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.
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.
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: