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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Five Barriers Between You and Your Life’s Next Chapter

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s been impossible to avoid the media stories about the massive wave of baby boomers heading towards retirement. But underlying these stories are some striking facts that signal a major change in leadership in enterprises and institutions throughout the country. The median age for an S&P 500 CEO is 55. Three-fifths of senior federal executives are, or shortly will be, eligible for retirement. And, it’s estimated that two-thirds of our nation’s nonprofit leaders are age 60 or older.

As these leaders head towards the traditional retirement threshold, the situations and opportunities they face are dramatically different than those faced by any previous generation. For a host of reasons, traditional retirement is not the choice of many Boomers, nonprofit leaders included. Here are a few of those reasons:

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Ask Two Courageous Questions Before Launching Your CEO Transition

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:

questions to ask before CEO transition

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Five Common CEO Succession Mistakes

(and How to Avoid Them)

In an earlier post, I proposed that every nonprofit CEO needs an exit strategy because every career and every job ends in a transition, eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how and how well-managed that transition will be when the time comes. I also proposed that departing CEOs face three jobs, two of them new. In addition to leading the organization, part of the CEO’s leave-taking process should involve helping ready their organization for the transition and preparing themselves for life’s next chapter. Building on that article, here are some common CEO succession mistakes that nonprofits frequently make and how you can avoid them.

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Three Phases of the CEO Succession Timeline

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.

Succession Timeline

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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Every Nonprofit CEO Needs an Exit Strategy

Every career ends in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed.

Smart leaders – whether they’re running a business or a nonprofit – know that they’ll leave their role at some point. They know that every job and every career ends in a transition eventually. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed that transition is when the time comes.

The longer an executive has been in place,
the more challenges the successor will likely face.

When CEOs move on – especially if they’re a founder, a long-tenured executive, or a transformational leader – their organization needs to devote appropriate time and resources to managing the transition, ensuring that it’s more than just a search and hiring exercise. 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 the successor will likely face. An exit strategy can help pave the way for a smoother transition.

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Exits From the Top Episode #9 – Helping Your Successor Succeed

Welcome to Episode #9 of Exits From The Top. We willl be talking with Tom Adams of Raffa, PC in Washington, DC about how a departing executive can help pave the way for their successor to thrive in the role. We explore what a departing executive can do before, during and after a leadership transition to help ensure that their successor succeeds.

This is one wisdom-packed interview. Here are just a few highlights:

  • The importance of the departing executive gaining clarity about their departure.
  • The window of opportunity for organizational sustainability planning ahead of the transition.
  • The roles that leadership, strategy, business model, resources and culture play in organizational sustainability.
  • The importance of looking at the organization’s bench strength and how to do it.
  • The fact that leadership succession sometimes requires us to have courageous conversations.
  • The impact of executive sabbaticals.
  • The importance of getting beyond the hero model of leadership.
  • Striking a balance between encouraging leadership around you to step up, but still staying engaged.

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Tom is one of the foremost thought leaders on nonprofit leadership succession and transition. In addition to several decades of direct experience leading CEO transition projects, Tom spearheaded two national research and development projects on nonprofit leadership transitions. First, in the 1990s a project funded by the Kellogg Foundation, and in the early 2000s, a project supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Casey project resulted in a number of research reports and a series of monographs on leadership transitions (links below).

Through these projects Tom has had a central role in training a generation of transition and succession consultants. He is the author of The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations, which was published by Jossey Bass. He has also authored a number of articles published in the Nonprofit Quarterly, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and other publications.

None of us are here forever. How do we make sure that our important mission work is going to be sustained over time?

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Exits From the Top Episode #8 – Organizational Assessment: Getting the Whole Picture

Welcome to Episode #8 of Exits From The Top, a conversation with Sara Brenner, President of Community Wealth Partners. We will be discussing how to use organizational assessment to prepare for and guide the CEO succession.

While organizational assessment certainly is the theme, Sara also shares with us their “Six Key Drivers of Sustainability” model that frames their social impact assessment and strategy development work. Those drivers are:

  1. Social Impact Articulation – defining the impact or change that the organization intends to make in the world.
  2. Social Impact Outcomes – the specific measures that tell you whether or not you’ve made that impact or change.
  3. Focused Business Strategy – a strategy or plan to achieve the intended impact.
  4. Economic Viability – the financial viability of the organization.
  5. Capacity to Deliver – the organization’s capacity to deliver services that achieve the social impact outcomes.
  6. Adaptability – the organizations’s ability to learn and adapt.

In their model, the process is informed by robust engagement with partners and stakeholders. The organization has ongoing engagement with  stakeholders and partners in defining the outcomes, measuring results and retargeting efforts. As Sara points out in the interview, their model is focused on sustaining social impact rather than sustaining organizations per se. Below you’ll find a link to a graphic that outlines their sustainability model.

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Community Wealth Partners is a Washington, DC-based consulting firm that helps leaders reimagine what’s possible, create imaginative new ways to address social problems, and accelerate the pace of change. For more than 15 years Community Wealth Partners has helped diverse, inspiring change agents make lasting progress in their organizations and communities.

I’ve long admired Community Wealth Partners and its parent organization, Share Our Strength, for the fresh thinking and bold action that they bring to key social challenges. What I especially respect is their emphasis on scaling up and meeting social problems on their own level rather than nipping around the edges.

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Exits From the Top Episode #7 – Getting Started with Succession Planning

Welcome to Episode #7 of Exits From The Top. This is a brief how-to episode on the essentials of executive succession planning. Here’s what we will cover:

  • Two simple to implement but powerful tools called “Succession Essentials” that can get you started with succession planning.
  • How Succession Essentials can help you build the transition competency of your board and executive team. (AND, you don’t have to disclose that you’re leaving or even thinking about leaving.)
  • A step-by-step process for putting Succession Essentials in place.

This week’s topic is getting started with executive succession planning and how it links up with your exit strategy. Perhaps you created a New Year’s resolution for yourself to start planning your exit strategy from your current role. What we’re going to cover in this episode will go a long way to helping you fulfill that resolution.

For many executives it can be a challenge to figure out how to start preparing your organization for your eventual transition out of the CEO role. And it’s especially challenging if you aren’t ready to disclose your departure plans to your board of directors or your staff team just yet. In this week’s episode we’re going to talk about two simple succession planning tools that not only will help you get the planning process started, but will help you begin to build the transition competency of your board and your senior management team. AND do it in a way that doesn’t force you to disclose your departure timetable. In fact, you can put these tools in place without even having a specific departure date in mind.

A lot of what we will be talking about today is focused on two planning documents that will be
useful for you to have at hand as you watch or listen to this episode. You can grab copies of
those documents – for free – by clicking on the “Guides & Templates” link farther down on this page.

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Exits From the Top Episode #6 – Tapping the Power of Executive Coaching During a Leadership Transition

Welcome to Episode #6 of Exits From The Top. We will be talking with veteran executive coaches Viveka Chen and Brian Fraser about tapping the power of executive coaching during a leadership transition. Here’s what you’ll learn from these experts:

  • What executive coaching is and isn’t
  • How coaching works and what it costs
  • How coaching can help the departing executive have a better exit and set themselves up to thrive in life’s next chapter
  • How to find and pick the right executive coach
  • How to work effectively with a coach

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Viveka’s consulting practice is focused on organizational development and executive coaching. She also facilitates retreats and organizational change processes as well as executive transitions and leadership development. Prior to starting her consulting practice in 2001, Viveka was Executive Director of the East Bay Conversion & Reinvestment Commission, and Associate Director of Urban Habitat. For twenty years she has worked with low-income communities of color and their allies to realize racial, social and environmental justice. Click to read more about Viveka and her work with Coaching for Justice.

Brian is the “lead provocateur” at JazzThink, a coaching and consulting firm based in North Vancouver, BC. Brian coaches leaders and teams, offers courses on coaching skills and what he calls SMARTer conversations. Prior to launching JazzThink in 2002, Brian taught and administered in postgraduate leadership programs in the theological colleges at the University of British Columbia. An ordained minister, he still ministers part time with Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Burnaby, BC. Click to read more about Brian and Jazz Think.

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