When an organization is going through a leadership transition, one of the questions that is useful for them to consider is whether they would be well served to have an interim before they hire the new executive director.
There are many reasons to consider hiring an interim before launching into the full search process. It is especially useful after a founder or a long-term executive director (generally anything more than 7 years). Hiring an interim creates some space. It allows people to more naturally move through the phases of transition. By creating some separation between the former executive director and the new leader, the organization – staff and board -- can start separating the organization’s identity from the former long-term executive director. An interim director brings fresh eyes and can question how things are done. An interim director does not have the same stake in the outcome as a new executive director and thus can take some risks.
Time to evaluate
An interim helps facilitate conversations about former leader’s strengths and gaps. The organization can then celebrate achievements, identify what parts of the legacy should be preserved, and also start to do things differently. An interim often is able to identify hidden staff talents and potential. The interim director sometimes will also provide a bridge to new executive and even continue as mentor, helping with entry and a successful launch.
Interim directors have the space to “tell the truth” to the board. They will likely conduct an organizational assessment. They can be very helpful with addressing key organizational issues, including cleaning up messes. By taking this action in an interim period, it can better set the new executive director up for success. This allows the new executive director to come in and focus on the future.
Avoiding the accidental interim
Hiring an interim leader helps slow things down. By doing so, the board and staff have the time and space to think strategically and do a thorough search process. Too many organizations rush into a new hire. The new executive director comes in but does not last long because the organization was not fully ready to accept a new person. The quickly departing new executive director thus becomes an ‘accidental’ interim director. You will be better served with being intentional about this and gaining the benefits on an experienced interim.
There are consultants who specialize in taking interim roles. Many have been executive directors in the past. Many have been interim directors multiple times. Because of the benefits this brings, the field has now expanded to include interims for all the C-suite roles. While it may seem expensive in the short term, this option has many long-term benefits.
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:
Facing a leadership transition and need help thinking about how to get started? Inquire about a complimentary coaching session.
At the American Society for Association Executive (ASAE)’s At Work conference in early October, I facilitated a session on cultivating a healthy organizational culture. When asked what they associated with the term organizational culture, participants had lots of responses. Values, communications, hierarchy and energy were mentioned most frequently. The word cloud to the left summarizes the variety of responses.
Organizational culture, as defined by Edgar Schein, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
While there are visible parts of culture such as dress code, the organization’s mission, work environment, policies and procedures and strategic statements, most of culture in implicit and not readily visible. It has to be learned. This could be through story and conversation or more powerfully by making mistakes that break unspoken rules and assumptions.
One organizational culture model
Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture inventory is a commonly used organizational assessment that uncovers an organization’s cultural style. They group cultures in three styles, including constructive, passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive. A constructive culture, in their model, supports achievement, self-actualization and encourages people within the organization to work cooperatively with each other. A passive/defensive culture encourages people to follow the rules, values dependability, solutions tend to be conventional and conflict is avoided. An aggressive/defensive style values people who vie for status and influence by challenging each other, by taking charge and compete with each other. This style also tends to celebrate perfectionism and long hours. Of these three styles, the constructive style (not surprising considering its name!) is the healthiest culture and is most closely correlated with deeper employee engagement and better organizational results.
What do healthy organizations do differently?
Having used this assessment with many of her nonprofit clients, Dr. Elizabeth Scott researched what nonprofit organizations that have a healthy culture do differently than their peers with less healthy organizational cultures. She found that these organizations take distinctive action in two major areas – people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some specific actions that they take include infusing fun into their work, focusing on self-care and work-life balance and empowering staff to carry out the mission on their own. In terms of their human resources practices, they see human resources staff as a partner, they engage in careful hiring, onboarding as well as off boarding when needed. They provide ongoing training and regular feedback and place an emphasis on teamwork.
Cultivating a healthy culture
I asked participants in the session what their organization was doing in the areas of people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some current steps in people practices that people mentioned include new employee welcome and mentoring program, a new idea generation group that meet regularly, every other Friday off, employee engagement surveys and committees, staff retreats and telecommuting options. For encouraging employee well being, people mentioned fun committees, culture committees, book groups, gym reimbursement, movie day and other wellness initiatives.
Intention & leadership support
What I appreciate about most of these ideas is that for the most part they are not costly. What they require is intention and support from leadership. Support for people to take the time to come together and plan fun activities as well as the time and permission within the culture for people to participate.
That permission is key. I have seen organization that have tried some of these things – putting a foosball table and other board games in the lunch room for example. Yet the culture valued quiet and the CEO was known to publically question people when they took a break. So very few people used the foosball table or the games because it went against both unspoken and spoken ‘rules” within the culture. Other examples include organizations that have elaborate telecommuting policies or flexible leave policies that few take advantage of because face time and being seen in the office is highly valued.
What of these ideas could your organization try? And if you do – how will you make sure people know they really have permission to engage! Does your organization’s culture need some attention? Inquire about a coaching call.
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.