Every Nonprofit CEO Needs an Exit Strategy

10 actions to take as you prepare to leave your role

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.

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The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Chapter (2019)

The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Chapter is now available on Amazon!

This is the first book ever to…

  • Look at CEO succession through the executive’s eyes.
  • Focus on flourishing in life’s next chapter – for the executive and the organization.
  • Clarify the departing executive’s role in leadership succession and define the three jobs of a leader-in-transition.
  • Help executives manage the personal and professional – and the emotional – challenges of the transition into post-career life.

It’s based on practical experience gleaned from nearly three decades of helping hundreds of nonprofit leaders prepare for and manage turnover in their chief executive position, plus a ton of fresh information based on extensive research from fields ranging from the neuroscience of change to successful aging.

For a limited time, Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read the book for free!

Click here to read more about the book.

Click here to go read it for free on Amazon!

The Six Biggest CEO Succession Mistakes

And How to Avoid Them

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.


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What You’re Not Doing About Employee Retention May Be Costing You

These low-cost, no-cost strategies can boost retention in today's tight employment market

Nonprofits need to get serious about employee retention. That’s the takeaway message from an important new study by Nonprofit HR.

man walking away with briefcase

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.

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The time to start planning for leadership succession… is NOW!

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.

Time Is Now

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.

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

Will you be a monarch, general, ambassador, governor, or steward?

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[1] responded to my question about how she saw the upcoming CEO transition going.

CEO Departure Styles

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”?

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Leadership Transitions: How to Avoid the Mess

I am delighted to be this week’s guest on Joan Garry’s podcast “Nonprofits are Messy” on the topic “leadership transitions, how to avoid the mess.” Join us for a lively discussion that covers:

Nonprofts Are Messy Episode 29
  • Recent trends in leadership transitions in the nonprofit sector
  • How to create a WRITTEN succession plan (and why it’s critical)
  • The single biggest mistake boards make in succession planning
  • The three things a board needs to do when confronted with a transition
  • Pros and cons of hiring internal candidates
  • What to do if you think you made the wrong hire

Here’s the link: Leadership Transitions: How to Avoid the Mess

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Did You Terminate Your CEO?

Here are five tasks to do a reset and get your nonprofit back on track

The circumstances surrounding most CEO 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 CEO termination.

When a board fires or forces out its CEO, 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 CEO, 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 CEO. 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 CEO. 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 CEO had weaknesses.

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Developing Leaders, Developing Successors

Interview with Allison Bogdanović Executive Director, Virginia Supportive Housing

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 promoted to the 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.

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Six Nonprofit CEO Succession Readiness Questions

In preparing for nonprofit CEO succession, too often timing gets confused with readiness. A prior post (“Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline”) makes a distinction between timing and readiness, pointing out that they are different but related things. For succession purposes, timing has to do with the sequencing of events while readiness has to do with the willingness to change and the preparation to navigate change. If you are a nonprofit CEO planning to retire, succession readiness involves preparing yourself and your organization for the transition process leading up to your departure as well as preparing for what’s on the other side of the departure threshold — for both you and your organization.

Readiness involves the willingness and preparation to navigate change.

That earlier post also pointed out that, in planning for CEO succession, more time gives you more options. Beginning the groundwork several years ahead of your departure date, if possible, dramatically increases the possible range and depth of the preparations.

More time = more options

These two states of readiness — organizational and executive — are interrelated, as illustrated in the Readiness Grid (Figure 1 below). The ideal scenario is a high state of readiness on the part of both prime actors in CEO succession — the organization and the executive.

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