Challenge: Nine new executive directors came together to create a learning community for conservation movement leaders. The group aimed to learn about topics related to nonprofit management, governance, institutional advancement, and healthy partnerships. While the group could pursue organizing the learning program by themselves, they decided they would be better supported by a facilitator who would create the content and lead them, working collaboratively with the group to create a program that met the group’s needs.
Approach: After interviewing each of the participants about their hopes for the program as well as the challenges they were facing with their organization, I worked with a planning committee to plan the monthly learning sessions. Each participant completed a self-assessment of their executive director competencies and drafted a professional learning plan to define their learning goals for the program.
During each monthly session we used half the session to dive into a topic and the second half for the group to participate in peer coaching circles. Peer coaching circles can take a number of different forms. To keep it simple, I set two basic ground rules for the time. Each person would present their challenge briefly and then the rest of the group would ask questions for a set amount of time. This process helped each person think aloud about their challenge and the questions from the group helped them consider aspects that they might have missed. This also provided the ‘questioners’ practice with being in a coaching stance, rather than jumping in with a solution. This was a useful skill for them to develop as they supervise staff. In between meetings, pairs met as accountability partners.
Monthly topics included organizational culture, staff management, board development, strategic planning, mapping organizational impact, and creating a organizational dashboard. We culminated the program with a retreat that combined time with accountability partners, focus on a couple content areas as well as topics identified through an open space process.
Results: Participants reported that they:
Felt less alone. “It’s lonely at the top.” This sentiment was expressed early on as the peer-learning network was forming. Being able to compare notes, share wins and challenges and get feedback from peers was invaluable. It helped those in the network feel less lonely as they developed a group of trusted colleagues to whom they could reach out in times of doubt and challenge.
Thought bigger. Several participants came into the program feeling confident about their abilities in running programs. They were unsure, however, about shifting to a more strategic level of organizational leadership. Through feedback from participants and others, they were able to shift their perspective and see how they could take their program management skills and use them as the foundation for their strategic work as executive directors.
Built accountability. For new executive directors, this may be the first time they’ve worked without a direct supervisor. To help each participant achieve their goals, they paired up with an accountability partner and regularly met to discuss their progress. This practice is grounded in research that shows that if you write down your goals you are more likely to achieve them. If you share them with another person and then check in with that person on how you are doing on your goals, you are even more likely to follow through. These pairings not only helped participants advance their work, it strengthened their connections within the network.
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Too many organizations think that succession planning means identifying and grooming who will take over when a staff leader moves on. This approach may appropriate in some cases, yet may put the organizational “eggs” in just one basket. At the same time, two thirds of new hires to replace exiting leaders come from outside the organization. This has remained consistent across 15 years of data and multiple studies.*
What am I doing today to replace myself?
How can you build your bench strength in your organization? How are you developing leadership through out the organization? Andy Robinson, a nonprofit consultant, urges leaders to ask themselves the following questions: “What am I doing today to replace myself?” and “How do I empower others to do the work rather than just do it myself?”
A good place to start with sharing leadership is to define the leadership competencies that are needed for the roles on your leadership team. Once you have defined these competencies, you can then assess who else on your staff has the competencies or could develop them.
Aligning with strengths
Are you aligning staff with their strengths? Are there new projects that could provide a staff member an opportunity to stretch and use their innate strengths? Have you talked to staff and asked about their aspirations? Unfortunately once someone is in a role, it is too easy to assume that that is the limit of his or her ambition and capacity.
How could you do some cross training? This can be challenging at nonprofit organizations that tend to have very lean staffing structures. Ask your staff to document their work first then spend a day or half a day having the person’s emergency back up shadow and get an orientation to their role. One of your most important tasks as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that you can take time off without anxiety.
A significant part of leading well is leaving well. What will be your legacy?
*Nonprofit Quarterly webinar: Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability: An Updated Approach that Changes the Landscape, March, 2017
Too often when a search committee has selected the organization’s new leader, they are weary from the work of the search. They then forget that getting the new leader launched is a critical last step of their role. Many organizations miss this important final stage of the process.
What will your launch plan be? How will you do announcements about the new person in the role? How will you plan for the arrival and orientation of the new Executive Director? What will the role of the outgoing ED be? How will information be handed off? Beware of the temptation of pointing the new person out the bathroom and wishing them well.
Outgoing executive director
Often the board will want the outgoing executive director to stay on and orient the new person in the role. While this is an understandable instinct, avoid having the former executive director stay on for too long. A short (1-2 week) overlap should be sufficient to get the new person acquainted with where they can find important information, etc. Then often the former executive director will be contracted to be on call as the new person needs their assistance. Leave it within the new person’s control how and when they reach out to the old executive director. If the old executive director stays on too long, board members and staff will likely continue to reach out to the former leader instead of the new leader. This undermines the authority of the new leader and stalls an effective transition.
Social network of the organization
How will you introduce the new leader to the key stakeholders of the organization? The outgoing leader can be helpful in this regard. Or board members could take on this role and provide introductions to key people. Ensuring key relationships continue to be nurtured is key in a transition.
Establishing new leader with the board
Early on the new leader will want to have a conversation with the board about expectations. What are the goals and targets for the first 3, 6, 12 months? How did the former executive director work with the board? What does the incoming leader see as their role and the board’s role? Getting clear about roles and responsibilities and expectations is a place where a facilitator can be helpful to ensure that a full conversation about these key topics happens.
Support & Feedback
How will the board provide ongoing support and communication to the new leader? What are the professional development goals for the new leader in the first year? Ensure there is a plan for regular feedback. How will the board provide feedback on performance and expectations?
Shying away from this important responsibility is easy for boards but too often a source of serious trouble. Plan to provide feedback at 90 days, 6 months and 1 year in first year. If this has not been a regular practice, building assessment and feedback in for both the board and the executive can provide useful data and early warning signals of trouble that can then be addressed before they become truly problematic.
Making a plan for onboarding the new leader is key. What are their goals? How will they connect with key stakeholders? How will they work with the board and how will the board provide feedback. Dig into these issues early for a greater likelihood of success.
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:
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My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.