Search vs. Transition: Why You Need a Committee for Both

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. 

Searching for a new leader and ensuring a smooth transition from one leader to the next are two different things. While some search committees end-up being called the “transition committee,” and may even find that their work extends beyond the search, I recommend to the nonprofit boards with which I work that they consider having one committee for the search and a separate committee charged with ensuring a successful leadership transition.

The process of conducting an executive search, even with professional assistance, can be exhausting for board members. Upon completing a search, the volunteer members of the search committee can be excused for wanting to wish the new leader well and hand him or her off to someone else to worry about. Yet, it can be argued that a well-managed transition is just as important as a well-managed search.

What is the Charge of a Transition Committee?

Ensuring a smooth and successful transition of leadership should not be left to chance. A transition committee made-up of a few well-connected board members and, perhaps, even a small number of key staff should be charged with developing a transition plan and supporting its implementation. This can be a fun committee of which to be a member. As you’ll see below, most of their work revolves around planning events and setting-up meetings with the organization’s friends and supporters.

In addition to ensuring a warm welcome and introductions for your new leader, and an appropriate farewell for your departing leader, the transition committee’s primary focus should be on getting your new leader off to a running start. While the new leader might navigate his or her way through many of the internal aspects of the organization, the transition committee can play a key role in helping him or her develop and nurture relationships with donors, community members, and key stakeholders who are important to your organization.

The transition committee should anticipate that its work might stretch-out over the first six months of the new leader’s tenure, and their work (and their plan) should include the following elements:

Welcome and farewell events

I was told once that: “How you welcome and say goodbye to employees says a lot about you and your organization.” The transition of leadership is both a chance to offer a warm welcome and to say an appropriate goodbye. People will be watching to see how you do both. Be sure to find a way to celebrate the departing leader. The scale of this will depend greatly upon the length of his/her tenure and their wishes regarding how this will be done. Don’t mix your farewell event with your welcome event—both leaders deserve their own time to shine. You may also find that a few smaller receptions or meetings, rather than one big event, will prove to be a great way to introduce your new leader.

Relationship building

The opportunity to introduce or present the new leader is a brief moment in time and should be maximized with speaking engagements, receptions, one-on-one visits, and public relations opportunities. If you’ve been looking for reasons to meet with your loyal donors or long-time partners, introducing the new leader and making these people feel like valued “insiders” can’t be beat. While there may be a few cases where a “hand-off” attended by the departing leader makes sense, a meeting arranged by and including board members or other key volunteers is definitely preferred. Set-up these meetings during the first six months while the new leader can still claim to being “new” and while interest and curiosity among your constituency is at its highest.

Board engagement

Be sure to engage the board throughout the transition. New leaders often complain that they were hired and then don’t see their board members until the first board meeting. Signal to your new leader that you are partnering with him or her and that you care about his or her success. If a childhood friend moved to town, I’m sure you would take an active role in getting your friend acclimated and introduced to the community. Do the same here, and make sure your fellow board members appreciate the role they can play in helping with introductions, establishing relationships, and attending the welcome events and activities. I’ll always be grateful, as a one-time executive director, for the efforts of two board members, in particular, who took me to meetings, introduced me at Rotary, and stood by my side during those initial welcome events.


Along the lines of “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” don’t miss the opportunity to announce your new leader through traditional and social media. Developing a communication plan, and a message strategy, should be done before the new leader’s first day of work. Coordinate the initial announcement(s) with your board chair, the search committee, and your new candidate to ensure that what you are sending-out conveys excitement and reinforces your key messages. Most importantly, control the message. Stress with board members and staff that there is a strategy and a timeline and that they should hold-off on sharing the news until the official announcement is made.

While a leadership transition may feel traumatic to insiders and exhausting to board members, the reality is that there are tremendous opportunities here. This is one of those moments where you have a good shot at getting the media attention you are always seeking, of connecting with donors, and building relationships. A transition committee can ensure not only a great welcome and successful orientation for your new leader but help your leader get off to a fast start as you lay the groundwork for a promising future.

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.