The Board Chair’s Role 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. 

No board chair I’ve ever met has taken on the role of chair with the hope of leading a search process for a new executive director or CEO. The chair’s job can be demanding enough without the prospect of handling all the aspects of a leadership transition and executive search. Yet transition is a reality, and you can’t always control the timing.

Let’s assume your executive director has let you know he or she will be leaving in six months or more (and not 6 weeks, or 6 days!). You’ve probably figured out that you must take the lead to ensure a successful leadership transition and search process, however, you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, unless you want this to turn into a full-time job, it will be essential to delegate responsibilities to other board members and consider getting professional assistance with the search process.

Note that I don’t suggest you can delegate this work to staff…you really can’t. This is one of the rare roles the board can’t dodge.

What follows is a list of those things you can do as board chair to get this transition started on the right foot:

  1. Help the board and staff appreciate the importance of continuing to move the organization forward (no treading water). You want to message that this is an opportunity—not a traumatic event—and emphasize the importance of advancing the mission and doing your very best work as you prepare to attract candidates.
  2. Consider carefully who should chair the search committee. If you are fortunate to have a strong, capable board member who might be willing to chair the search effort, you’ll have the option of handing off the leadership role. In that case you’ll need someone who is well-regarded (by the board and other key constituencies) and who can manage all the details and the many competing interests. Your appointment of a respected chair will help to put people at ease.
  3. Choose wisely in selecting the members of the search committee. Whether you decide to chair the search or recruit another board member to do so, you’ll need to recruit a small committee of well-regarded board members who care deeply about the organization and will represent it well. This isn’t the time to ask, “Who wants to serve…?” Be strategic in your appointments.
  4. Provide your search committee with the support they need to be successful. Give serious thought to engaging a search consultant. The stakes are high, and you need to get this right the first time. This should be a one-time expense, and it is an appropriate use of organizational reserves. You’ll also find it easier to recruit committee members if you can offer them professional assistance.
  5. Let your strategic plan be your guide. With the strategic plan in front of you, lead the board through a discussion that asks, “If we are going to achieve our aspirations—our vision—over the next 5 years, what kind of skills and abilities will we prioritize as we seek our next leader?” The discussion that follows and, ideally, a similar discussion session with staff, will help to guide the entire search process.
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. One more time: communicate. Take on the role of “chief communicator” and don’t worry about over-communicating. You can’t. This can be a time of incredible uncertainty, and uncertainty can cause the organization to appear fragile and prompt employees to begin exploring other options. While much of the search process requires that a high level of confidentiality be maintained, keeping all board members in the loop and staff apprised of the process will be essential.
  7. Develop a transition committee. This is not the same as the search committee. This will be a group of people—board members, staff, volunteers—who will make sure that you celebrate the accomplishments of your departing leader and help your next leader get off to the very best start possible.
  8. Partner with the new leader. Your candidates will be assessing you as carefully as you are assessing them. They will be looking for a board chair who can be a good partner—a partner who will help them navigate the transition and support them from the very beginning in being successful.

Throughout this process, your role as chair can start to feel like it has become a full-time job. You need to maintain your relationship with the outgoing CEO, work closely with the search committee, engage in the process of attracting candidates, negotiate with the finalist, and ensure a successful transition strategy is in place and being implemented—all while continuing your regular role as the chair. It can definitely feel overwhelming, but remember that you don’t have to go it alone.

Bring a team approach to the transition process and envision your role as that of a “player-coach.” While the stakes are high, and you need a “win” here, if you can engage the board in this process (with the help of some “star players” and maybe some outside expertise), you can definitely make this a manageable process and lead the organization through a successful leadership transition.

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.