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.
Even in the case of short notice or abrupt departures, the process requires at least four to six months to search for, select, and hire a successor; a minimum of 90 to 120 days for the successor to go through the onboarding process; and a full year for the successor to fully settle into the role.
Psychological and social factors dictate that there is a natural process that humans go through during executive succession and transition. The goal of this three-phase approach is to tune into that natural process and plan and manage the succession in a way that captures the opportunities and avoids the pitfalls.
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 six biggest mistakes that boards frequently make about executive succession. (For more, see the related article, The Six Biggest CEO 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.
Goals: 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 CEO 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 the CEO’s office. These changes must be identified, planned for, and managed. (For more on avoiding risky mindsets, click here.)
- Ask big questions. Take a deep look at the organization’s future and the implications for strategy, direction, and leadership needs. This is especially important if the departing executive is a founder, long-tenured, or a transformational executive.
- Strengthen the fundamentals that underpin organizational sustainability. Organizational sustainability depends on strong business fundamentals: strategy, business model, board and board leadership, management team, resources, systems and structure, and culture and operating climate. Sustainability isn’t a financial issue; it’s an organizational strength issue.
- 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 best 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.
- Prepare to move into life’s next chapter if you’re the departing executive.
- Continue to prepare potential internal successors if practical.
Some may scoff at the idea of beginning the succession process two or three years ahead of the transition and handoff. And, on its face, this approach may seem more practical in retirements or other situations where the executive’s departure is known well in advance. But many of the actions described here are management measures that can be undertaken at any time, independent of a leadership transition. Strengthening organizational sustainability, strategic planning, forecasting future leadership needs, and reducing over-reliance on the strengths of the current CEO are simply good management practices that are appropriate anytime.
Simply put, more time gives you more options. Start as early as possible.
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.
Goals: The organization and the executive job are successor-ready; the organization will find and hire the successor; and the board, management team, and departing executive are ready for the onboarding and support phase that follows.
- Continue the readiness-building work. Wrap up the sustainability-enhancing work and continue to focus on 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 it fits the current and future leadership needs of the organization and that it’s something a successor could actually do. (For more on this, see the Seven Types of Nonprofit Executive Transitions.)
- Find and hire the successor. Plan and implement a vigorous executive search and a rigorous selection process that results in a wise hiring decision.
- Plan the handoff. Plan for the handoff to the new executive and the onboarding and support phase that follows. Ensure that everyone is clear about their onboarding role — the board, the departing executive, and the management team. Plan for any overlap between the departing and incoming executives. That might be a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks depending on the complexity of the organization or the job. (See this related article, Planning the Handoff.)
PHASE 3 — The Onboarding & Support Phase
While the bulk of the onboarding work is usually 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. 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.
Goals: The new executive is fully assimilated into the organization. They have made the role their own. The board and new CEO 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.
- Provide a thorough orientation. Make sure the onboarding includes a thorough orientation about the organization, its background, and its outlook. And 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’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.
Succession prep doesn’t have to be about 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 review either as a standalone project or as part of the strategic planning process.
- A board-adopted succession policy and a backup plan for the CEO position, what I call “succession essentials.” The policy will ensure that the board has a game plan in place for whenever the executive eventually decides to leave the role. The backup plan will make sure the organization doesn’t take a performance hit in the event of unexpected absences of the CEO by making sure there’s a cross-trained individual ready to step in during an emergency. (To get these “succession essentials” in place, check out my free step-by-step guide, which includes fill-in-the-blank templates for these critical plans.)
The sustainability planning work will ensure that the organization is stable and as sustainable as possible when the executive hands it off to the successor.
The succession policy will build the board’s transition competency, having them think through how they would manage the transition under emergency circumstances and, ultimately, when the executive decides to leave — whether that’s through retirement or a job change.
The backup plan will ensure someone is ready to step in for the CEO under emergency circumstances (a blindingly good idea). And having the board review the plan periodically will help them deepen their understanding of the CEO position — preparing them to do a better job when they’re confronted with searching for and selecting a successor.
For executive successions involving a retirement, try to begin the planning work at least a year, if not 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-tenured 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 planning work can begin several years prior to the executive’s departure. The executive can begin the planning and preparation work in stealth mode, without disclosing their departure date or plans.
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 good management tools that organizations can undertake any time because it will strengthen the organization, aside from planning for leadership succession. 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.
This previously published article was updated based on material from my new book, The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.