Shifts Happen – Leadership Transitions

Your CEO of 14 years just gave four weeks’ notice. If you speak with people whose roles put them in touch with multiple nonprofits (senior staff at nonprofit associations and networks, leaders at Community Foundations, nonprofit centers, United Way leaders, serial board members, and consultants) you will hear an oft repeated tale: “CEO/executive director turnover is debilitating and borders on epidemic”. These anecdotal reports are backed up by the research (Daring to Lead 2011 report shows 67% of nonprofit CEO’s plan to depart within a five year time frame). One third of incoming leaders are following a predecessor that has been fired. So many transitions appear fraught with “collateral damage” and more drag on organizational momentum, relationships and credibility than necessary.

Does it have to be this way? Sorry to bear bad tidings but certain specific portions of the transition story are inconveniently wired at this time. These wires have to do with the quantity of transition. There is a lot of it and three big factors (among others) suggest this will continue for some time. First; there is a generational leadership shift that continues as baby boomer leaders retire or are forced out having over stayed their welcome, second; there are simply too many sub-scale organizations that are structured for fiscal and talent struggles and high turnover, and third; if the economy continues to ever so slowly inch towards old labor market norms, the current slight drag on transition rates (“Will I find something else?”) will diminish.

The potential good news is around making these leadership transitions less debilitating and even opportunities for realignment and excellence. The potential good news is not about whipping out your garden variety succession plan. Where these exist they tend to be too narrowly conceived (identifying interim leadership, a few points about the search process, maybe identifying a transition committee). Good research exists on robust succession planning but is rarely utilized. Utilizing good succession planning templates is important but let’s be a bit more creative and identify a few critical elements, which, If you are able to implement, will both reduce the likelihood of unwanted transitions, reduce the sting when they happen, and increase the likelihood of discovering positive opportunities in the process. This is not a comprehensive succession planning document.

1.    Get smart about the inherent tensions and dynamics of the CEO and board roles (see nice post from Al Cantor written as to the CEO). All organizations need a mutual accountability tool to be used as a two way scorecard/performance metrics between the CEO and the board. Not just the board evaluating the CEO! This ignores too many realities of what is needed for success (namely a working relationship) especially in small and medium size nonprofits. This tool will be adjusted for the context of each organization but at its core needs to include a two way (ongoing – not crisis) communication plan; two way metrics around CEO and board performance as ambassadors for the organization, as fundraisers, as developers of a talent and leadership pipeline, as financial stewards, and as guardians of the purpose/mission and current strategic plan. Each organization will create its own specific performance metrics in these areas.

2.    Once you are inside the intensity of a transition process do not lose sight of the human relationship risks and opportunities. This means other senior staff can be wounded and even lost due to inattention or perceived slights; donor, board and external partner relationships can rapidly flip from understandable anxiety to lost credibility; depending on your business even clients may be lost if a crisis of confidence ensues. Minimizing these risks requires a communication plan that is sensitive to all key constituents and rapid communication amongst the transition committee. It requires a large heart and some patience for the emotional issues that often surface in these situations.

3.    Do not let your organization skip the step of rigorously reviewing the role to see if smaller or larger adjustments are needed. Make sure these changes arise in an active relationship to the current strategic plan and organizational priorities. This gets forgotten in crises.  This step is especially critical if the departing CEO is the founder. Depending on your specific situation and context a more fully fledged organizational assessment may be in order. In some situations this is not the right thing to do.

4.    Do not let the board abandon ship once a new hire is made! Your new leader absolutely needs close accompaniment in the first 90 days. This takes skill, sensitivity and in my view usually needs help to set up a guiding framework. Ciampa and Watkins well researched work (Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role) provides helpful guidance: lay a foundation, build credibility, secure early wins, get oriented etc. If you already have consulting help with the process this can also be an important step to find guidance for and is frequently neglected.

Get these four areas right and you have dramatically reduced your risks and dramatically increased your chances for a positive transition. Next Post: So You want to be the new Development Director…