Your decision to leave the executive director role sets major changes in motion — big changes for yourself and your organization. It’s critical that you plan for executive succession.
Unwinding from the role and preparing the organization for the transition involves more than packing up your office.
Similarly, the search for your successor takes more than dusting off the job description, running a few ads, and hoping for the best. A chief executive transition involves more than a hiring decision; it’s a major organizational change.
The circumstances surrounding most executive director 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 termination.
When a board fires or forces out its executive director, 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 executive director, 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 executive. 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 chief executive. 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 executive had weaknesses.
The final stage in the nonprofit executive succession process for the departing executive director is handing off the role to their successor. The handoff consists of at least one meeting, if not a series of meetings, between the exiting and incoming executives.
Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the departing executive has three succession jobs: to lead the organization and prepare themselves for life’s next chapter, of course, and to ensure that the organization is ready to work effectively with the successor. And a key part of that organizational prep work is ensuring that there’s a well-planned handoff.
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.
Work can be viewed as a job (a source of money and security), a career (a source of achievement and advancement), or a calling (a source of meaning and purpose).
Since the days of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation, the notion of a “calling” has been associated with religion. But researchers have found strong parallels between secular and sacred callings. They say that regardless of whether the source is religious or secular, a calling has three characteristics:[i]
No succession plan? With this free step-by-step guide, you can get “succession essentials” in place for your executive director position. And you can do it painlessly and with less than an hour’s work in many cases. The guide includes:
Simple, step-by-step instructions to develop “the essentials,” a board-adopted succession policy and a backup plan for your nonprofit’s chief executive position.
Fill-in-the-blank templates for both documents. Just add your organization’s information. We’ve done most of the work for you!
A companion video that walks you through the entire process.
What Succession Essentials will do for you
The succession policy will make sure that your board has a game plan for when your current executive director eventually decides to leave the position. (Two-thirds of nonprofit executive directors think their board doesn’t know enough to choose the right successor.) Your board will be smarter about the executive director’s job. Plus, they’ll have a plan — they won’t have to fumble around.
The backup plan ensures leadership continuity by making sure there’s a cross-trained person to step in as acting executive director on a temporary basis if needed.
The process can strengthen your team and organization. Creating these two “good management” tools can break the ice on succession planning, which is still a touchy subject in far too many nonprofits. They can also help build organizational sustainability and capacity by opening a dialogue about the need to strengthen management bench depth, streamline the responsibilities of an overburdened executive director, and more.
The guide, the video, and the fill-in-the-blank templates are all completely free.
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.
A well-planned executive succession involves three phases: sustaining, transitioning, and onboarding & support, as outlined in the graphic below. The timing of these phases can vary depending on the executive’s departure circumstances, the organization’s size and condition, whether a successor is waiting in the wings, and other factors.
Before forging ahead with an executive director 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 in the organization’s history.
In a business-as-usual mode, we see the executive director opening as another vacancy to fill. In this mode, we rarely step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? 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 planning” can mean different things to different people. Some think it results in an “insurance policy” that ensures 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 these things plus a lot more. This article outlines those three approaches, when to use them, and what they can do for your organization.