Bookmark and Share

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the NonprofitMaine blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Are CEO Transition Myths Holding Back Your Nonprofit?

by Guest Blogger
We are pleased to offer this guest post by Wendy J. Wolf, MD, MPH, President & CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation, as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series.

mythMany CEOs and Boards cling to some common myths about executive transitions.  If your nonprofit is typical, planning a CEO change is a key organizational task that we all know is important – but it rarely makes it to the top of anyone’s “to-do” list.

As I prepared for my own executive transition year as President & CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF), I learned a few things about preparing a prospective and well planned exit from the foundation.

Check your “myth” quotient to see what might be keeping you and your Board from planning a smooth CEO transition.  And please share your thoughts about myths or key strategies that didn’t make it into my top 5.

Myth #1 – I haven’t been here that long, so we have plenty of time to start planning.

Like many things in life (planning retirement, getting organized, or starting that exercise program) it’s easy to put off tasks that don’t require our immediate attention.  However, a smooth, thoughtful executive transition takes time.  I now think that planning a CEO transition should start in the CEO’s first year since the key to any transition lies in staff development.  Cultivating a highly skilled, diverse, confident staff is essential to any successful transition.  So rethink your timeline to work with the Executive Committee, staff and Board so everyone contributes to the process.

Myth #2 – My tasks as CEO are so expansive that spelling out everything that needs to happen is overwhelming.

As a CEO, I agree.  But to get over that hump, we started by developing a detailed emergency succession plan.  This primed the Board and staff to think about all the essential elements that go into running our organization.  In staff meetings and one-on-one conversations, we fleshed out CEO and staff responsibilities, and then used this information to cross-train people.  We not only ended up with a thorough emergency succession plan (that is updated annually), staff came away from the process with a better appreciation and heightened respect for their colleagues’ day-to-day responsibilities.

Myth #3 – As the CEO, I know this is important, but I can’t get my Board interested.

In return for our Trustees’ volunteer contributions, we routinely offer to send Board members to MANP trainings as part of our commitment to good governance.  Last year, after attending a MANP workshop, a Board officer reported that the workshop facilitator had emphasized the importance of developing a formal, written executive transition plan.  Noting that MeHAF only had an emergency plan, he suggested we take the next step to get the full CEO transition plan spelled out.  The Executive Committee and I agreed.  His suggestion prompted me to develop the draft plan that became the final road map for my own transition.  Sometimes it helps to have outside experts educate Board members about these essential tasks so they can take the lead.

Myth # 4 – Won’t talking about executive transitions start the rumor mill that I’m planning to leave?

Maybe.  But it’s less likely to do so if you begin the process early and acknowledge that it’s part of your commitment to best practices for running the organization.

Myth #5 – I’m more motivated when a task is fun, but this seems like a really perfunctory chore.

As a CEO, I’m always much more likely to do the fun stuff (strategic planning, meeting with external stakeholders, brainstorming with staff, etc.) than the more mundane administrative work.  Yet, even this process can be fun.  Many years ago, a few Augusta-based women nonprofit CEOs decided we’d do emergency succession planning as a group exercise.  Our rational was that we’d learn from each other, share consultant expenses, use peer pressure to make sure we all completed the task – and lastly, it would be more fun.  It was a great process.  And it turned out to be timely too.  Shortly thereafter, two of the five CEOs in our group left their positions for other opportunities, confident that their organizations were better positioned through the emergency succession planning process to weather the leadership change.

What’s Missing?

I know there are more myths about executive transitions.  What are yours?   And, how can MANP and nonprofit leaders make this an easier task as the wave of baby boomer nonprofit CEOs retire or move on?

And lastly, here’s an offer.  One thing I’ve always loved about Maine’s nonprofit sector is our willingness to share and help each other.  In that spirit, I’m happy to share our executive transition plan as an example to help you and your Board get started.  It’s a conversation worth having.


About the Author

Wendy Wolf Color March 2010 croppedWendy Wolf, M.D., M.P.H. is founding President and CEO of the Maine Health Access Foundation (MeHAF), the state’s largest dedicated health philanthropy.  MeHAF has awarded over $61 million to advance public policy and programs such as expanding Maine’s community health centers, promoting the integration of primary and behavioral health care, and spearheading the development of Maine’s comprehensive statewide health information exchange.  As an academic pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Wolf spent two decades providing clinical care, teaching, and conducting research.  After receiving an MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health, she served as Senior Advisor to the Administrators for HRSA and AHRQ in the Department of Health and Human Services where she guided policy development for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.  Dr. Wolf has authored numerous scientific publications, is a nationally recognized speaker on health care policy, and is a recipient of former DHHS Secretary Shalala’s Award for Distinguished Service.


More on This Topic

Browse more pages and posts that are part of our Mission Driven Leadershift initiative.

One thought on “Are CEO Transition Myths Holding Back Your Nonprofit?

Cheryl Rust says:

Awesome article, Wendy!!! Not at all surprising!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.