Your decision to leave the executive director role sets major changes in motion — big changes for yourself and your organization. It’s critical that you plan for executive succession.

Unwinding from the role and preparing the organization for the transition involves more than packing up your office.

Similarly, the search for your successor takes more than dusting off the job description, running a few ads, and hoping for the best. A chief executive transition involves more than a hiring decision; it’s a major organizational change.

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When you decide to move on, your organization needs to devote time and resources to managing the transition. This is especially true if you’re a founder, a long-tenured executive, or a transformational leader.

The longer you’ve been in place, or the more significant your impact, the harder you are to succeed. And, this usually means the more challenges your successor is likely to face.

As pointed out in other articles, every job, and every career will eventually end in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed when that transition finally occurs.

The exit strategy approach outlined in this article is all about making sure that the transition is managed well. An exit strategy can help pave the way for a smoother transition.

What’s an exit strategy?

An exit strategy is a mindset and a set of plans to prepare yourself and your organization for your transition out of your role and prepare the way for your successor.

Instead of one massive plan, an exit strategy involves several plans covering three areas:

  • how you’ll prepare your organization,
  • how you’ll prepare yourself, and
  • how you’ll handle the communications.

Actions to shape your exit strategy

Here are ten actions to shape your exit strategy:

1. Sort out your timeline and map your exit

Of course, your departure timetable will be a major factor in your leave-taking process. As we’ll discuss later, another major factor is your relationship with the board.

If you’re leaving before your successor arrives, make sure your board is ready to appoint an acting or interim executive. Best-case scenario, it’s going to take at least four to six months to find, hire, and get your successor in the door.

You can’t force the process. Don’t let the board labor under the illusion that they can simply speed up the process to find your successor. That leads to cutting corners, which is a recipe for disaster.

Make sure you have bridge leadership. If you have a designated backup or someone appropriate within the organization for the acting role, great. Otherwise, start lining up sources for an external interim. There are many former nonprofit executives who now work as intentional interim executives. Your associations, professional societies, community foundation, and other funders can help.

Start planning your exit as early as possible. Executive director succession takes time. A common problem is starting to plan too late and then rushing through the process. If you’re heading for retirement, begin planning at least a year or two ahead of your departure or more, if possible. More time gives you more options.

Starting early allows you to ask big questions about your organization’s future. It gives you time to work on building organizational sustainability to, say, strengthen the board or add bench depth to the executive team.

If you haven’t set a date or it’s more than 18 months off, here are some things you can do to prepare your organization. These are actions you can take in stealth mode, without revealing your departure intentions.

  • Conduct an organizational sustainability review. This will help you identify legacy issues and make sure your organization is as strong as possible before you hand it over to your successor.
  • Work with your board to prepare a succession policy and a backup plan for your position. The policy will give your board a roadmap for managing the transition. And the backup plan, among other things, will ensure that your job description is updated. (My free Executive Succession Essentials planning guide will walk you through the process. It includes fill-in-the-blank templates for both documents. Click here to download your copy.)

Once you set a date and announce it, don’t back-peddle. Waffling about your departure timing is a morale killer for your staff and potential internal successors.

2. Take charge of your exit

Your board has the responsibility for choosing your successor, but it’s your responsibility to initiate the succession process. Part of leading well includes leaving well. This means taking responsibility for your unique role in your transition out of the organization.

Taking charge doesn’t mean controlling the process nor renouncing all responsibility. It doesn’t involve handpicking your successor, manipulating the process, bullying to get your way, or riding roughshod over the board and their legal obligations. But it doesn’t mean abdicating all responsibility and dumping everything in the board’s lap, either.

Taking charge means playing an active and vital role in the succession process. It means supporting the board and staff and partnering with them to guide the organization through the transition to your successor.

3. Don’t be a lame-duck

There’s a popular notion out there that it’s okay to check out early mentally and coast towards the exit. That’s being derelict in your duties. If you’re going to draw the paycheck, then do the job. Otherwise, get out of the way.

And don’t let the board marginalize your role because you’ve decided to leave. Executive transition is the biggest challenge your board members will probably face in their entire tenure. It should be an all-leaders-on-deck exercise. Shutting out the departing chief executive’s perspective and experience is a colossally bad idea if they’re leaving on good terms.

4. Embrace your two new jobs

As a leader in transition, you have three jobs:

  1. Lead the organization but understand that the role will evolve as the departure date draws closer.
  2. Prepare the organization for the transition. Make sure the organization is ready to work effectively with your successor. And ensure that everyone’s prepared for the transition process.
  3. Prepare yourself for life’s next chapter. Ensure that you’re ready for the transition into post-career life or whatever is next.

This is a unique time. Allow the leaders around you to step up and into their transition roles.

5. Engage your board as early as possible

How early you disclose your departure intentions to the board will likely hinge on the strength of your relationship with your board — your trust in the board and the board’s confidence in you. Typically, the board communications begin with a conversation with the chair.

Recognize that the disclosure of your departure plans is going to be an “oh my” moment for your board. To set the stage, sketch out a modest exit plan before you tell your board. Your plan will help set them on a path forward and show your willingness to partner with them.

Make sure the board understands that their job is to manage the entire transition, not just to hire your successor. Help them understand their tasks by pointing them to this related article, What To Do When Your Executive Director Leaves: The Board’s Six Tasks.

6. Manage the communications

Telling your board is a part of a more extensive communications process. Typically, departure planning begins with private speculation on the part of the executive. At this early stage, there’s no or limited disclosure outside of the closest confidants and advisors. This is usually followed by a confidential discussion with the board chair and then the board.

Beyond the board, the disclosure becomes more public. Senior staff is next to find out, followed by the line staff. This should be quickly followed by critical stakeholders. Finally, there’s a broader public departure announcement, often concurrent with the announcement of the search for the successor.

During the transition, there should be frequent, appropriate progress updates for the staff.

Some executives choose to have “soft disclosure” discussions with critical stakeholders early on, when they begin the succession planning process. These are “heads up” messages signaling a leadership change is coming sometime down the road. Weigh carefully whether this kind of early disclosure is a good idea with your stakeholders and situation.

7. Prepare your organization

If your departure date is several years off, you have time to ask big questions about your organization. Questions such as do we have: The right board? The right people on the management team? A strong enough business model?

If you’re leaving within the next 12 months, the window to ask big questions closes. The focus shifts to making sure the organization is ready for the transition process.

  • Get your board ready to do a good job on the executive search, the selection of your successor, and guiding the transition.
  • Help your senior management team get ready for your successor and their role in onboarding the new executive.
  • Make sure the executive director’s job is successor-ready. Update the job to reflect the organization’s current and future leadership needs. And ensure it’s a job that a successor could actually do.
  • Prepare the organization to work effectively with your successor.

8. Prepare yourself

If you’re moving to another job, wrap up your current role before jumping to the new one. Fully close that chapter in your career before you open a new one. Consider whether you want to or can take a breather before beginning your new role. Get a copy of The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins and develop an entry plan for your new role.

If you’re retiring, research on retirement satisfaction points to five key areas:

  1. working to maintain health and well-being;
  2. having an engaging post-career project — meaningful involvement in something that matters to you;
  3. meaningful engagement with a social support network of people who are “there for each other”;
  4. alignment with your spouse or life partner about retirement timing and how you invest your time and spending; and,
  5. enough post-retirement income.

To prepare yourself, consider which of the five areas need the most attention and start working on them. Consider if you want to start lining up a bridge job (a bridge between full-time work and full-time retirement) or if you’re going to pursue an encore career.

9. Watch out for the emotions

Transitions stir the emotions; some of it is inevitable. Solid planning and communication can provide your constituents with empathy and reassurance. Engage a coach, advisor, or your support network to process your own emotions.

In interviews, many retired executives said the emotional journey was the most surprising part of their transition.

10. Leave gracefully (and decisively)

Arrange for an appropriate amount of overlap between yourself and your successor. Usually, a few hours or a few days is enough. Plan a thorough handoff that’s aligned with your successor’s needs. (See this related article: Planning the Handoff.)

In most cases, a “hand off and ride off” approach to leaving is best. But if you plan to have an ongoing role in your current organization, know that the arrangement must work for your successor. Make sure that your role is well defined and that your successor has control over the employment agreement. Include a check-in process to make sure that the arrangement continues to work. If not, know that you’ll need to move on.

Don’t take a seat on your organization’s board of directors, at least for a year or two.

Strive for closure for yourself and those around you. Rituals, such as the much-maligned retirement dinner, serve a vital role. They help people come to terms with change by providing a psychological line of demarcation that enables people to move on.

Conclusion

The transition between chief executives is a watershed moment for an organization. Preparing an exit strategy can help ensure that you, your organization, your board, and your management team are ready. Ready for the journey, with a roadmap to follow. Speaking of roadmaps…

The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap CoverIs it time to create your exit strategy? Get a copy of The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter. It’s a complete guide for soon-to-retire executives to prepare themselves and their organizations to flourish after they leave the executive director role. Available now from Amazon.

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