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.
Thoughtful, well-planned executive succession involves three phases: sustaining, transitioning, and onboarding & support, as outlined in Figure 1 below. The timing of these phases can vary depending on the executive’s departure circumstances, the organization’s condition, whether there’s a successor waiting in the wings, and other factors.
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.
Before forging ahead with a CEO 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 for the organization.
In a business-as-usual mode, we see the CEO opening as another vacancy to fill. In this mode, we rarely step back and ask, should we fill this vacancy? Or 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.
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.
An exit strategy is a mindset and a set of plans to prepare yourself and your organization for your transition out of your role. Instead of one massive plan, an exit strategy usually involves several plans covering at least these three areas: prepare your organization, prepare yourself, and manage the communications.
Here are 10 actions you can take to shape your exit strategy.
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 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
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: