Managing organizational reputation in a leadership transition

MANP is pleased to present the following guest blog post by Jeff Wahlstrom of Starboard Leadership Consulting–an endorsed provider of executive search services. This post is part of our ongoing Mission Driven Leadershift initiative, which offers resources, services and programs to help Maine nonprofits successfully prepare for and manage leadership transition. 

Done well, leadership transitions at a nonprofit can shine a bright and flattering light on your organization, its work, and the quality of its leadership. Done well, the board honors the work of the departing executive, highlights the professionalism of its search process, and ultimately introduces an outstanding new leader to guide the organization forward. Done well, donors, clients, the community, and your future leader witness a leadership transition that deepens its confidence in the board and its leadership.

If not…well, you know that story…At best, uncertainty and fear percolate among your stakeholders; at worst, chaos ensues.

What often differentiates a successful leadership transition is communication. Good communication between the organizational leader and the board is an optimal starting point, but even a bumpy or unexpected transition that is managed adroitly and communicated successfully can protect and even elevate the organization’s reputation.

Your board and the organization’s staff leader should be engaging in periodic conversations about succession planning–conversations that invite open communication and foster trust. Handled thoughtfully, these conversations and the shared trust they engender will set the stage, when the time comes, for a leadership transition with a timeline and a communication plan that reflects well on both the departing leader and the organization.

Whether your leadership transition is well-planned and well-timed, a surprise, or a difficult separation, here are some tips to help you and your board manage organizational reputation, internally and externally, during a leadership transition:

  • No surprises. You owe your staff leader the respect and courtesy of appropriately candid communication about his or her performance. Ongoing and well-documented evaluations, corrective action plans, and meaningful discussions around alignment are a must. There is no excuse for: “I never saw it coming.”
  • Ensure confidentiality. While we encourage open communication between the board and the staff leader, when it comes to talking about the details or making the announcement, the board and the staff leader need to protect and respect each other and keep the needs of organization top-of-mind. Every meeting and every discussion should conclude with a reminder about the importance of maintaining confidentiality and determining what information can be shared (if any), with whom and how.
  • Consult with experts. Whether seeking the assistance of a search firm or consulting with an employment attorney, get the help you need to accomplish a well-managed transition and protect the organization’s reputation and its assets.
  • Do unto others… If your board has made the difficult decision to part ways with your staff leader, don’t hide behind email or other written communication to deliver the news. Have the courage and decency to engage face-to-face. Your employment attorney should be able to guide you in how to deliver the information prudently and humanely.
  • Reach agreement on messaging. While it may not always be possible, the departing leader, the board, and the organization can all benefit from a single message. Whatever the reason for the transition, a message that the transition has been well considered, is timely, and is supported by a thoughtful search process will reflect well on everyone. And don’t miss the opportunity to focus attention on your organizational priorities, the work that will define your next chapter under capable new leadership.
  • Identify a spokesperson. Ideally, the agreed upon messaging is delivered to the public by the board chair or an appointee (with all other board members referring inquiries to that person). In a planned departure, where the staff leader is retiring or is moving on to another position, it makes sense for the departing leader to share the news with staff and provide them with appropriate messaging.
  • Honor accomplishments. Most departing leaders deserve some kind of send-off that honors their service. The scale is likely to depend upon the length of the leader’s tenure and your organization’s culture. Engage staff in determining how best to proceed, and consider this an opportunity to highlight organizational accomplishments as you say an appropriate goodbye and thank you.

Finally, in any leadership transition, it is essential that the board rally together, work as a team, and communicate in a unified manner. Yes, leadership transitions are stressful times for organizations, but handled deftly, they can reflect well on the board, the organization AND the departing leader.

About the Author

Jeff WahlstromJeff Wahlstrom is managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting and a MANP-endorsed provider of executive search services. He has more than 30 years of hands-on experience as a nonprofit leader, board member, and consultant to an extensive list of clients, large and small, throughout Maine. He regularly provides counsel to boards on governance best practices, leadership succession and transition planning, and strategic planning. Jeff has developed an online board self-assessment tool and strategic board recruitment toolkit for Maine nonprofits, and he is a frequent speaker on a wide range of board governance and nonprofit management topics.