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.
A well-planned executive succession involves three phases: sustaining, transitioning, and onboarding & support, as outlined in the graphic below. The timing of these phases can vary depending on the executive’s departure circumstances, the organization’s size and condition, whether a successor is waiting in the wings, and other factors.
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Even in abrupt departure situations where the current executive provides little notice, or the board fires the executive, the transition and early-stage onboarding process require the better part of a year to complete. It takes at least four to six months to search for, select, and hire a successor and a minimum of 90 to 120 days to complete the onboarding process. And that doesn’t count the time required for the new executive to settle into the role fully.
If a long-tenured or founding executive is involved, then the transition phase must be preceded by robust planning — sustaining phase work — to ensure the organization is ready to thrive with a new chief executive in the role.
This extended timeline may surprise those who think that succession is primarily a hiring problem and that once the hire is made, it’s done. In fact, that’s one of the biggest mistakes that boards frequently make about executive succession. (For more, see this related article, The Six Biggest Nonprofit Executive Succession Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.)
PHASE 1 — The Sustaining Phase
The Sustaining Phase begins, ideally, two to three years ahead of the handoff to the successor and concludes when the organization moves into the executive search and transition mode in earnest.
The organization and the executive are prepared to flourish in life’s next chapter. The organization is ready to thrive under new leadership. And the executive is ready to move into post-career life or whatever is next.
- Get into the right mindset.Recognize that chief executive succession is more than a hiring challenge. It’s an organizational change process that has a hiring decision at its core. It involves changes that extend well beyond the decision about who sits in the executive director’s office. These changes must be identified, planned for, and managed.
- Ask big questions.Take a deep look at the organization’s future and the implications for strategy, direction, and leadership needs. This is a good time to ask whether the organization should continue or continue in its current form. Is it time to consider a merger to create more scale or greater impact? (For more on this, see Two Courageous Questions to Ask Before Launching Your Executive Director Transition.)
- Strengthen the fundamentals that underpin organizational sustainability.The organization’s sustainability depends on strong business fundamentals: strategy, business model, board and board leadership, management team, operations, resources, and culture. Sustainability isn’t a financial issue; it’s a matter of organizational strength.
- Update the strategic plan.One of the best times to do strategic planning around an executive transition is about two years ahead of the handoff. (The other time is 6 to 12 months into the new executive’s tenure.)
- Assess the impact of the current executive’s departure. The longer an executive has been in place, the more likely the organization has grown up around them as they grew into the role. Thus, the organization may be overly reliant on the unique skill set of the departing executive. It might be time to strengthen the management team and delegate some responsibilities.
- Prepare to move into life’s next chapter if you’re the departing executive.
- Continue to prepare potential internal successorsif practical.
PHASE 2 — The Transitioning Phase
The Transitioning Phase begins 6 to 12 months before the leadership handoff, but there may be some overlap with the sustaining phase work.
The organization and the executive job are successor-ready; the organization finds and hires the new executive; and the board, management team, and departing executive are ready for the onboarding and support phase that follows.
- Continue the readiness-building work,preparing the organization to work effectively with the successor.
- Make sure the job is successor-ready.Unpack, refit, and recalibrate the job to ensure that the job profile defines the current and future leadership needs of the organization and that it’s something a successor could actually do. (See this related article, Seven Types of Nonprofit Executive Transitions.)
- Find and hire the successor.Plan and implement a vigorous executive search good pool of candidates and a rigorous selection process that results in a wise hiring decision.
- Plan the handoff to the new executive and the onboarding and support phase that follows. Plan for at least some overlap between the departing and incoming executives. That might be a few hours, a few days or even a few weeks, depending on the organization’s complexity. Ensure that everyone is clear about their onboarding role — the board, the departing executive, and the management team. (For more, see Planning the Handoff.)
PHASE 3 — The Onboarding & Support Phase
While the bulk of the onboarding work is completed within the first 90 to 120 days or so of the new executive’s tenure, it’s part of a more extensive “taking charge” process that the executive will go through. It often takes a year or one entire budget cycle for them to settle into the role completely. Moreover, taking charge is a two-way street that also involves the board and senior management team adjusting to the new leader’s style and outlook.
The new executive is fully assimilated into the organization. They have made the role their own. The board and new executive have built a powerful partnership, and the successor has established a strong working relationship with what’s now their management team. They have also built strong external relationships. There’s still work to do, but they’re hitting their leadership stride.
- Properly introduce the new executive. Make sure the new executive is appropriately introduced to the organization, the community, and the key stakeholders. This might involve events, formal and informal meetings, and so forth. The goal is to make sure that those who need to know are aware that there’s been a leadership change, and the groundwork has been laid for relationship building.
- Provide a thorough orientation about the organization, its background, and its outlook. A key part of that orientation should be the handoff discussions between the departing and incoming executives.
- Introduce the new executive to key stakeholders. This might involve mutual introductions where the departing executive and successor both meet with the most critical stakeholders such as major donors, key funders, collaboration partners, and the like.
- Intentionally build the board-executive partnership.The board chair should make sure that the board and executive build a working relationship early in the new executive director’s tenure by clarifying critical aspects – goals, roles, expectations, and performance measures – through an intentional process.
Regardless of the circumstances, the succession preparation and planning work should begin as early as possible. Again, more time gives you more options.
The sustaining phase work doesn’t have to involve an impending executive retirement or an imminent transition. Regardless of where the executive director is in their career – early-, mid-, or late-career – these are good management practices that can strengthen the organization and ensure succession readiness for whenever the transition occurs. Two key “anytime” approaches include:
- An organizational sustainability revieweither as a standalone project or as part of the organization’s strategic planning process.
- A board-adopted succession policy and a backup planfor the executive director position, what I call “succession essentials.”
The sustainability planning work will ensure that the organization is stable and as sustainable as possible, especially when the executive eventually hands it off to their successor.
The succession policy will ensure that the board has a game plan in place for whenever the executive eventually decides to leave the role. The policy will also build the board’s transition competency by having them think through how they would manage the transition under emergency circumstances and, ultimately, when they’re faced with managing the transition to a new executive.
The backup plan will make sure the organization doesn’t take a performance hit in the event of an unexpected absence of the chief executive by making sure there’s a cross-trained individual ready to step in if needed. Building the backup plan is also a great way to unpack the executive director’s job, sort out duties that no longer fit and others that should be delegated, and explore how to strengthen the management bench depth.
Try to begin the planning work at least a year or two, ahead of the departure date. An early start is particularly important if the current executive is a founder, a long-tenured executive, or has been a transformational leader. These high-impact and long-time leaders are often a hard act to follow. Their successors can face serious struggles without some thoughtful preparation of the organization, realignment of the executive role, and careful management of the handoff and onboarding process.
Starting to plan early doesn’t necessarily mean announcing early. The executive can initiate much of the sustaining phase work in stealth mode, without disclosing their departure date or plans. After all, most of the early-stage planning involves good management practices that are appropriate anytime.
Accept that executive succession is inevitable. 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. Sustainability and succession planning are all about addressing that “how well-managed” question.
Take the Next Step
For help sorting out your organization’s transition situation, click here to send me an email with your questions or to book a free one-on-one call.
To get “succession essentials” in place, click here for a free step-by-step guide that includes fill-in-the-blank templates for these critical plans and a companion video. Or pick up a copy of The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide to the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter, available from Amazon.