What to Do When Your Executive Director Decides to Leave

Nearly every nonprofit faces the challenge of hiring a new chief executive at some point. And every board seems to remember the terse line in their bylaws when it comes to managing the transition. The one that reads, “The board is responsible for hiring and supervising the chief executive.” Unfortunately, that directive doesn’t come close to addressing the board’s responsibility for managing executive turnover.

An executive transition is complicated, but managing it well is easier than you think. This post outlines the board’s six tasks for managing the transition the right way. But before we talk about what to do, let’s cover what not to do.

Steer Clear of These Two Common Mistakes

A frequent mistake is seeing the transition only as a hiring problem. The selection of a new chief executive is part of a much larger process involving more changes than who sits in the CEO’s office. When you ignore this larger process, a lot of changes and risks are left to chance rather than managing them deliberately.

Rushing through the process is another widespread mistake. Many boards rush to fill the vacancy when they learn the executive is leaving. The pressure to jump into “search mode” is understandable. Hiring a new chief executive is among the board’s biggest responsibilities. But it’s unfamiliar territory for nearly every board. And faced with the twin threats of complexity and the unfamiliar, the board experiences a degree of pain. Of course, they want that pain to go away as soon as possible.

It’s a completely understandable natural response, but rushing can lead to cutting corners and skipping over aspects of the transition that yield big dividends. An executive director transition is an opportunity to level up an organization’s game plan and capabilities, not just manage potential downsides.

The Board’s Six Executive Transition Tasks

Now, let’s take a look at those six tasks. This figure outlines how these tasks fall along the three phases of the Executive Succession Timeline, discussed in a previous post.

1. Understand and Guide the Transition

Regardless of whether the executive has already left or the departure date is off in the future, the board’s first task is to embrace the entirety of the transition process. To do that, the board should…

  • Recognize that the transition can take up to a year or more. The process begins with the current executive’s decision to leave, and it doesn’t conclude until the successor has fully settled into the role.
  • Understand the type of executive transition that it’s facing. The organization’s situation and the executive’s departure circumstances have a lot of influence on the transition. The board needs to take those factors into account.
  • Guide the entire transition process, not just the executive search and selection. The board should work through all of the five remaining tasks outlined here, including the onboarding and support process.

A variety of factors influence the nature and dynamics of the transition; thus, they shape the board’s process management job. There are organizational-related factors, such as size, complexity, operating condition, and future prospects. And executive-related factors, such as the departure circumstances, how long the executive has been in place, their impact on the organization, and so forth.

It’s critical for the board to understand the scope, nature, and dynamics of the circumstances surrounding the transition. And then take those factors into account as it prepares for and guides the leadership succession process. (See this related article, Seven Types of Executive Director Transitions and How to Manage Them)

2.  Prepare for a Leadership Change

Preparing for leadership change is all about “readiness” — making sure that the organization, the job, and the team are ready.

  • The organization is stable and ready for a new executive to assume the leadership role.
  • The executive job is ready for a successor to step into the position and effectively accomplish the job. The job has been unpacked to determine the job in practice, not just what’s on paper. It’s been refitted to bring it up to the needs of the present. And it’s been recalibrated to address the future leadership requirements.
  • The team is ready, especially the board, transition committee, departing executive, senior managers, and others with a role in the transition process, but also the staff more broadly has been prepared to work effectively with the new CEO. Everyone is clear about their roles and responsibilities and prepared to play their part.

3. Ensure Leadership Continuity

How to handle leadership continuity depends a lot on the current executive’s departure circumstances. Specifically, whether they are leaving before the new executive is hired or if they’ll be sticking around for the entire transition process and will be there to hand off the organization to their successor.

If the incumbent is leaving before the successor is hired, the board should appoint an appropriate acting executive or hire an external interim executive director. Appointing a temporary bridge leader will give the board the time and breathing room it needs to carry out the transition process. Trying to forestall a leadership gap by rushing through is never an effective strategy.

Of course, if the incumbent is being fired or there’s an otherwise messy departure, the board needs a skilled interim executive who can help them stabilize the organization.

On the other hand, if the departing executive will be in place for the duration of the transition, there are three things the board should do.

First, make sure that the departing executive is clear about their role in the transition work. Part of the departing executive director’s job as a leader-in-transition is to support the board’s transition work, help the organization get ready for the successor, and prepare a handoff plan.

Second, plan for some overlap of the departing and incoming executives so there can be a proper handoff. The overlap can range from a few hours to a few days depending on the complexities of the job and the organization. The board should take this into account in budgeting and transition planning.

Third, clarify whether the incumbent will have an ongoing role with the organization. Any ongoing involvement should be approached with a great deal of caution. And the board should disclose any proposed arrangements to candidates during the interview process. Also, the board should make it clear that the new executive has control over any proposed contract or employment arrangement. In other words, it shouldn’t saddle the new executive with promises the board makes but the new executive is expected to keep. And, don’t put the departing executive on the board. (These hedging attempts are almost always a bad idea.)

4. Manage Communications (and ensure positive closure with your current executive)

Good communications play an essential role in the success of the transition. This includes how the departure announcement is handled, how the successor’s appointment is announced, and how frequently the stakeholders are updated throughout the process. Communications — good or poor — have an impact on the organization’s stakeholders. And, they are a reflection of the board’s professionalism in handling the transition.

Key stakeholders, such as major funders, will want to hear about the transition firsthand. Letting them hear about it through the grapevine is a huge faux pas. Staff should be kept appropriately updated as the transition progresses. And, all may need some reassurance if the departing executive is leaving “big shoes,” or if the departure circumstances were rocky.

Coming to positive closure with the current executive is an often-overlooked aspect of the communications process. This includes how the board handles the departure and the sendoff that they give the exiting executive. Both say a lot about the board and can reflect positively or poorly on the organization.

5. Search for, Select, and Hire the New CEO

Of course, the search for a successor and the process of hiring a new CEO are central to the transition process. The board will need a good plan for developing the candidate pool — also, a plan for screening candidates and conducting the interviews. And be clear about how the final selection is going to be made and who’s going to seal the deal with the new executive.

As part of the planning for this task, the board should

  • have a strategy for how it will handle internal candidates
  • be clear with the selection team about how many finalists the board wants to see (Having the board interview more than one finalist dramatically complicates matters.)
  • research salaries in the market and be prepared to make a competitive offer

6. Onboard and Support the New Executive

Many boards think the transition is over once the appointment has been made. But for the new executive, it’s just beginning. Onboarding and supporting the new CEO is a critical part of the process. And attention and energy in this phase can leverage the investment the board made during all the previous stages.

Onboarding means making sure that the new chief executive

  • is appropriately introduced to the organization and the community
  • receives a thorough orientation
  • is provided with the information and support necessary to settle successfully into the role

The golden time of onboarding is the first 90 to 100 days of the new executive’s tenure. Being “new” has a short shelf life. This early stage of tenure is all about learning and building critical relationships.

The departing executive should make sure that there are handoff and ramp-up plans for the successor. And the plans are customized with input from the new executive.

The board should initiate an intentional process to forge a powerful partnership with the new executive. Together they should clarify goals, roles, expectations, and performance measures:

  • Goals. The strategic priorities, especially for the first 12 to 18 months of the new executive’s tenure.
  • Roles. Their respective roles and responsibilities. This should include a refresh of the board’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the new CEO’s.
  • Expectations. The expectations that the executive and board have for each other. Especially their respective contributions toward achieving the strategic priorities.
  • Performance Measures. The process and criteria for performance evaluations, especially during the executive’s first year.

The board and executive form two sides of the most critical relationship in the organization. The greater the clarity and mutual understanding you can introduce into this relationship, the stronger your organization will be.


Embracing these six tasks doesn’t add significantly to the time commitment, but it enormously increases the odds of a successful executive transition outcome. The slight additional investment of time will pay huge dividends in strengthening the organization. And, a thorough process helps avoid the risk of a failed transition and the painful prospect of having to redo the entire exercise in a few months.

For detailed, step-by-step advice on each of the tasks noted above, plus tools and many helpful templates, see Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO, Second Edition, now available from BoardSource.

Click here to learn more about Don’s executive succession and transition planning and support services.

A version of this post appeared on the BoardSource blog.

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