Surviving and Thriving in Times of Transition

We are pleased to offer this guest post by Tony Cipollone, President and CEO, John T. Gorman Foundation, as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series.

Times of transition are always challenging for any organization. That said, for the many Maine-based nonprofits facing a changeover in executive leadership, transitions can also present unique opportunities to regroup, refresh, and reaffirm commitment to the mission and direction.

From a funder’s perspective, I’ve seen the most successful transitions occur when there are clear sets of responsibilities and expectations for all who play a role in determining the organization’s course: the board, the outgoing CEO, the incoming leadership, and the rest of the staff. The following are some recommendations collected after years of observing successful — and unsuccessful transitions.

Set the Tone

To set the tone, the board of directors of the organization should take some time to ensure that the mission, values, and direction of the organization are still appropriate and relevant. Indeed, other than the strategic planning process (which, as previously noted in this space, should never occur alongside an executive transition), there’s no more fitting occasion for this kind of reflection.

The central question at hand: does the current direction of the organization still make sense for the future?

After all, in terms of funding, policy, and public perception, nonprofits in Maine are in a very different environment than they were ten or even five years ago. It’s the role of the board to reinforce the current direction or help the organization alter it so that it can sustain this new reality while staying true to its core values.

If, after this period of reflection, the board does recommend changes to role of the CEO, it should be clearly communicated—both inside and outside the organization—in a way that does not connote a lack of confidence in the outgoing leadership. Rather, it’s the board fulfilling its responsibility to ensure that the next generation of leadership is not just right and appropriate for the organization—it’s the right leadership for these particular times.

Lay the Groundwork

As for the role of the departing CEO, the smoothest transitions occur when a leader has laid the groundwork for the organization to function well without them at the helm. An outgoing executive needs to think about a nonprofit’s sustainability well before the last day on the job, putting into place policies and procedures designed to facilitate continuity. As part of this succession planning, CEOs should also spend time building the capacity of those who help lead the nonprofit. This will do much to ease the transition process, especially if an internal candidate is chosen to run the organization.

Consider Fresh Perspectives

An additional word on internal candidates: it’s important that boards and outgoing leaders don’t jump too quickly to hire from the inside. Though this might seem like a less disruptive path in the short term, it’s a missed opportunity to speak with a broad array of candidates that have the potential to bring fresh perspectives to an organization at a critical juncture. If an internal candidate does turn out to be the best person for the job, a search process will also lend some authority that might not be present if the position is simply handed over.

After the Offer

The process of ensuring a successful executive transition goes on well after the job offer is made and accepted. Whether they have been with the nonprofit in another role or have been hired from the outside, new executives must step into their role ready to honor the past without being afraid to make changes to bolster the long-term health and relevance of the organization. And it doesn’t matter if there’s only one other staff person or hundreds of them. The rest of the team must be fully committed to their new leader’s vision and ready to let go of the way things used to be. Communication is the best way to ease this process. The new CEO and the remaining staff need to listen to each other’s perspectives with open minds.

No One Size Fits All

Every organization is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all plan to ensure a successful executive transition. However, I believe that some of the thoughts offered here can help funders and others gain even greater confidence that a nonprofit is on the right path to a long and healthy future.

About the Author

Tony CipolloneTony Cipollone is President and CEO of the John T. Gorman Foundation, a Portland-based private foundation dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged people in Maine. He joined the foundation in 2011 and since then has helped advance a range of new investment strategies aimed at improving results for children, youth and families.

Prior to that, he was Vice-President for Civic Sites and Initiatives at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where he worked in senior leadership for over 20 years and helped develop and lead numerous initiatives related to education, community redevelopment and policy advocacy, including Casey’s national KIDS COUNT project. In addition to his work at the Foundation, Tony also serves on the Board of Directors for Avesta Housing.

Tony received his doctorate in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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