The circumstances surrounding most executive director terminations are often more complicated than they appear. I’ll leave the termination process to the legal experts. Instead, this article covers how to put the organization back on track after the inevitable trauma of a termination.
When a board fires or forces out their executive director, two human tendencies come into play.
The first is to heap all the blame on the departed executive — to link the organization’s problems to the perceived deficiencies of the former executive.
This attitude can blind the board to other, very real underlying problems that helped to precipitate the termination. Such as failing to recognize the board’s role in creating some of the circumstances that led to the departure.
The second tendency is to rush to hire a new executive. Lulled by the idea that the problems are linked to the “flaws” of the former executive, the board often rushes ahead to hire their next executive director.
Often, they begin by looking for someone who is something of a mirror opposite of the departed executive. Fresh off the heels of the termination, the board starts seeking candidates who have strengths where the departed executive had weaknesses.
Compensating for deficiencies in your next hire is setting up a rebound relationship. Maybe it’ll work. Most likely, it won’t.
On top of that, most terminations involve organizational or political problems. Hiring an executive to help turn around a struggling or unstable organization often means hiring someone who is an expert in those problematic areas. Then, in the hiring process, the board over-emphasizes problem-solving skills.
When problem-solving and technical expertise take center stage, the board is at risk of glossing over other important aspects of the executive director role.
Then, when the new executive is a few months into the job, the board begins to notice that the new executive, while having strengths to help shore up the organization, indeed has deficiencies elsewhere, potentially leading to further disappointment and organizational performance problems, and maybe yet another “failed” executive.
Call In an Interim Executive
The smarter approach is for the board to call a timeout and hire an intentional interim or transition executive.
Providing more than bridge leadership, a good interim executive director can help stabilize the organization and help the board unearth and address the underlying problems — many of which the board is probably unaware of, or to which they’ve become blind.
With the organization stabilized and the legacy problems identified and corrected — or put on a correction course — the board is ready to hire their new executive with a more balanced eye. And a clearer picture of the range of attributes they should be seeking in candidates for the executive director position.
Most communities have a cadre of skilled, former nonprofit executives — many of them former chief executives — who’ve made the career choice to serve as interim executives. Your association of nonprofits, community foundation, or United Way can help you make the connection.
With a skilled interim in place, the board can set about the work of stabilizing and resetting the organization.
Five Tasks for Resetting the Organization
Early in my consulting career, I served as the interim executive director of the Interim Ministry Network (IMN). IMN has trained hundreds if not thousands of ministers, priests, and rabbis to take on the special role of guiding a congregation through a pastoral transition.
Through this assignment, I became aware of the work of Loren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute. Among his many writings, his “Five Developmental Tasks for Interim Ministry”* contain sage advice. Below are those tasks adapted for secular nonprofits.
1. Come to terms with history
Coming to terms with history means ferreting out and addressing the problems as well as recognizing and building on the organization’s strengths and accomplishments.
The board should take an honest, unflinching look at the organization, including the board itself. This review should include a careful assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its accomplishments and shortcomings.
An organizational sustainability review, which is comprehensive in nature, can be a powerful tool for this sort of assessment. Click here for more on organizational sustainability assessments.
The board should also dig into the factors that precipitated the termination, especially those factors that were beyond the executive’s control. The board should ask themselves, “What was our role in creating the circumstances that led to the termination of our executive?”
They may very well discover legacy issues that predate the tenure of the “failed” executive’s hiring and probably still persist now that the executive has left.
The interim executive or an external consultant can help guide the assessment process. They will also bring a fresh set of experienced eyes to the organization and help the board see things that they might not otherwise see.
Finally, this juncture — between permanent chief executives — is an opportune time to ask whether the organization should continue or continue in its present form. Has the organization’s mission become “to survive,” or does it have too little capacity to deliver on its mission?
This might be the time to merge with another group or gracefully shut down. It might be time to transfer the programs and staff over to a better-resourced organization that has stronger capabilities. For more, see this related article/video, Two Courageous Questions to Ask Before Launching Your Executive Director Transition.
2. Explore new identity and clarify direction
If the board has decided that the organization should continue, the next task is to assess the organization’s strategic direction and identity.
While this may not be the time to take on full-blown strategic planning — instead, make that a “year one” priority for the new executive — the board should revisit/reaffirm the organization’s mission and vision.
They should also identify the topmost –– usually 3 to 6 — priorities for the new executive’s first year on the job. These should be priorities that the board intends to tackle TOGETHER with the new executive.
Taking the mission, vision, and priorities into account, the board should then unpack, refit, and recalibrate the executive’s job profile. Most likely, the current job description describes a leadership role for the organization of the past, not of the future.
Instead, the board should look forward at the characteristics of the organization that they aspire to create and then recalibrate the chief executive role. Then they can redraft the job profile around the present and future leadership needs of the organization.
For more on making sure that the executive’s job is successor ready, see the related article/video, Seven Types of Nonprofit Executive Transitions.
3. Make necessary leadership and operational changes
More often than not, a change in executives brings other needed changes to light. Those changes might involve changes in staffing, structure, systems, other leadership roles, and perhaps even governance.
Working with a skilled intentional interim executive can help the organization navigate these changes, whether that’s rightsizing the board, fixing a broken financial system, or making necessary staff changes.
Of course, the board should approach making personnel changes with caution and make only those changes that are truly necessary. Executive transitions, at their best, are often fraught with emotions. You don’t want to convey the message to your “A-list” staff that their jobs might be on the chopping block too. And, you want to preserve the latitude of the incoming permanent executive to build their own team.
On the other hand, the board and the interim executive should address the problems that might otherwise prove to be a major distraction to the incoming executive. During their first 90 to 100 days, the new executive should be focused on getting to know the organization and building relationships, not fighting fires that should have been put out before they came on board.
4. Renew linkages
Often the runup to a messy departure or crisis situation can involve funders, supporters, and stakeholders becoming disengaged and maybe even disaffected.
After the board has completed the first three tasks, they will have a strong case and a clear message that can help restore the faith and confidence of these stakeholders and get them re-engaged. Of course, good communications are vital during every executive transition, regardless of the circumstances.
5. Commit to new leadership and a new direction
Having worked through the previous tasks, the board will have a healthy perspective on the organization’s history as well as its prospects. They should have a clear sense of the organization’s strategic direction and the priorities they’re laying out for the new executive.
They’ve worked with the interim executive to identify and resolve legacy issues and establish a solid leadership platform for their incoming executive director. In short, the board should be prepared to launch and support their new staff leader.
Terminating or forcing an executive director out can be a traumatic experience for the board and everyone involved. As I said at the outset, often these situations are more complicated than they seem.
Every executive transition should involve some assessment — especially those involving a termination. When a board fires an executive, that assessment should be followed by some introspection.
A skilled interim executive can provide the board with the breathing room and process to take an unvarnished look at the organization and the board itself. Working through these five tasks can provide an important timeout and reset. And it can help get the board and organization ready to work effectively with the new executive.
*Mead, Loren B. Critical Moment of Ministry: A Change of Pastors, Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 1986.