Six Issues in Executive Transitions – Part 1

In my governance work, I have found many board members are poorly prepared for executive transitions. And that means their organizations go through unnecessarily tough transitions, with set-backs in achieving their mission.
Ideally, when a CEO or Executive Director is leaving, almost everyone wants the organization to keep functioning well until a new and perhaps even more wonderful senior staff person is in place. Board members are resigned to putting in extra hours temporarily, but hope for a worthwhile result. Here’s some of what many nonprofits experience instead, and some questions you can ask to prepare for the best possible transition.

  1. There has been no planning for succession. And that gap can lead to:
  • Lack of Board agreement on how to cover a vacancy or replace the departing leader, and struggles to deal with both issues at once;
  • No advance thinking about whether there is a current or recent Board member who could and would cover the role;
  • No consideration of which staff members might be willing and qualified to cover, and if so, whether or not a staff member acting as CEO or ED would be eligible to apply for the permanent role. (NOTE: I’ve seen the ‘obvious choice’ refuse!);
  • No discussion of how to position the competition as fair if an internal person is appointed as acting. Potential candidates, both internal and external are likely to see the competition as fake;
  • No Board agreement on an executive search firm be hired and if so which one and for what tasks;
  • No advance clarification that a board member applying for the permanent role must resign first.

All this can be figured in a calm period, with strategic advice from the Executive Director, not at a time of upheaval. Ask yourself, “Is there any valid reason not to include a governance items on succession planning on your next board agenda?” Decide which committee or other group will draft a plan for Board consideration and by when.

Tip: Include the CEO or Executive Director! He or she understands the role best, and also may feel threatened if excluded. Good leaders want to ensure organizational sustainability after they leave. But don’t give the CEO the deciding vote or accept their recommended internal person without carefully considering alternatives.

  1. Undue Haste. Without a plan or understanding of the role of interim executives, Boards rush to hire a new permanent executive. When a Board rushes to hire, these things can happens:
  • They revive an old job ad and specification without review for current practices or future skill and knowledge needs;
  • They advertise poorly and then choose from a small or inappropriate candidate pool;
  • They breathe a huge sigh of relief and leave the new person to flounder without a good orientation plan or extra support. So it doesn’t work out, and the organization unintentionally hired an interim after all – except their community expected the person to be permanent, and the new executive probably gave up another job (and may sue).

Everyone loses. As a director, ask yourself, “What can the Board do in advance of a change in Executive Director or CEO role to prevent these errors?

Tip: is an excellent resource to help directors understand the role and processes relating to interim executives.

  1. High Emotional Stress. It’s really hard when the departure has been abrupt. What comes into play then?
  • Maybe a beloved executive was suddenly lost due to illness or accident. Then add grieving to the mx. Remember the staff members and non-board volunteers are grieving too;
  • Alternatively, the Board terminated an executive or forced a departure. Then those involved with the organization are dealing with mixed feelings, ranging from “should have done that long ago” to “they’ll soon realize their mistake.” The atmosphere may be toxic for whoever fills in or replaces the departed leader;
  • Even when a departure is planned and amicable, many people were friends and allies of the former leader, and now feel insecure. Board members dealing with their own stress often fail to show compassion and give support to others in the nonprofit.

Directors can ask themselves, “Are we well prepared to honour a departing executive appropriately, and support the staff and community during transition?”

Tip: It’s better to prepare for a difficult transition and not need everything you’ve prepared than to be caught short.
The next issue of this blog will cover three more issues with executive transitions. If you have not already subscribed, please do so now so you won’t miss Part 2.

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