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.

The handoff process may appear mostly informational, but it’s also psychologically important and symbolically rich.

On an informational level, it’s an important part of the new executive director’s onboarding process. It’s a crucial step in conveying vital information and perspective about the organization.

Psychologically, it can be a meaningful part of the “completion” process for the departing executive. Preparing and carrying out the handoff plan can be an important step in closing this chapter of their career.

For the new executive, the handoff is a significant early milestone in their taking-charge process.

Symbolically, it’s a signal to everyone around that the role and authority have been transferred. It can also be an important step in shifting the departing executive’s key business relationships to the successor.

Your handoff needs a plan

A handoff plan is a brief roadmap designed to guide the handover process. It can be as simple as one or two pages of bullet points — talking points for the executive-to-executive discussions that are at the heart of the handoff. The plan may be accompanied by a folio of supporting documents and reading materials.

The handoff plan ensures that everyone central to the transition is literally on the same page about how the handoff is going to be handled.

A vital step in onboarding your successor

The handoff is part of a larger process of onboarding the new executive. The onboarding process is a journey of learning, relationship building, and acculturation.

Thus, the overall onboarding process should include:

  1. Formal and informal announcements of the new executive’s appointment;
  2. Events and other actions to introduce the new leader to the organization and its stakeholder communities;
  3. Briefings to help the new executive understand the organization, its people, culture, situation, and so forth;
  4. Actions to build familiarity and working relationships with the organization’s people.

The contents of the onboarding and handoff plans may vary depending on what the new executive is bringing to the position. For example, an executive promoted from within will have a different set of needs than someone coming from another nonprofit.

Regardless of the executives’ status, well-planned handoffs are important. Whether it’s a handoff between two “permanent” executives, or between the departing executive and an acting/interim, or between an acting/interim and the new executive, it’s a critical step for ensuring business and leadership continuity.

Many boards overlook the onboarding and handoff in their executive hiring process. They mistakenly assume that the succession process is over when the board makes the hiring decision. But for the incoming executive, it’s just the beginning. A well-executed onboarding and handoff process can help the new executive director rapidly get up to speed. It can reduce the learning curve that everyone faces when moving into a new position.

Some overlap is involved

Handoffs almost always involve some overlap of the departing and incoming executives. That might be a few hours or a few days — or even a few weeks. It depends on the complexity of the organization.

For example, in the case of an international organization with facilities spread across the globe, the executive overlap was nearly a month. During that time, the departing executive continued to manage the organization. The incoming CEO was on a global listening tour to meet the organization’s divisional leaders and get familiar with the scope of the operations.

In the case of a much smaller, local organization, the overlap consisted of a 90-minute meeting between the executives. This was followed by some “coffee meetings” with key donors conducted over the weeks that followed.

What the handoff plan should cover

Here are some categories of information and actions that should be scoped out in the handoff plan:

  • History, situation, and outlook. This is an area where the senior staff can help with the briefings.
  • A calendar walk-through. Highlight the internal and external events on the horizon, both those that require the executive’s time and those that they just need to be aware of.
  • Office routines and systems. Also, signature cards, keys, passwords, etc.
  • Introduction to key stakeholders. Discuss the landscape of stakeholders inside and outside the organization. Consider holding joint meetings with the top-tier stakeholders to hand off those relationships.

If the overlap time is going to be extensive

Sometimes in large, complex organizations, a longer overlap is required. If the overlap is going to span more than a few days, there are some additional things that the handoff plan should include, such as:

  • Titles. The titles that both the departing executive and the successor will have during the overlap, and the date of transfer of the CEO title.
  • Offices. The offices both executives will occupy during the overlap.
  • Who’s in charge during the overlap? Who will facilitate senior management and staff meetings during the overlap, where to direct questions, and so forth.

This isn’t nitpicking; it’s important for ensuring clarity about who’s in charge during the handoff.

Staff’s role in the handoff process

While we have focused on the executive-to-executive briefings, that doesn’t mean that staff shouldn’t have a role. They should play key roles in preparing and implementing the plan. Accordingly, the departing executive should encourage the senior managers to have some level of briefings ready to share.

Also, the plan should take into account that the incoming executive will want to have one-on-one meetings with their direct reports. Those one-on-ones should be factored into the onboarding process.

How to prepare the handoff plan

In most cases, the handoff plan is outlined by the departing executive. During the last few months or weeks, the departing executive may find it useful to keep a simple handoff journal to jot down notes, as well as a set of folders on their physical or virtual desktop to capture copies of documents.

Planning the handoff can begin any time after the current executive’s departure decision has been made. But, the plan will need adjustments after the successor has been identified. As noted earlier, some aspects of the plan will depend on who the successor is and what they’re bringing to the job.

How to implement the plan

In most cases, the handoff plan is implemented after the new executive’s official start date. It’s usually part of the “Day One” business. But, in some cases, the briefings could begin before the new executive’s actual start date.

There are no hard and fast rules about this. It depends on the organization’s circumstances and the availability and preferences of the incoming executive.

As soon as possible after the appointment, the departing executive should share a draft of the handoff plan with the successor. Ask what the new executive would like to see added or augmented. Consider providing a draft of the plan to members of the senior management team. They’ll undoubtedly have recommendations for items that should be on the successor’s radar screen.

A final word about handoffs

Well-planned handoff discussions between the departing and incoming executives are an important part of the onboarding. The process serves an important function on informational, psychological, and symbolic levels. But, most of all, it can help the new executive rapidly get up to speed.

In that regard, the handoff plan should be implemented with great deference to the incoming executive. The organization and the role are their responsibility now.

Is it time to start planning your handoff? Download a copy of our free handoff planning checklist. Better yet, get a copy of The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter. It includes a set of six checklists that cover all aspects of onboarding the new executive, including what the board should do. Available from Amazon.

Have a question or want to learn more? Email Don with your questions or book a free Zoom meeting/call, click here.

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