Seven Tips for a Smooth Transition from a Recently-Retired CEO

We are pleased to offer this guest post by Meredith Jones, former President and CEO of Maine Community Foundation, as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series. 

Last September I stepped down as CEO of the Maine Community Foundation. Having announced my departure a year earlier, I knew then it was time to make way for a new leader to take an organization I loved to a future limited only by the imagination, wisdom, and commitment of the board, staff, and a growing family of donors, partners, and friends.

The decision to step down was made all the more difficult because this was (and is) the best job in Maine. So why leave?  A wise man once told me that seven years is an important benchmark in the life of a CEO. I think he was telling me that if I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to do in that seven year timeframe, it was unlikely to happen. While I am proud of the accomplishments during my seven-year tenure, I knew there was much to do that would require new leadership.

So this once nattily-attired, always busy CEO has completed her transformation. I am now an enthusiastic, albeit very out-of-shape YMCA fitness devotee with time to spare and an entirely new wardrobe to match.

Given this gift of time and reflection, and having watched my successor and former staff not miss a beat in moving forward without me, I offer the following seven tips to ensure that others’ transitions will be as smooth and seamless.

1. Build staff’s skills and knowledge.

One of a leader’s most important organizational responsibilities is to build their colleagues’ knowledge and skills and to encourage their professional development. Knowledge is power, and the more staff knows and understands how the organization works, the easier the leader’s transition will be. A departing leader will know she/he has succeeded if any one of their leadership team is capable of managing the enterprise in a pinch.

2. Provide ample advance notice of your departure.

Alerting board leadership well ahead of a planned departure is important. A CEO’s departure allows the board and staff to evaluate the position being vacated and craft a position description that outlines the knowledge and skills they will need for future success. They will want to recruit a search committee and possibly hire an outside search firm. All of this takes time, and the more they have, the easier the transition. I gave the board chair and vice chair more than a year’s notice and know other nonprofit leaders that have provided even more notice than that.

3. Develop a communication strategy.

Maine is a small community and word travels fast. Consider what transition messages are important to convey, to whom, how, and when. While board leadership was aware of my plans in early 2014, the announcement became public much later that year. In one day, the board was informed (in person) of my plan to step down as was the entire staff (by email) and other key partners, donors, and friends (by personal call from me). The following day we issued a press release and sent an e-blast to all donors. There were other components to the plan, but the entire strategy was designed with an eye towards ensuring key stakeholders that the transition would be both thoughtful and smooth.

4. Support the board chair and vice chair.

The board plays a critical role in times of transition. Remember that most board members are volunteers with full-time day jobs. In the earliest stages of change, the departing CEO will want to ensure that the board chair and vice chair are well supported in their efforts to choose a successor. Many boards will want the CEO’s perspectives with respect to unfinished business, the future needs of the organization, areas of vulnerability or risk, exceptional talent within the organization, etc. A staff liaison to the board (other than the departing leader) might be helpful. Remember that theirs is an awesome task, and anything staff can do to support these volunteers will be appreciated and will reduce the risk of a bumpy transition.

5. Develop a pre-departure work plan.

This 90+-day plan should include the important things the departing leader wants to get off the to-do list but hasn’t, including final meetings with key funders and partners, knowledge transfer, special acknowledgments, expressions of gratitude to staff, file clean-up, exit interview with the chair of the governance committee, list of people your successor should meet, and (last but not least) ensuring there’s a sparkling, empty office with a note to welcome your successor and to offer your support. If at all possible, don’t leave your successor with any urgent tasks. She/he should be given the gift of flexibility and latitude to figure things out for at least 90 days.

6. Get out of Dodge.

Offer your services to your successor, and be as available as she/he wants, but generally stay out of the way. I recently heard about an interim CEO who kept returning to the office once his permanent replacement was on board. Yikes! Your disappearance – painful as it might be for you — allows the remaining staff to transfer loyalties and for the new CEO to establish his or her own relationships. If staff complains about how things aren’t the same, don’t bite. They’re right. Things aren’t the same, and that’s the way it should be. The ultimate sign of a skilled and effective departing CEO (no small feat), is an organization that warmly welcomes its new leader and hums along quite nicely, almost as if you were never there.

7. Enjoy your new life.

I am wrestling with this. I’ve had board members suggest that I volunteer in a homeless shelter, take a course, read, write a blog (something I loved doing in my former job), take up cooking (I prefer eating), or have a radio show. Let’s just say I’m a work in progress with little success to date. I’ll let you know when I’ve mastered this one.

About Our Guest Author

Meredith JonesMeredith H. Jones is the former president and CEO of the Maine Community Foundation, a statewide public foundation with approximately $430 million in assets.  Since its creation in 1983, the foundation has awarded more than $220 million in scholarships and grants to individuals and nonprofit organizations. She chairs the board of directors of CFLeads, a national organization of community foundation CEOs engaged in community leadership work and is a trustee for Thomas College. 

In 2015 Jones received the Kenneth L. Curtis Leadership Award from Leadership Maine for her distinguished statewide leadership in philanthropy. She is the recipient of the Deborah Morton award and was recognized by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center as a Distinguished Maine Policy Fellow. She is a graduate of Colby Sawyer College and the University of Maine at Augusta and has completed post-graduate work at the University of Maine. In 2013 Jones received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Maine at Augusta, and in May 2016 she will be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Southern Maine.

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