Executive director succession — planning for and managing the change from one chief executive to the next — is one the nonprofit board’s most important responsibilities and 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 executive director succession mistakes, 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 issue, 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 eventually 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.
Nearly every nonprofit board faces the challenge of hiring a new chief executive at some point. And when it comes to managing the executive director transition, every board seems to remember that terse line in the bylaws. You know — the one that reads, “the board is responsible for hiring and supervising the chief executive.” Unfortunately, that directive is terribly short advice. It doesn’t come close to addressing the board’s full responsibility for managing executive director succession.
An executive director transition can be complicated, but managing it well is easier than you think. This post outlines the board’s six tasks for managing the transition well. But before we talk about what to do, let’s cover what not to do.
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 responded to my question about how she saw the upcoming CEO transition going.
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”?
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).
You’ll be treated to over 200 pages of wisdom, wittily written. Here are my chapter-by-chapter takeaways:
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.
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.
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 promotedtothe 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.