Six Issues in Executive Transitions – Part 2

In Part One, I covered three of the common areas where transitions go wrong: Chaos, Undue Haste and High Emotional Stress.

Now let’s continue to issues Four to Six.

4. Role Confusion. Everyone naturally worries who will cover what the Executive Director has been doing. So what might happen? Any or all of these:

• The Chair starts getting overly involved with operational management then finds it hard to step back;
• No one covers and the work piles up, with deadlines unmet for critical items such as grant submissions and reports;
• Someone on staff sees a vacuum and fills the void, often overstepping their authority and working above their skill set;
• Some of the staff members continue to take direction from a fired executive (I’ve really seen this happen!);
• Partner organizations and funders have no idea who is in charge, and get worried.

Amazingly, services to clients are usually continued well despite all this, but with great extra stress on program staff. Ask, “What can my board do to minimize that stress?
Tip: Ask the Executive Director to document how work is handled during more routine absences such as vacations. Ensure the acting person has expectations in writing, including which types of work can wait a few weeks. Have any transfer of delegated authority confirmed with the Board.

5. Bad Choices for an Interim Executive. It takes a special kind of person to be a good interim executive. What would you be looking for?

• For an outsider, experience running nonprofits of a similar scope. An interim role is not the right time for a long learning curve. Government, academic and corporate experience usually don’t cut it, unless the person has also been quite involved with leadership volunteering;
• Ability to learn fast, whether it’s the role or the organization and sector. Learning fast requires two main skills – asking really good questions and listening carefully;
• For an insider, a commitment to having the organization in great shape for the next leader. (I’ve seen one case where an internal promotion to interim executive went to someone who had already accepted another job – without telling the board – with the departed leader. The organizations were in somewhat of a power struggle, and the interim person did such harm during the interim role that it appeared malevolent. The permanent hire spent six months undoing the damage!).

Boards can have a great discussion around “What are our expectations of someone who covers for six months?”

Tip: Anticipate the need to clarify the Board’s expectations during the interviews.

6. Success is impossible. Some directors will not be satisfied with ANY new executive, because of one or more of the following:

• The departing executive was loved, perfect and no one could ever live up to his or her standards. Any attempt to do things differently, however minor or however critical to organizational survival, is dishonouring to the memory of our beloved founder;
• At the end of one month, the new hire does not know everything about the organization that the former executive knew at the end of ten years;
• At the end of one month, the new hire does not have all the executive skills and community contacts as fully developed as the former executive did at the end of ten years;
• The new person is not God, or Superman, Wonder Woman or a doppelganger of the one who came before.

Tip: Compare the new hire to what the former executive was like at the start, not the end, of their service. And remember, the former executive would have kept changing and improving processes too; nothing can stay still.

I hope the ideas in this blog help make your next executive transition fully successful.

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