Emerging from Crisis
Challenge: A small watershed organization had survived a tumultuous several years after the death of its founder and long-standing executive director. During the founder’s tenure, the board had been a following, governance board. The board led by a new board chair had navigated many challenges including an unsuccessful merger attempt, theft by a caretaker at one of the organization’s properties and other problems. The board decided the organization needed to take stock and reimagine itself, making the most of the legacy left by the founder and rebuilding an organization to meet both today’s realities and live into a new vision its future.
Approach: I interviewed the board members and supported board members as they interviewed external stakeholders. Through the interviews, it became clear that the organization while it wanted to engage in longer range strategic planning it was only in the position to do short range planning. Most board members had been involved with the organization for years and many were burned out. Yet some found it challenging to let go and allow new leadership to emerge. Many had come on during the founder’s tenure and were not prepared to engage in the hands on work that the organization now needed from its board and it now had no staff. I facilitated a one-day retreat to help the group uncover what they had learned from their experience and think about where the organization stood in terms of the phases of development that nonprofits typically go through and what it meant for what was required from the board at its present stage of development.
Results: Over the course of the organization’s several years of turn around, the board chair had essentially been working part time for the organization without compensation. During the retreat, the board decided to make her executive director and pay her for her work. A new board chair was named. Several board members announced their departure making way for new leadership to engage with the organization. The board also set several short-term goals for the year.
Building Shared Leadership
Challenge: A well-respected state level education nonprofit decided to celebrate its 30-year anniversary by engaging in strategic planning to envision its future and set goals for the next 3-5 years. The organization had emerged from a challenging period in its history during which long-standing but no longer financially sustainable programs were sun-setted. The executive director who had been with the organization since its founding hoped to strengthen the organization’s staff and board leadership by increasing shared leadership. The board was small and the majority of it members are relatively new to the organization. The executive director priorities included considering whether the organization’s name adequately represents its work; how to build capacity within the staff and board for greater shared leadership with the executive director as well as longer-term succession planning.
Approach: I interviewed all the board members, external stakeholders as well as the staff. I facilitated a session with board, staff and a few external stakeholders that encompassed a look back at the organization's accomplishments over its 30 year history, considered the trends in the wider environment impacting the organization and reviewed the themes that emerged from the interviews. The group then discussed what implications the trends and themes had for the organization as it considered its future direction.
Results: Through the interviews a number of issues emerged including the weakness of the board. Through the feedback and discernment process in the first session, the board decided to take a break from strategic planning and focus on its own development. Six months later the board had recruited new members and taken steps to create more a sense of shared leadership with the executive director.
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For the past 20 years, I have been reading about the impending leadership transition in the nonprofit sector as the baby boomers begin to retire. Work in this area has typically focused on a feared leadership gap. Economic realities have delayed this generational shift for years, with many leaders delaying their retirements. Yet it seems like this shift is finally here. At many of the clients I have worked with over the past couple years, the leader is planning to retire in the one-three years.
Not just a generational shift
Yet even without this large generational shift, organizations manage leadership transitions all the time. A June 2015 survey by the Bridgespan Group found that 43% of organizations had to fill a C-Suite position in the previous two years. During a webinar hosted by Nonprofit Quarterly in 2017, the speakers noted that research shows that nine percent of executives turnover every year. Leaders may be leaving for a new role or a new organization, for retirement or because they were asked to leave, as well as other reasons.
Staff are likely talking it
In working with leadership starting to think about moving on, I have struck by a fear they seem to have in common. When we talked, each emphasized – sometimes multiple times - not to mention anything to staff or board members. Though this is on their mind they are very anxious to not share this information with whom they work. I worked at one organization at which the leader was already over 70. Yet mentioning this at a meeting or talking about when they might retire – even when planning a celebratory event several year out – was strictly off the table.
Certainly leaders want to manage this communication carefully, thoughtfully and on their own time line. Yet what they may not realize is that their staff is likely already talking about it. Conversations with each other likely include some speculating about the leader’s plans. So just because a leader has not made any formal announcement, don’t assume staff and board are not wondering about when it will happen and having sidebar conversations about this.
All types of transitions are challenging
This fear about addressing the issue likely comes from a variety of sources. And transitions of all sorts are challenging. Some of the most helpful work in this area that describe the emotions that people experience when going through a transition is by William Bridges. His book Managing Transitions describes three phases – the ending, the middle or neutral zone and new beginnings.
In our action oriented culture most people want to jump from the ending to the new beginning and skip right over the in between and nebulous space of the neutral zone. Yet our lives don’t work like this. Going through a transition means experiencing that in between -- not quite here--not quite there-- space. Anthropologists call this a liminal space – the space in between. It’s the messiness of the emotions involved in the ‘in between’ that most of us would rather skip. The diagram below shows the typical emotions people experience as they move through a transition.
We are emotional beings
In organizations, though we often pretend that people leave their emotional selves at the door and only enter with their expertise, skills and get it done capacity, we know from our own experience that this is not true. This is even more true during leadership transitions. Being willing to acknowledge that is it happening, or will be happening, acknowledge the emotions and then take positive action can make all the difference. In future posts, I will cover a number of aspects of managing leadership transitions including:
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At this year’s ASAE Annual Conference, I moderated a session called, Walking the Talk of Change Leadership. At the beginning of the session, we asked audience members to write the questions they about the topic on index cards. We told one change leadership story then spent the rest of the session answering as many questions as we could. You can read an article about the session here. These were the questions we did not get to during the session.
1. Change in part takes a diverse board (gender, ethnicity, and age). How do you achieve that? “No more old white men boards.”
If you are not already doing so, implement and enforce term limits. Be proactive about publicizing the application and nominations process for your board. Get beyond current board members’ personal networks. Those networks will most likely be mirrors of who is already on your board. Create leadership development programs to train and prepare new leaders. Prioritize investing in emerging leaders who bring new perspectives to your board. And do not assume it’s only about emerging leaders – there may be leaders in your midst that you have simply looked past.
2. Why change? What we’re doing is working!
It is challenging to move any change forward if there is not any sense of urgency or recognition that issues exist. Consider helping those guarding the status quo to consider wider trends that could impact the organization. Or start elsewhere with a few allies. Start small and share successes.
3. How do you promote change and new ideas without current staff freaking out?
What are current staff freaking out about? What is it about the change that is upsetting them? Have you asked them? Is there something you can learn from their resistance? Can you iterate in way that addresses their concerns? Which ideas are low hanging fruit and could be implemented relatively easily? Share your early wins with those who are afraid of changes to demonstrate the benefits.
4. How to convince the board permanent staff is required versus volunteers?
Build the business case for the change. What is not currently getting done or done consistently with volunteers? What skills and knowledge are unique to your volunteer base? What would benefit from being professionalized? What will each group bring to the table to create a greater partnership? Who would benefit from making the change? What will the upsides be to making the shift? Also address the downsides so that those considering the change do not feel like they are being “sold.”
5. How do you manage the change as the change is happening?
Recognize and acknowledge to your staff that it may not feel like “management” while things are in flux. Even if things are moving fast, take a little time out to take stock and see where you are, where you have come from and what is coming next. Celebrate your small wins along the way.
6. How do you create energy for radical change when there is no crisis or chaos acting as a lever?
It is unlikely that you will be able to move quickly to radical change without a crisis. Consider where can you create energy for change, even if it is not yet radical. You might consider facilitating a conversation that helps the group consider the environmental trends that could spur a crisis if the organization is not paying attention.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.