. Often, board members are so eager to identify the new CEO that they fail to recognize that wrapped around their hiring decision is a complicated organizational change process.

nonprofit CEO transition title graphic

Turnover in CEOs involves a bundle of changes that has implications both inside and outside the nonprofit’s walls. Plus, transitions are complex and fraught with risk. These are changes, complexities, and risks that are the board’s responsibility to understand and manage. If the board focuses solely on the search, it’s ignoring these other responsibilities and leaving the organizational change process largely to chance.

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The Five Essential Skills of Successful Consultants to Nonprofits

It seems that, at some point, nearly every nonprofit executive flirts with the idea of either becoming a consultant or going to work for a foundation. In the workshops that I lead for transitioning nonprofit leaders, both of these roles seem to hold some fascination for executives when they contemplate what’s next for their careers.

While I will leave it to others to speak to what it takes to succeed as a foundation executive, in this post, I explore what my colleague Susan Schaefer* and I have learned about success in consulting with nonprofits. Reflecting on our combined 35+ years of experience building our consulting practices plus Susan’s work chronicling the success of America’s leading nonprofit consultants, we’ve identified five critical knowledge areas, skills, and abilities that successful consultants master.

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Six Nonprofit CEO Succession Readiness Questions

In preparing for nonprofit CEO succession, too often timing gets confused with readiness. A prior post (“Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline”) makes a distinction between timing and readiness, pointing out that they are different but related things. For succession purposes, timing has to do with the sequencing of events while readiness has to do with the willingness to change and the preparation to navigate change. If you are a nonprofit CEO planning to retire, succession readiness involves preparing yourself and your organization for the transition process leading up to your departure as well as preparing for what’s on the other side of the departure threshold — for both you and your organization.

Readiness involves the willingness and preparation to navigate change.

That earlier post also pointed out that, in planning for CEO succession, more time gives you more options. Beginning the groundwork several years ahead of your departure date, if possible, dramatically increases the possible range and depth of the preparations.

More time = more options

These two states of readiness — organizational and executive — are interrelated, as illustrated in the Readiness Grid (Figure 1 below). The ideal scenario is a high state of readiness on the part of both prime actors in CEO succession — the organization and the executive.

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