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Maine Leaders Reflect on Executive Transitions + Leadership Capacity

by Molly O'Connell

Is the coming wave of executive transitions overhyped? Based on the high attendance at our events this month on the topic, we don’t think so!

We launched our Mission Driven Leadershift initiative in response to data showing that 2/3 of New England’s nonprofit executive directors expect to leave their positions in the next 5 years. This is not necessarily a crisis – there is enormous opportunity in transition.

As part of this initiative, on April 7th we hosted nonprofit leaders from around the state to discuss how organizations can thrive during times of leadership transition, and hear the questions that are on their minds. Over lunch, a panel of Maine executive directors and board members shared their insights on managing executive transitions. Later during our Executive Leadership Forum we broadened our focus to sector-wide trends and the essential practice of sustainability planning, led by Third Sector New England’s Hez Norton. We had a particular focus on developing leadership capacity as a foundation for mission sustainability and successful transitions not only of CEOs, but other key leadership positions.

The theme? Whether or not your organization is expecting your current CEO to depart in the near future, there are steps you can take that will allow you to seize the opportunities and manage the risks of leadership transition.

We took pages of notes ourselves, and wanted to share a snapshot of the key recommendations and questions that came up during the discussion. We’ve used the framework below to ground our thinking.

Executive Transition Process

Succession + Sustainability Planning

  • There are samples, but there are no templates. There is no one right way to create a succession plan (but there are lots of suggestions). Let the ideal go, and focus on what will help your organization safeguard its important work.
  • That was sort of a lie. There are templates for emergency succession plans and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief if you put a plan in place for an unplanned transition.
  • Start by assessing your risks. One approach can be to use this Organization Sustainability Checklist as a starting point. Identify your top 2 or 3 areas of risk and then flesh out an action plan to address each one. As you make progress, revisit the checklist.
  • Shared leadership mitigates risk. How closely is the organization associated with the individual leader? If the two are synonymous, which can be especially true if you have a long-serving executive director or your leader is the organization’s founder, this is a place to start addressing now. Consider ways to foster relationships between key supporters and staff/volunteers other than the CEO. Consider alternative organizational structures. Find more reading here on developing leadership capacity.
  • What’s the succession plan for your board? Pay attention to developing leadership capacity at the board level, too. It’s important to align board recruitment with strategic priorities at all phases of an organization’s life cycle, and this is especially true when a leadership transition is on the horizon.
  • Make sure your current executive gets an annual performance review. Without understanding the successes and challenges your current leader faces, the board won’t be fully equipped to assess opportunities and risks in a leadership transition down the line.
  • These are iterative processes. Mission sustainability should be a conversation you revisit regularly, not check off your list.

Preparing for an Executive Transition

  • Don’t try to do a strategic plan when managing a search. It’s too much!
  • That said, strategic priorities are a helpful guidepost and beacon. Even without a full plan, you can discuss priorities. What are your aspirations for impact? What are the organizational values? What can you not afford to stop doing? Use these as touchstones throughout the process.
  • Consider an interim. An interim executive director can provide some space between the past and the future, which might be especially helpful during an unplanned transition, or a transition from a long-time leader.
  • It’s the board’s job, but staff have important insights. Invite staff to share what they see as the opportunities and risks, how work could be better aligned with priorities, what qualities would be important in a new leader, etc. Make sure this input is shared with the board and search committee.
  • What can the current CEO do? The current leader still has an important role in facilitating  change. Be a champion for staff input. Hand off key relationships. Keep mission in the forefront. (There are also great resources that can help a departing CEO reflect on his or her own personal transition!)
  • Have a thoughtful communications strategy. There is no right answer for when to announce a CEO’s departure. Ideally this is a conversation the executive director starts privately with the board chair well in advance – perhaps years – but the public communication may happen much later. Regardless of the timing, develop a plan that includes informing key stakeholders before making a public announcement.

The Search

  • Align the position profile with strategic priorities. Applicants will appreciate the insight to your vision, and will be better able to speak to how they might contribute.
  • Be proactive. Encourage your networks to spread the word about the job, and to encourage people they know to apply.
  • Celebrate current work. It can be easy to forget that the bus usually still has a route to complete, even though you’re hiring a new driver. Recognize all it takes to keep things running.
  • Set clear expectations for the search committee up front. Having consistent participation is essential to arriving at an outcome with everyone on board.
  • [Note: As you may know, MANP is the middle of our own search process at the moment, and we’re excited to be developing a toolkit with tips and templates based on our experiences and learnings to help organizations manage the process. Stay tuned!]

Arrive at Thrive

  • Don’t forget this part! A search process can be exhausting, but a leadership transition doesn’t end with the search.
  • Have a good ending. Honor the contributions of the leader who is stepping down.
  • Have a good beginning. Ensure the board is proactively involved in orienting the new executive, setting short-term goals, and providing support. Pull in additional support to help with this stage, as your Search Committee is likely to be ready for a break.
  • What’s the role of the current ED in orientation? As with most things, it depends! The board should facilitate the interaction between the departing and incoming leaders, and may want to take the lead from the new leader about what level of contact would be helpful (assuming the departing executive is willing and available.) Some new leaders enjoy the opportunity to transition in gradually, while others find that the former leader’s presence makes it difficult to establish themselves in their new role. (If there will be overlap, be thoughtful about the impact on other staff, who may have confusion about where the buck stops.) Whether or not there will be direct contact, it can be extremely helpful for the departing CEO to develop a transition memo that outlines key relationships, insights on organizational risks and opportunities, and other practical and strategic information.
  • Don’t forget to go back and revisit those sustainability and succession plans!

Recommended Resources

Many of these topics are addressed more fully in our Mission Driven Leadershift guest blog series, or in materials available in our Answer Center. If there’s a topic of particular interest and you’re not finding what you need, email us at HelpDesk@NonprofitMaine.org.

What’s On Your Mind?

Phew! That was a lot, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg of recommendations, insights, questions, and reflections that came out of these events. We’re excited to continue to learn and share with all of you as we navigate our own leadership transition process, and discover how we can best support our members in preparing and managing their own, whether they’re right around the corner, or further down the line. We hope you’ll share your own reflections and questions with us in the comments below.

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