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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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
When you suddenly learned that a key staff person just got a serious medical diagnosis and was going to be out for an extended period or that their spouse just got offered their dream job out of state, would you be ready? There are a variety of ways to get started with succession planning that prepare the organization. These include emergency back up planning, departure-defined planning, and shifting to a model of shared leadership.
Are you ready for an emergency?
Have you determined who will step in on a temporary basis if your leader is out suddenly? Include both board and staff roles in this planning, not just your CEO role. Do you have someone designated to step in for each of the roles on your leadership team?
Once you have the ‘who’ determined – will they know what to do? What documentation do you have on the projects and processes they manage? If the person has been in the role for a long time, asking them to write everything down rarely works. Have another staff person or volunteer interview that person and then write up what they heard. This gives the person something to react to and likely they will identify gaps to fill in.
Are there ways you can do cross training? Nonprofits are usually pretty lean and rarely have much duplication built in. How can you ensure that your staff knows what colleagues do and what key priorities are coming up? When you do have to ask a staff member to double up and do more than their job, how can you reward them for that extra effort?
Run a fire drill
I recently heard of an executive who decided they were going to run a fire drill to see whether their emergency succession planning was sufficient. She would call a person on her executive team and tell them not to come in, not to check email or respond to inquiries – could the designated staff manage on their own? What did they still need to learn? This real time exercise puts these questions to the test.
Planning for a departure
When your executive or someone on the leadership team know they are planning to leave in a defined amount of time, you can plan ahead. This is typically in the case of retirement and often the time frame is between 1 year to 4 years. Preparing for this process has multiple stages and I discuss each of these in these posts:
Should I stay or should I go?
Even though an executive may be planning to leave – they may be ambivalent about leaving. This may mean that they give mixed messages about their plans. As their feeling shift between excitement for new possibilities and fears about the future their timing may fluctuate. This is often especially true for leaders who are founders or have been in their role for a long time. Their identity may be caught up and entwined with the role. Thus they may have a hard time letting go even though on most days they feel they are ready. A coach can help a leader work through these feelings. This can help keep the organization’s anxiety at a minimum by getting clearer about their intentions.
Planning for succession can feel challenging with all the immediate demands of work. Yet it is just a matter of when a succession will make this more urgent. Emergency planning and documentation is a good place to get started.
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.
Executive transitions have three essential stages. Tom Adams dubbed these as prepare, pivot and thrive. In my last post, I focused on the first stage -- the things that you need to do to get ready.
When people think of leadership transitions, most often they think about the middle stage – the search for the new executive. And I will focus on that below. The third stage is crucially important to help a new executive succeed.
As part of the preparation, the organization needs to create a transition or search team. One of the first tasks is to create a position profile. When creating the job description, you will need to separate out what is essential to the leadership role and what was part of the last leader’s role simply because of their particular strengths and capacities.
The team will then need to start compiling outreach lists. You will also need to complete compensation research so that you set your salary range at a competitive rate. You may use salary surveys available from your field’s association. There are also consultants who specialize in this type of research who could provide support on this important task.
Many teams, especially larger organizations, choose to hire a search firm. A search firm can broaden your reach in terms of possible candidates. They often do much of the initial screening as well as guide your group through the search process.
Your team will need to do the typical steps of hiring including:
The entire search committee may not be involved in all of these steps. A smaller group could take on some of the initial tasks. Decide at which stage the full board will be brought into the process. Will the search committee offer one final candidate or will the board be part of interviewing the finalists?
Hiring your new leader
The executive director is the board’s only employee. The search committee will bring their final candidate or finalists to the board for its approval. A subgroup of the board should work on the details of the employment agreement. This group would likely benefit from the support and guidance of a lawyer.
While one group is negotiating details with the new leader another group could be working on planning for the arrival and orientation of the new executive director.
Throughout the process, the search committee and board will want to plan for communication with the rest of the organization. While they will not be able to share confidential details of who the candidates are, keeping stakeholders up to date on the group progress is important. This is especially important if you hit snags or parts of the process take longer than anticipated.
I will address the third stage – “thrive” – in the next post in this series.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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