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.

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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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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Ask Two Courageous Questions Before Launching Your CEO Transition

Before proceeding with a CEO transition, there are two critical questions that you and your board should ask about your organization. These questions are almost never raised because our default mode is focused on maintaining business as usual. In business-as-usual mode, we approach leadership succession as just another problem to solve. In this mode, we see the CEO job opening as simply another vacancy to fill. We don’t recognize that this transition is an important punctuation point for the organization, a moment when we should take a step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? Should we rethink what we’re doing here? Is there a better path forward? Is there a better way to achieve our mission work?
So here are two courageous questions you and your board should ask and answer at this pivotal moment:

questions to ask before CEO transition

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Five Common CEO Succession Mistakes

(and How to Avoid Them)

In an earlier post, I proposed that every nonprofit CEO needs an exit strategy because every career and every job ends in a transition, eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how and how well-managed that transition will be when the time comes. I also proposed that departing CEOs face three jobs, two of them new. In addition to leading the organization, part of the CEO’s leave-taking process should involve helping ready their organization for the transition and preparing themselves for life’s next chapter. Building on that article, here are some common CEO succession mistakes that nonprofits frequently make and how you can avoid them.

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Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline

Executive successions vary widely in their circumstances, but they share a common driver of success: readiness. This includes the executive’s readiness and that of the organization.

Succession Timeline

Timing and readiness are different but related things. Timing has to do with the sequencing of events, processes, or changes. Readiness is about the willingness to make the changes and the level of preparation necessary to successfully navigate the change process. For leadership succession, readiness first involves the willingness of the executive to initiate the succession process – to recognize that it’s time to move on and to take charge of his/her own exit. Readiness also involves how prepared the organization and the executive are to move through the succession. Finally, in the case of a retiring executive, readiness involves his/her willingness to let go and step into the next chapter of life – to move on and not have one foot in and one foot out of the organization. What drives readiness is preparation.

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Every Nonprofit CEO Needs an Exit Strategy

Every career ends in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed.

Smart leaders – whether they’re running a business or a nonprofit – know that they’ll leave their role at some point. They know that every job and every career ends in a transition eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed that transition is when the time comes.

The longer an executive has been in place,
the more challenges the successor will likely face.

When CEOs move on – especially if they’re a founder, a long-tenured executive, or a transformational leader – their organization needs to devote appropriate time and resources to managing the transition, ensuring that it’s more than just a search and hiring exercise. The longer an executive has been in place, or the more significant their impact on the organization, the harder they are to succeed and the more challenges the successor will likely face. An exit strategy can help pave the way for a smoother transition.

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Exits From the Top Episode #9 – Helping Your Successor Succeed

Welcome to Episode #9 of Exits From The Top. We willl be talking with Tom Adams of Raffa, PC in Washington, DC about how a departing executive can help pave the way for their successor to thrive in the role. We explore what a departing executive can do before, during and after a leadership transition to help ensure that their successor succeeds.

This is one wisdom-packed interview. Here are just a few highlights:

  • The importance of the departing executive gaining clarity about their departure.
  • The window of opportunity for organizational sustainability planning ahead of the transition.
  • The roles that leadership, strategy, business model, resources and culture play in organizational sustainability.
  • The importance of looking at the organization’s bench strength and how to do it.
  • The fact that leadership succession sometimes requires us to have courageous conversations.
  • The impact of executive sabbaticals.
  • The importance of getting beyond the hero model of leadership.
  • Striking a balance between encouraging leadership around you to step up, but still staying engaged.

Watch the Video

Tom is one of the foremost thought leaders on nonprofit leadership succession and transition. In addition to several decades of direct experience leading CEO transition projects, Tom spearheaded two national research and development projects on nonprofit leadership transitions. First, in the 1990s a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation, and in the early 2000s, a project supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Casey project resulted in a number of research reports and a series of monographs on leadership transitions (links below).

Through these projects Tom has had a central role in training a generation of transition and succession consultants. He is the author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations, which was published by Jossey Bass. He has also authored a number of articles published in the Nonprofit Quarterly, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and other publications.

None of us are here forever. How do we make sure that our important mission work is going to be sustained over time?

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