Balancing LeaderShift Risk and Reward

We are pleased to offer this guest post by Melanie Herman, Executive Director of Nonprofit Risk Management Center as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series. 

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)”
– David Bowie

Green sign with the word "Changes"When the Picasso of Pop wrote the lyrics to his song Changes, I doubt he was thinking about the executive turnover in the charitable sector. Yet like turnover on the pop charts, turnover at the top of a nonprofit can be, at times, a bit strange.

As a veteran of leadership changes—in the organizations where I serve as a consultant and on the boards for which I’ve had the honor of serving—I’ve witnessed and even participated in a variety of CEO exits. The most important lesson from these transitions is that LeaderShifts should not be feared. Denial and procrastination are the wrong prescriptions for an ambitious mission. Instead of fearing inevitable transitions, nonprofit boards should turn and face the strange.

How? Here are a few tips to embrace the risks and the rewards of a leadership change.

Anticipate, don’t be surprised by, change.

Despite the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of nonprofit paid and volunteer executives vacate their posts each and every year, we continue to be surprised by well-earned retirements, departures for more lucrative roles, and even the occasional unexplained mad dash for the exit. We need to stop being surprised and start expecting and planning for executive turnover.

Stop fearing the inevitable, start planning a smooth transition.

I have a hard time understanding the fear factor associated with executive transitions and succession planning. There is nothing to fear but fooling yourself into thinking that your beloved CEO will never leave! The sun will come up tomorrow and one day, possibly before you’re ready, your Executive Director will pack up her things. Whether she’s packing knick-knacks and a souvenir pen, or your nonprofit’s entire institutional history and survival, is up to the board.

Get everyone on deck to create a practical plan.

I’ve heard from board and staff leadership teams alike that “we have a succession plan, but not everyone knows what it is.” Why not?! Succession plans shouldn’t be carefully guarded secrets; the very fact that few people know what the plan is gives rise to unnecessary, unproductive worry. In my experience, the best succession plans are widely known and reflect collaboration by a diverse team.

Last summer during an in-person board meeting my talented staff team presented our updated succession plan to my board. It was one of my proudest moments as CEO. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter very much if I have the details of our CEO succession plan committed to memory. What will matter is whether the board and staff know what to do when the day comes.

Source insights from your current CEO while you can.

Succession planning is the responsibility of the board, but your current CEO can likely provide helpful insights if you engage him or her in advance of a departure. Though succession planning may be a touchy subject, affirm that it is not a signal that you want your CEO to depart; rather, the process is conducted to sustain your nonprofit’s operations if and when the CEO exits. Until then, collaborate with your CEO to fully understand her daily role and responsibilities, and recognize her special qualities that you might look for in another leader.

The means are the ends.

During conversations with astute and committed members of nonprofit boards, I am often reminded of the widespread loathing for process. “We’re about results, not needless policies!” After witnessing failed transitions more times than I care to remember, I have come to believe that if not THE ends, the means are as important as the ends.

Simply put, a CEO transition is NOT the time for shortcuts. The careful selection of the next CEO—the champion and steward of your mission—is the board’s most important job, not a task begging for a shortcut. And if the next CEO will be replacing a founder or long-serving, beloved leader, budget extra time and make certain the entire board is fully committed to this process. Rushing the process, appointing someone ‘good enough’ in haste, or delegating responsibility to small team of board members are all equally disastrous moves.

Be deliberate, be transparent, and most of all, take time to reach consensus about what your mission needs now and in the future. Don’t worship or demonize your departed leader; focus all of your energy on a process the board will be proud of, and that will lead to the appointment of a worthy and capable leader.

Face the Strange

The risks associated with leadership transitions can be formidable; from donor distress to staff discontent, a nonprofit mission may be in serious jeopardy when its leader leaves or announces the intent to leave. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of ignoring the inevitable, nonprofit boards should turn and ‘face the strange’ but invigorating process of succession planning. With a plan explaining what you’ll do when (not if!) your CEO departs, your nonprofit can make a LeaderShift a productive opportunity to give both mission and morale a boost.

For additional information about CEO succession planning, see MANP’s Answer Center resources on succession planning, including the NRMC article “Avoid Transition Trauma with a Succession Plan.”

About Our Guest Author

Melanie HermanMelanie Herman is executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, a national organization dedicated to inspiring risk-aware nonprofit leadership. Melanie is proud to have spent her entire professional career (and perhaps most of her waking hours!) working in the nonprofit sector. She is doubly proud that her teenage daughter was recently elected to a voting position on a nonprofit board. MANP members are eligible for pro bono Risk Help and other resources from the Center. For more information about Center resources, visit or contact

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