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 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!
Nearly every board faces the challenge of hiring a new chief executive at some point. And when it comes to managing the CEO 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 CEO turnover.
CEO transitions are complicated, but managing them well is easier than you think. This post outlines the board’s six tasks for managing the transition the right way. But before we talk about what to do, let’s cover what not to do.
The first common mistake is seeing the transition only as a hiring problem. In reality, hiring the new chief executive is a part of a much larger transition process. It’s a process that involves more changes than who occupies the chief executive position. Ignoring this larger process means you’re ignoring a lot of the related changes and risks — leaving them to chance rather than being intentionally managed.
The second common mistake is rushing through the process. When boards discover that their executive is planning to leave, many rush to fill the position as soon as possible.
The pressure to jump in the search mode is understandable. Hiring a new chief executive is among the board’s biggest responsibilities. And, it’s foreign territory for nearly every board. Faced with complexity and the threat of the unfamiliar, the board is experiencing a form of pain. And we all want the pain to go away as quickly as possible.
But rushing leads to cutting corners and skipping over aspects of the transition that can yield big dividends. A CEO transition is an opportunity to level up an organization’s game plan and capabilities, not just manage the potential downsides.
Now, let’s take a look at those six tasks. This figure outlines how these tasks fall along the three phases of the CEO Succession Timeline, discussed in a previous post.
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Every nonprofit board will face the challenge of hiring a new chief executive at some point. CEO transitions are complicated, but managing them well is easier than you think. In fact, properly handled, the process can be an opportunity to enhance your organization and increase its mission impact.
Organized into six can-do tasks, Chief Executive Transitions guides boards through the entire transition process — from planning for leadership change through the post-hire onboarding of their new CEO.
It includes a toolkit with timelines, checklists, templates, worksheets, sample documents, and more.
The first edition of this book won The Terry McAdam Book Award and was adopted by national organizations, such as the YMCA of the USA, as the CEO transition guide for their members.
The final stage in the succession process for the departing executive is handing off the role to their successor. This consists of at least a meeting, if not a series of meetings, between the exiting and incoming executives.
I’ve proposed elsewhere that unless they are being fired or there are other extenuating circumstances, the departing executive has three jobs during the succession process as a leader in transition. In addition to leading the organization and preparing themselves for life’s next chapter, they have a responsibility to ensure that the organization is ready to work effectively with their successor. And a key part of that preparation is
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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”?
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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:
- The Superpowers of Nonprofit Leadership – I loved Joan’s use of the Superman-Spiderman-Gumby-Kermit the Frog analogy to explore the challenges and trade-offs inherent in everyday leadership in the nonprofit world and what’s a good fit in various situations.
- You Got to Get Me at Hello – Nugget after nugget about how to tell the story of your organization, but amidst all that, the discussion about giving your elevator pitch to a 10-year-old was priceless.
- Copilots in a Twin Engine Plane – As a longtime advocate for the importance of what I call the board-executive social contract, this chapter had me singing. I loved her “five-star board chair checklist,” “telltale signs of wrong,” ”getting it right from the start,” and “feeding the board.” Brilliant.
- The Key Is Not in the Answers. It’s in the Questions – Compared to the others, I found this to be one of the more conventional chapters in the book, but nonetheless a solid discussion of strategy development and planning.
- You Can Do This – An excellent discussion of the fear and loathing about fundraising, and, ultimately, the joys of taking responsibility for this lifeblood area.
- Managing the Paid and Unpaid (or I Came to Change the World, Not Conduct Evaluations) – A rich exploration of managing people, staff, and volunteers. I especially liked the section on managing in 3-D.
- When It Hits the Fan – Having sat on two insurance company boards and played a small but early role in the formation of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, I know nonprofits do face significant risks in their operations, and some more than others. Having a contingency plan for crisis management and business continuity can spell the difference between survival and early death, if and when it does hit the fan.
- Hello, I Must Be Going (or Navigating Leadership Transitions) – As a leadership succession consultant, this is “my” chapter. First, I love that she deals with both board and staff transitions. She does a solid job looking at some of the symptoms and challenges of various types of board leadership, especially when it goes awry. (Hey, anybody can fly the plane when it’s smooth going.) Also, Joan does a great job outlining symptoms, challenges, and antidotes to various scenarios involving CEO transitions. But, she won my heart by talking about how too often transitions are couched in terms of crisis. In fact, I think her final quote in this chapter should be cast in bronze and sent to every nonprofit board and executive in the country: “Build a stable, effective organization with great people and I guarantee you the transition will be stable too.” Amen, sister. Amen!
- You Are the Champions – Oh no, the last chapter! Let’s see how she closes. There are some nice callbacks to some of the points that she made earlier in the book. But wait, only five pages? There’s some discussion about the intensity of the leadership roles, and she nicely ties it to the analogy of sprinters versus marathoners. But I think there’s a lot more that could have been done in this chapter to address personal resiliency in nonprofit leadership roles. Okay, this is a small gripe – sort of like complaining about the caramelization of my crème brûlée after being treated to a rich banquet of ideas.
(Switching metaphors.) I’m a hiker. And I especially love hiking in the spring. That’s how I felt reading this book. A spring walk in the woods is an immersion in an awakening land. There are fresh breezes. All around you there are items big and small that capture your imagination and inspire you. There’s the promise of growth, and you feel enveloped in possibility. If you are a nonprofit executive or board member, take a trip through this book and see if you don’t feel the same. Available from Amazon.
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:
- 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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Before proceeding with a CEO transition, there are two critical questions that you and your board should ask about your organization. These questions are almost never raised because our default mode is focused on maintaining business as usual. In business-as-usual mode, we approach leadership succession as just another problem to solve. In this mode, we see the CEO job opening as simply another vacancy to fill. We don’t recognize that this transition is an important punctuation point for the organization, a moment when we should take a step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? Should we rethink what we’re doing here? Is there a better path forward? Is there a better way to achieve our mission work?
So here are two courageous questions you and your board should ask and answer at this pivotal moment:
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Executive successions vary widely in their circumstances, but they share a common driver of success: readiness. This includes the executive’s readiness and that of the organization.
Timing and readiness are different but related things. Timing has to do with the sequencing of events, processes, or changes. Readiness is about the willingness to make the changes and the level of preparation necessary to successfully navigate the change process. For leadership succession, readiness first involves the willingness of the executive to initiate the succession process – to recognize that it’s time to move on and to take charge of his/her own exit. Readiness also involves how prepared the organization and the executive are to move through the succession. Finally, in the case of a retiring executive, readiness involves his/her willingness to let go and step into the next chapter of life – to move on and not have one foot in and one foot out of the organization. What drives readiness is preparation.
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