What to Do When Your Executive Director Decides to Leave

Pensive executive

Nearly every nonprofit faces the challenge of hiring a new chief executive at some point. And every board seems to remember the terse line in their bylaws when it comes to managing the transition. The one that reads, “The board is responsible for hiring and supervising the chief executive.” Unfortunately, that directive doesn’t come close to addressing the board’s responsibility for managing executive turnover.

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Every Executive’s Departure Has a Style. What Will Be Yours?

Updated June 4, 2022

Get my replacement here at least six months before I leave so I can train him. That was how Alice⁠[*] responded to my question about how she saw the upcoming CEO transition going.

Alice’s organization had just hired me to find her successor and advise them on the transition between Alice and the new CEO. My response to her statement could have been, “no cause for alarm.” Alice was retiring as the CEO, and transitions and retirement always create an element of anxiety. Also, departing execs often overestimate how much overlap their successors will need.

But, the way she said it — staccato, jabbing her index finger into her palm to emphasize each word — THAT was more than a little concerning. I thought, “Oh boy, I may be dealing with a “general” here.

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What to Do AFTER You Fire Your Executive Director

The circumstances surrounding executive director terminations are usually more complicated than they appear. There’s a lot to sort out ahead of a termination. For more on that, see the companion article, What to Do Before Your Fire Your Executive Director. Instead, in this article, we’ll focus on 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, human tendencies kick in, resulting in two common mistakes.

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What to Do BEFORE You Fire Your Executive Director

Unfortunately, there are times when a nonprofit board is forced to initiate the parting of ways with its executive director.

In some situations, the cause is clear and urgent, such as illegal acts or other gross misconduct. In other instances, such as those involving performance issues, there may have been a gradual buildup of the reasons and rationale. Whatever the cause, here’s what the board should do before the termination. (Click here for advice on what to do after you’ve fired your executive.)

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What to Do When You’re Ready to Leave the Executive Director Role

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.

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Planning the Executive Handoff

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.

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Seven Types of Executive Director Transitions and How to Manage Them

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.

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The Three Phases of the Nonprofit Executive Succession Timeline

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: sustainingtransitioning, 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.

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Two Courageous Questions to Ask Before Launching Your Executive Director Transition

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.

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Review – Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership

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:

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