Executive director succession — the process of managing the turnover in a nonprofit’s chief executive position — involves a range of decisions, actions, and events spread over a year or more. The process begins with the incumbent executive’s decision to leave (or the board’s decision to make a leadership change). And it doesn’t conclude until the successor has settled into the role.
Thoughtful, well-planned executive succession involves three phases: sustaining, transitioning, and onboarding & support, as outlined in Figure 1 below. The timing of these phases can vary depending on the executive’s departure circumstances, the organization’s condition, whether there’s a successor waiting in the wings, and other factors.
While every nonprofit and its executive director transition are unique, these leadership transitions tend to follow seven broad patterns. And each of these types needs its own set of actions to manage the transition well.
We’ll get into the types in a moment, but first, let’s look at some of the overall factors that most influence the transition and, therefore, the approach to managing it.
There are executive-related factors such as their departure circumstances, how long the executive has been in the role, their impact on the organization, and whether the executive is a founder or a founder-like leader who has reshaped the organization.
And there are organizational factors, such as size, maturity, operating condition, culture, and outlook. Together these factors shape the succession situation.
Across all of these transition types, the board must avoid the temptation to see the succession process as merely a hiring challenge. As I’ve pointed out in another article, executive succession and transition involve organizational changes that reach far beyond deciding who sits in the CEO’s office.
Before forging ahead with a CEO transition and hiring a successor, there are two courageous questions that the board should ask about their nonprofit: should our organization continue? And a related question: should it continue in its current form?
These questions are seldom asked because we’re usually operating in business-as-usual mode. Our work is a continuum of opportunities and challenges. And leadership succession is just another problem to solve. Thus, we don’t recognize succession for what it is — a critical punctuation point for the organization.
In a business-as-usual mode, we see the CEO opening as another vacancy to fill. In this mode, we rarely step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? Or should we take this moment to rethink what we’re doing? Is there a better way to achieve our mission work?
Let’s take a closer look at those courageous questions.
The term “succession plan” can mean different things to different people. Some think it’s an “insurance policy” — a plan to ensure continuity when a leader is unexpectedly unavailable. Others, especially corporate board members, think it’s about leadership development — a plan to groom a single leader or a program to create a pipeline of leaders. Still others believe it’s an exit strategy for a soon-to-retire executive. All three of these interpretations are correct.
There are three types of succession plans that do all of these things plus a lot more. This article outlines those three succession planning approaches, when to use them, and what they can do for your organization.
Smart leaders – whether they’re running a business or a nonprofit – know that they’ll leave their job, even their career, at some point. They understand that every job and every career will end in a transition, eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed when that transition finally occurs.
When a CEO moves on – especially if they’re a founder, a long-tenured executive, or a transformational leader – their organization needs to devote time and resources to managing the transition. 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 their successor is likely to face. Regardless of the circumstances, an exit strategy can help pave the way for a smoother transition.
An exit strategy is a mindset and a set of plans to prepare yourself and your organization for your transition out of your role. Instead of one massive plan, an exit strategy usually involves several plans covering at least these three areas: prepare your organization, prepare yourself, and manage the communications.
Here are 10 actions you can take to shape your exit strategy.
CEO succession — planning for and managing the change from one chief executive to the next — is one of the board’s most important responsibilities but possibly their least understood job. This isn’t surprising. Executive transitions happen infrequently, and managing them requires skills that fall far outside routine governance roles. Plus, succession projects are complicated and time-consuming. On top of that, succession planning is still a touchy topic in far too many organizations.
This article outlines some of the frequent mistakes of CEO successions, what drives those mistakes, and how good preparation helps you avoid them.
MISTAKE #1: Living in denial about leadership succession
Executive turnover is inevitable, but many organizations live in a state of denial about it. Executives and boards avoid the topic for a variety of reasons. But in sidestepping the topic, they miss prime opportunities to do some advance preparation.
There’s no steering around the inevitable. The reality is that every job or career ends in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well-managed the process is when that transition occurs. And good management starts with good planning.
Nonprofits need to get serious about employee retention. That’s the takeaway message from an important recent study by Nonprofit HR.
The 2019 Talent Retention Practices Survey chronicles staff retention strategies and practices in over 350 organizations from across the US (and some from Canada). Respondents were evenly distributed across the spectrum from small employers (fewer than 10 employees) to large (more than 500 employees), and across budget sizes, from less than $1 million to more than $40 million.
The report is one of the first (if not the first) to identify and quantify the challenges around employee retention in nonprofits.
What’s the problem, and why should you care?
A lot of nonprofits have an “extraction mentality” when it comes to staffing their organization.
It’s unavoidable. Your nonprofit’s executive leader will leave sooner or later, maybe even sooner than you think. And yet, if your nonprofit is like most, a succession plan has not been discussed.
Too often considered an awkward or uncomfortable conversation, many choose to avoid the issue or wait until it happens. While this choice is very likely to have a negative impact on the organization, preparing for succession opens up a whole range of dialogues that lead to a stronger, better prepared organization.
This article addresses how to prepare for a smooth transition regardless of how or when your executive leaves.
If your nonprofit is like most, there’s an 80% chance your organization does not have a succession plan in place for the chief executive position, even though there’s a 100% chance that he or she will leave the role eventually.
Steer clear of two risky mindsets
There seem to be two mindsets behind this lack of attention to leadership succession: the denial mindset and the replacement mindset.