In episode 32 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Don Tebbe discussed include:
Guest Information: Don Tebbe is an organizational planning consultant and one of America’s most experienced advisors on nonprofit CEO transition and leadership succession. He experienced, first-hand, the challenges of sustaining an organization and navigating leadership succession as a former nonprofit executive director and five-time interim CEO. Since 1993, he’s helped hundreds of nonprofit leaders plan for and manage turnover in their chief executive positions. Don was one of the national thought leaders involved in an Annie E. Casey Foundation-sponsored project to develop better practices for nonprofit leadership succession. Many of the concepts and practices used by succession practitioners today originated with the Casey project. He is the author of Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire & Support a Nonprofit CEO and The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.
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Carol Hamilton: Welcome Don. Welcome to the podcast.
Don Tebbe: Thanks Carol. I'm excited to be here. Have this chat with you and.
Carol: Absolutely. And I always like to start out and I know you've had a very long career. So this made this, this, the answer to this question may have changed over time, but what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Don: I see you sent me that question in advance and I had really pondered that because I think it's been more of a feeling than an explicit calling. In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I am trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place to really do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life. And I couldn't think of any, I tried business, I tried government. But I couldn't think of any place else where you could have a much more meaningful life than the nonprofit world.
Carol: Yeah. I've definitely found that as well. I mean, it's meaningful in the work that you're doing, but I also find it attracts other good people. And so I enjoy it. I often really enjoy my colleagues and enjoy their thoughtfulness and their sense of calm.
Don: Yeah, I think for me, the perfect place was to move in. In the consulting arena. I had been an executive director and deputy director for about 10 years before I moved into consulting in 1993. And I just really, I just fell in love with it. the opportunity to work with great people to work with them at a very meaningful moment when they're particularly, if they're. Maybe not necessarily struggling, but questioning, like when we're doing planning work. And it also gave me a lot of flexibility to really double down on, on the missions that I really care about without having the, the daily grind of, of being an executive, like developmental disabilities, like food security, like housing like, child services.
Carol: Yeah. Getting to contribute to all of those different things rather than having to pick one, one major passion. Yeah. So you, as you said, you've had a long career in the sector ranging over a number of different areas and, including executive search and really pioneering, how many transition specialists approach executive search today? I think actually. You're one of the people who's been quoted multiple times on this podcast over the past year. So kudos for that. And one thing that I especially appreciated about how you address this issue is that you address it from both sides, from the point of view of the board and the organization, but then also the point of view of a long term executive director or the founder. In your book the nonprofit CEO succession roadmap. I'm your guide for the journey to life's next chapter? Why was it important for you to address the exiting executive director directly?
Don: Well, it can't really came out of work that Tom Adamson I did when we were partners in a firm called transition guides. Tom and I met when he was leading a project for the Annie Casey foundation that was looking at the question of how we can have better transitions in the nonprofit world. Invited a small group of practitioners when myself included at the time I was the interim executive director of the interim ministry network. So Tom and I put together this program a two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors. Cause it was, yourself, those are some of them. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there. And, I think it's just, it's, it's, it's, it's a space where governance, executive leadership and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity to really address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. So we started off with, we were focused on executive transitions in, came up with the executive transition management model, all that, and what we realized that we needed to be working with organizations. Earlier, before they hit that moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. And then in early two thousands, I was looking at the, I do these deep dives every few years. And the deep dive I was doing then was around really organizational vitality. I did 140 CEO transitions in my career and managed 104 of them. And some organizations come to you in all sorts of conditions. There's the high performing organizations. There's the low performing organizations. There's the organism. They are firing their executive director. I really wanted to take a look at and see what characters, what are the characteristics of these high valleys? Tell the organization, those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment, the impact I am w what's what was going on in those organizations that I came away from. I did literature review and some case study research and came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that. What is vitality? And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and, and work leadership on that board higher. So the executive, the board, is responsible for shepherding the mission and shepherding him. And obviously the executive is their key partner in driving that impact. So I think it's terribly important to address both. But we found though with these retreats we had about, I think we had about 600 alumni when I left transition guides. We would do it a couple times a year, small groups, about 25 to 30 executives. It may, when I did interviews with. So folks that are with our alumni, what I found was that just really, They, they, they were our point of entry into the organization and, and, the opportunity to then work, with a board. So I think also my belief is that the executive really should initiate the succession process. And rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. So I think, it's, it's, it's. It's just like in a situation with a nonprofit; their key partners need to be working with both of them.
Carol: What would you say is important for exiting executive directors to realize about the transition?
Don: Well, probably the thing that I heard the most and was most surprising is to a person for these interviews, they. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. So we really tried to make sure that they understood that in, in, in this retreat process. So I think that's, I think that's one thing that's a surprising thing, but I think in terms of the points that I would make with executives is you probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people for three to four to five years ahead of their Parker, I'm thinking of one particular instance this executive was a household name and, she was not just the, the leader of this nonprofit. She was a leader of a whole movement and she was, that's, that's a pretty hard person to replace. So we actually, I started talking with her 10 years before she left and I don't, I don't think that was the cause, That there needed to be some capacity building around the movement and not just inside her for her organization. So, and that's an extreme case, but usually I'd say three to four years, it's not too early. because particularly if it's founder or long-term executive, cause there may need to be some capacity building needs to take place in the organization. They baby, They grew into the role as the organization grew up around them. Right. And so there may be, they may be covering for somebody, they are, there may be a hole in their operation or there may be somebody that they'd been making do with in, in the organization. Also, there may be a board that's overly dependent on them and really needs to do some board building work to make sure that there's a, I would call. The board's gone through a reformation process and it's not a friend's a founder board any longer, it's a fully functioning, or that has a, it has a sense of itself independent of the founder. And so I think that you just can't start too early. And I think the third point that I would make is that a lot of times executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process. It's to me, there's no ambiguity, you got three jobs. Job number one, lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're going to retire, have something magnetic, that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: And you mentioned that often folks were caught off guard with how emotional the whole process was. What were some of the common things that folks experienced as they, as they move through? And what were some of the unhelpful behaviors that came out of that, that, that roller coaster, that emotional roller coaster.
Don: Yeah. I think it'd be a lot of it distributed by the executives personality. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was at Yale university and wrote a book a few years back about the hero's farewell and he outlined four different characters for different profiles. There were the ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything's going to be just fine. Governance. Who went on to other, big, big jobs and left the organization behind, so forth. And Oh, I forgot the other two right off the top of my head here, but the Monarch and the steward, right? Oh, that's right there. Exactly. Yeah. Well, steward was my year's term monarch, that you're going to be carried out feet first or X showing the door kicking and screaming. But my belief is that there's a fifth category out there. Another category out there is called stewards. And that's what I see most. In, in the nonprofit world, people that can, leave gracefully and but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization science and courage to pardon executives, to think of themselves as stewards. And they're going to hand off the organization to the next sewer. So did that answer it quickly?
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what would you say you, you talked about the three tasks that are inherent in the job of leading an organization through the transition. What can executives do to help make the transition go more smoothly?
Don: Oh, gosh encouraging the board chair to pick good leadership for the succession process. And as I said, starting the succession process earlier, and I also, I've been listening to your interview. Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of, of interim executives being the standard approach for an organization. Now that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations, right? Place what's called a settled pastor until there's been an interim there for at least a year, so that there is that breathing room, that separation, but the challenge, and I brought that into discussions with the KC project and what we found. By comparing notes with compass points in our own practice, for a lot of organizations that just don't work for you, you've got fundraising relationships that you need handoff, or you've got P government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, have you. Having an interim in there and doing that handoff twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work. And so that's one reason why we took a step back and said, let's start earlier, work intensively and encourage the executives to get some coaching in the process so that they're, they're dealing with their own stuff. About how the transition is going, because the job does evolve and, or, people can feel a sense of loss when decisions are deferred to the new executive and so forth.
Carol: Yeah. And one of them is that I'm not listening to the train. And so I totally lost my train of thought, wanted to follow up on, oh, I remember what it is now. One of the points that you made, which I thought was really key, was the scent, the recommendation to pick a date and stick with it, not to be going back and forth. Well, I thought that was a good idea, but really we've got one more project to do, one more project to do and kicking the can down the road. What, how, what impact have you seen that have on the rest of the organization? When, when. That executive isn't it from, and their plans and how they move forward?
Don: Yeah. One person comes to mind very clearly. I was coaching him on his departure and we were having coffee. About a month after our initial meeting, he then let out to me that he was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and quit and said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never going to leave this organization. I'm going to go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but what do I mean? It really upset the applecart. And I think I'd also feel whipsawed. Cause for the staff a departure particularly of a founder or long-term executives, this may be the only boss they've ever known. Right. and particularly to their long term staff members and it's unnerving for the staff. And so you don't want your best people to be, cause people. It's an unknown and nerving time men, particularly if you couple that with, The executive or the board being guarded about information. It can be a real stew for the staff and right, for people, you're some of your best people to look elsewhere because they're questioning them. The future with the organization again, and there's always questions anyway. we'll, we like the new executive, can we trust the board to pick the right person for the job? Are they going to bring in some, somebody that's going to bring in their own team and they want a gun we're going to clean house when we don't necessarily need to clean houses as a high-performing organization, all those things.
Carol: What are other mistakes that you've seen executive directors make as they're exiting?
Don: There's a touchy topic there. One of the points I try to make is you need to take responsibility. You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I will try to clarify that that doesn't mean you surf the board's authority and try to force in your hand pick success or are on the one hand nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. And saying, Hey, it's their, it's their problem. It's their job. I'm running the organization. It's finding that, that, that place where you can really be a good steward of this entire process without, without rush riding rough shots over the board and not dumping it all in their laps, which volunteer boards are. Oftentimes really pretty clueless about what's really needed in that, in that way.
Carol: Yeah, so helping them through. And that's where I think, bringing in external help because, if the person's a founder, it's unlikely that they've managed a transition or their own exit before in, in that case. And so may not know all the things that that could be helpful to, to pay attention to as they're going through that process.
Don: Yeah. I think the other thing is that I am paying a lot of tension, a lot of attention to the preparation for the hand. And that can be a great comfort to you, to your leadership team, to your staff. If they're helping to prepare the way for the new executive. In fact, that really is one of your roles as a departing executive is to prepare the way for your successor. And so getting staff engaged in that, whether it's paying the CEO's office. So rewinding here a little bit is, I think it's really important that executives pay attention to the, the preparation to receive and work effect for causation work effectively with the new executive and paying attention to the handoff. So preparation for the new executive. I think there's a, I think. Engaging the board in some con getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship do they want with us new executive, you spent a long time, writing this profile, imagining what this new person going to be like, getting clear about, the priorities for the first 12 to 18 months of their tenure. Well, what relationship? Should you have, within an executive, particularly if you've got a founder or long-term executive leading staff preparation, getting the staff involved in preparing briefing materials for the new executive that it becomes part of that, the handoff, getting some bios together about what the team looks like that sort of. And then expecting that there might be a little bit of overlap between you in, in your successor and that's, that can be fair. Yeah. in small organizations, it may be a couple hours, a couple of days in a large organization. Like one of our clients was an international health charity that had, has. Offices are all around the world. So the current CEO stayed on and the new CEO came in and worked out a month, I think, going on listening tours, visiting all the facilities around the world as the CEO of. And so paying attention to how that, that handoff and making sure that the, the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive, that there's an opportunity to really get it's no the organization that they're taking over and and then, then, riding off handoff and ride off.
Carol: I love it. So at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And so what's something that you believed earlier in your career that you think about differently now?
Don: Oh my gosh. Well, I think a hard lesson I learned as a, as an executive director was not to expect the board to spontaneously fundraise. Yeah. Do you mind if I go back to a point about that? Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Okay. Well, so one of the things back in the mid nineties I had a great opportunity working with organizations in Silicon valley based here, but worked out there almost a quarter of the time and. So I wrote a book for this and worked for the center for excellence and nonprofits in San Jose. It was started by Dean Martin. When he retired as a CEO of COO of Hewlett Packard, he was the board chair and he was on the Packard foundation board and a really great guy, a great relationship, and worked with him and bopped on Bob carton on the evolution of this organization. Seven years. So one of the things I did with them was do this report, looking at governance practices in highly effective nonprofits. It's really had a very formative relationship for me, our impact on me because I was fresh off a fairly new consultant at that time, fresh off the heels of, of Relationship with a board. And one of the things that really saw was that it really opened my eyes to that whole board executive relationship. And by the way, I loved Mary Highland's interview with you on that, on that point, Mary and I are old friends and what I came away with and it's really had a forum. Fo helped really from my approach to executive transitions and the importance of following through and having that onboarding process and having an intentional relationship building process with the board. What I saw in these organizations is what I came to call the board executive social contract, you in every work situation, we've got our literal contract. Maybe it's as simple as a job description, or maybe it is a formal written contract, but then we have, how do we live? And that's the social contract. And when I saw his organization's spine large, they were clear about four things. Number one, they were clear about the priorities that they were pursuing together as a board and an executive team. That might be what's in their strategic plan. It might be some developmental work with the organization. It might be exploring new ventures or something like that, but they were clear about their priorities that they were going to work on together. They were clear about their roles and responsibilities. And I know you've got an organizational development background, so this is going to make lots of sense. I'm sure. you're you got that separation of executive roles or board roles and responsibilities. How do you tie that together? Well, you tie that together with some sort of accountability mechanism, that thing, that relationship looks different in every organization, but. Every one of those seem to have those four characteristics to it. So that really made an impact on me. And so I brought that into the executive transition work to make sure that there's an intentional way of the board, an executive building that relationship and that there's a process, a guided process that they could actually go through.
Carol: Yeah. I had the chance to work with one organization that was going through that executive transition and worked with the group before, it wasn't part of the search process, but then came back afterwards to help the board and the new executive director have that exact conversation about what's important to us in terms of how we work together. How are we gonna, what are the ways that we're going to show up? What are the behaviors that we're going to demonstrate that are going to support? Working together in a collaborative, positive way. So, I had a chance to work with them on their strategic planning. And so then I was able to remind you, and these are the things you said you were going to do when you worked together. And none of them were, that they're all good things. People would come up with in terms of being respectful and communicating and collaborating, but I think being explicit about it and then coming back to it and reminding yourself and then thinking, so how are we doing on that? Are there other places where we could adjust and, and, and tweak it to make it better, can be really helpful.
Don: Yeah. And, and having been clear that that, that, that. The connecting mechanism, that evaluation mechanism, has an evolution to it, and should be multi-stage at least in the first year, because, what's the big question on the board? I often hire the right person. Right. And so you want it to, you want to have an intentional non-intrusive way of a non-intrusive way of, of. Yeah, getting that information, getting, getting that. Sure. And so, it might be the first 30 days, having a ha how's it going at conversation? Maybe the first quarter, that's a little bit more of a ha ha how are you, how are you feeling about, your. you're taking charge because there is a taking charge process that John Kabarro at Harvard documented a number of years ago. And so it's, rather than an executive, parachuting in and stepping into the role, it's oftentimes a ramping up process. And so understanding that and just being realistic about that evaluation process. So quarterly. First quarter. Half of the year and then, maybe the annual review after that, but thinking of it as an assurance mechanism and in being realistic about it, because the executives aren't there. They're coming into an organization, they may be confronting problems. There's oftentimes as, legacy issues that don't come up and don't get the cat's not out of the bag until the new executive is there. And so making sure that they're feeling well supported on that. And everybody's being realistic about this.
Carol: Yeah. And you've got all those lines of communication open, which is really key. And yeah, so we did that once, but it doesn't mean that it's done, right. It's not something you just checked off the list. It's something you'd come back to and what needs to be adjusted and how are, where, where are we now? And what else, what, what do we need to think of? So what, what, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging and the work that you're doing now.
Don: Oh, wow. Just a bunch of things. I'm retooling a course that Susan Shaffer and I developed called going solar going big. It's of course for consultants. And so I'm doing some editing of that after it's been out there for a couple of years online. We do it in person. Yeah. Yeah, some are retooling that this sounds very nerdy, but I'm really excited about a series of books, discussions that I've been facilitating with a group of consultants, mostly alumni from our workshop. Last year we worked on productivity and the sugar we're going to work on communications and insights. And so doing that and just and really, really enjoying, my practice now is primarily focused on succession planning and organizational planning, and I'm developing a process that I call impact crafting, and I am working. I've worked with about five organizations now with that pilot, it can bring in a lot of the ideas from my executor transition work, I've looked at air free organizations, strategic plan and ask them how they, developed it and really discovered that a lot of organizations, th they, They think the board should do it. They think the staff shouldn't do it. sort of trying to bring that into sharp focus and also discovered in the transition work, a lot of organizations have broken business models and the board doesn't understand how the work really gets done, in the organization. So one of the pieces that I bring to an organization is really to clarify their impact statement beyond their vision, bring it down to a little bit more operational level, and then work with them to actually make. Yeah. Using a variation of the business model canvas to actually map how the work gets done, how they turn vision over here into impact over here. And so that's been really satisfying work and I think it brings a much more grounded feel to the. The planning process.
Carol: Well, we'll probably have to have you back on, to dig into that a little bit more because you love to use all the words that I like to use. So I want to get one, I like to open the door and see what's behind it, but thank you so much for coming on. It's been great talking to you.
Don: Thanks Carol. Great talking with you. Good luck on the podcast, loving the episodes thus far.
Carol: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
In episode 12 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Elizabeth Woolfe, discussed include:
● The importance of an interim director for organizations
● The process of transitioning and the strain that puts on an organization
● The importance of having a plan in place for when your leader leaves
● Growth mindset with Boards
● What the role of the Board and the role of the staff are in an organization and how those differ
● The importance of taking breaks for yourself
Elizabeth Woolfe is a lifelong nonprofit professional with expertise in affecting strategic change and facilitating growth for organizations, as well as in assisting boards and organizations through transitions.She also has strength in building philanthropic relationships between nonprofit and for-profit companies, facilitating collaborations, and program development. Her particular areas of interest are interim leadership, management of organizations and boards, strategic assessment, organizational development, board functionality, and relationship building.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Elizabeth. It's great to have you on the podcast.
Elizabeth Woolfe: Thanks. It's great to be here and please call me Liz. It's shorter.
Carol: That’s true! So, what drew you to the work that you do? What's the why, what motivates you in the work that you pursue?
Elizabeth: Well, my usual answer to that is that I've spent my entire career, except for one very brief foray, in the non-profit space, and I generally view that as a calling, I don't know that I ever questioned it.
I think from early on, I had a desire to do things that helped people and to do work that seemed - whatever this word might mean to people - meaningful. And I was never pulled in any other direction, but to do that work. It was a path that manifested itself and I followed it. Once I got the hang of it, I was able to make decision after decision to stay on that path. I just don't know that it was ever a real decision to embark upon that.
Carol: That's interesting. Cause I started out my very first job working for a small business that helped people get on talk shows. It was this very interesting little niche that I was working in and found that I was pretty good at that promotional aspect of getting our folks on shows, but after leaving that, it was a conscious decision for me to move into the sector because I thought, if I'm going to use these skills to promote causes, I want to promote causes and support things that I really believe in, and help people in a way that I think is really functional, away from ‘whoever pays the bills is who you’re going to promote.
Elizabeth: I used to call that the dark side. There were periods of time where I had this thought that, ‘oh, I will go to work for an agency or a for-profit company that has a foundation or something like that.’ And I would play around with that and I would maybe look for different positions and maybe go on an interview. But I would walk out of the interview going, ‘I don't want to do that. This doesn't sound like a fit.’ And without really questioning it - my company is called intuition consulting and it was named that because I feel strongly about following your intuition. And it's something that I recommend to others, but I also take my own medicine and do for myself. And I guess I was not questioning it because I just did that from the start.
Carol: So feeling that alignment, which is great. You serve as an interim director for organizations as part of your work. What would you say organizations gain by engaging an interim?
Elizabeth: Well, the transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next phase of their existence. So I can say that I do a lot of interim work as the interim, but I do a lot of transition and succession planning with organizations. And I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason, especially with a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies, or when you make pancakes and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, if you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. I think interim work is extremely interesting, and transition work in general is really important to understand with organizations, especially small or mid-sized organizations that require some degree of stability to anchor them with many of their functions.
Carol: I think taking that time, And, and it's hard. I think often, organizations want to jump to find that new person as quickly as possible and be on to the next thing. But you don't want the new person hired to be an accidental interim - almost like a rebound - executive director. I think that taking the time to have the organization experience a different style of leadership is important. It seems like organizations can also deal with things or have harder conversations with the organizations to get them ready to set the next person up for success.
Elizabeth: The statistics about new leaders following a founder coming in and not being successful are really shocking. So the interim can be that bridge very successfully for all of the reasons that you just outlined. It's like a palate cleanser, it's a good thing to try.
Carol: What are some of the things that you observe organizations experiencing when they go through those transitions?
Elizabeth: Well, I've managed a few big transitions with several of my clients and I think the most important one is really what the trickle-down effect is. It's not really just where it's happening, it's in every relationship that the organization has. I think oftentimes that's a second thought or maybe not even thought of by the board, or by the departing leader, or by whoever is left to understand that everyone who interfaced with this person is affected by this person's departure. I'm focusing on a founder or a CEO, just because that's really the most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. Oftentimes, that's the best reason to have an interim because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member, or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship-building and relationship cultivating as the leader was, and it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Carol: So, what are some things that you would say help those major transitions go better?
Elizabeth: Well, I think giving it the necessary amount of time [is important]. It's not a quick process. I usually say from start to finish, the succession-building process should be very conscious, and it's not a question of, ‘we want to get rid of our leader.’ It's really more, ‘we want to prepare for the eventuality that we may have to replace this person for whatever reason.’ There are good reasons, and there are not-so-good reasons. There are things that can be planned for well in advance, and unfortunately there are emergency situations that come up that, if you have no succession plan, even a rudimentary one can be even more upsetting and more traumatic for the organization. I think that this is always something to consider and that it builds in that amount of breathing space so you can say, ‘oh, wow. Now here we are at this crossroads, but we've planned for this. We know that we can manage it using these steps, whether we use an interim or not.’ Replacing someone doesn't take five minutes and I almost always recommend using a search firm, especially for a CEO or any C-suite leader, because it's almost impossible to manage a search at that level and continue to do regular necessary work. With one of my clients, the entire process from start to finish took eight months. That was not an unusual amount of time, it was pretty much the norm. But, if that were without an interim and without a search firm, it would probably take twice as long.
Carol: So, thinking about always keeping succession planning front and center, what are some of the things that need to be part of that succession plan, and what are the elements that organizations can do when it's not an immediate need?
Elizabeth: Well, first I have a really good idea of what that position is and what it does from the very tiny day-to-day to the bigger picture, where does this position sit in the organizational structure? Obviously a CEO is normally at the top of the organizational structure but, in reality, what does this person’s responsibility involve? Do they manage all of the external relationships with funders, or is that something that is co-managed or taken over by a development person, or someone else? Those relationships are really key, as I said earlier, and I think what's really important is an understanding of how engaged the board is with the organization and with that person - usually the leadership - what kinds of relationships do they have and can that relationship be managed in a different way? Once you identify where all of these succession-related issues lie, what's most important, is really a thorough understanding of what the connections are. It's always nice to be able to say, ‘under these circumstances, this is the protocol we will follow.’ You can create that. In real life, things happen and times are crazy. I know an organization that just had their CEO announce that they were retiring in January and, this person would stay until they found a replacement and then COVID hit. All of that had to be rethought, because it wasn't really the right time for there to be another major transition, which is fine, and luckily, the CEO was able to say, ‘yes, I will postpone my retirement for at least another six months.’ You have to be flexible and nimble and many smaller and mid-size organizations are capable of that, which is the good side of things.
Carol: I think having a plan sketched out, you may not follow it exactly, but you're not starting from scratch and you're not having to think through it all as you're also having to start doing it all. Also, I think a lot of people, when they hear succession planning, they mistake it for ‘I need to identify who I'm grooming as my successor.’ and it really isn't that, necessarily.
Elizabeth: No, it can be part of it. I mean, if it's an organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that, and most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession. And I encourage organizations to have a running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in a search, or someone who they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough to the work that is done there, that they could be helpful in identifying who could be next. It's nice to have an advisory group at the ready in case they are needed. Sometimes some of those people could be appropriate candidates.
Carol: Right, So we've talked about boards a little bit, a unique aspect of nonprofits is the role of a board in the governance of the organization. What are some common mistakes that you see boards making maybe in dealing with succession or more broadly.
Elizabeth: Do we have longer than an hour? I could go on for days with that. Boards are one of my favorite things and that isn’t always an easy thing to say. I do actually enjoy board work. It's so interesting and multifaceted, and as you say, it's an integral part of a nonprofit, or it should be an integral part of a nonprofit’s organization and functionality. Specific to succession the board is really key and it's a time where I've seen boards really rise to the occasion which is great. And I've also seen boards that can't, and it's not over succession or transition. It's really a deep-seeded functionality or dysfunctionality as the case may be, but that situation of change exacerbates one or the other, or brings it to the forefront. To go general, boards have a great deal of responsibility. If they choose to exercise it, if they don't choose to exercise it, the organization can still function, but the board does have, at a minimum, a set of responsibilities in terms of guidance and in terms of advising. And some boards go a lot deeper and some are more strategic, but at the very least, they are more objective eyes on what the organization does, and what direction the organization is headed in, and how well the organization fulfills its mission on all of these different levels.
Carol: You talked about founders and oftentimes a founder will be a very dynamic personality and all of that is what helped them create the organization and then build something, which then creates the dynamic of a board that's really following that person and not necessarily in a real partnership. So when that founder leaves and they have to step up, it's not the way that things have been done in the past and can be harder. And that makes that transition particularly fraught.
Elizabeth: I couldn’t agree more. That's so common, and I think if [the board] doesn't view themselves as ever evolving, then they don't ever get to the point where they escape that, regardless of what happens on the leadership side, even when a founder leaves and new leadership comes in. If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. That can be a real recipe for disaster, because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board-coaching and board-development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum, where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, and very much like sheep following the leader to something that becomes more appropriate for a later iteration of the organization where they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills. That's why board rotation, board transition, and cultivating new board members is so important because the people that are present at the birth of an organization are not necessarily what the organization needs 5, 10, or 15 years in. And sometimes, you'll have that very dynamic leader that everyone's following, and in other cases, it may be a group of people around a kitchen table. So they've always had a collaborative relationship, but then when they do bring on staff, everybody's been so involved [that] letting go and allowing staff to start doing the work that they need to do, that can be challenging. At the same time, I think that boards have an opportunity to then look at other ways to be involved in the organization besides being on the board, [although] when it's small, that may be the only volunteer role and that board does everything, as a working board, or volunteer board, or in an all-volunteer organization, but then to start differentiating, what we actually need from a board member and if you want to be involved in this organization because you are very excited about and passionate about environmental issues, but you really love getting your hands dirty and doing that stream monitoring, then it's fine. Go do that. It's hard for people to then say, ‘well, but we've always had all those people on the boards. We do it differently,’ or worse that this is what we've always done, it's not successful anymore, but this is what we've always done. So we're just going to keep banging our head against the wall because this is all we know. It's very hard to crack open that door and say, ‘look, there's a whole world out there for you. You could be this, and you could be this, and you could be this, except for the fact that you're looking in your rear view mirror, or living in the past. I've experienced all of the scenarios that you just went through. Some in my consulting life as a CEO myself, and also as a consultant and as a coach, and they're all very big and hairy problems. Every board is different. The chemistry is different, the environment that they're in is different. So as a consultant, you have to visit that with fresh eyes all the time. That's why I always say that even the incremental successes are to be celebrated because boards are so hard to move. And it's very rare that you find a board that welcomes this ongoing change and development with open arms. It's much more the case that they are really change-averse and, even when they understand the rationale, they are so terrified to let go of it. It's fascinating, really.
Carol: I'm curious if you had someone who was thinking about volunteering on a nonprofit board, what's important for them to understand as they step into that role?
Elizabeth: Well, I think unless they've had previous successful experience, there's a lot of people who come to a board, and they've been on a board before and it may not have been a healthy board and they carry all of this baggage with them. So their expectations are very different ‘cause they either want it to be the same, ‘cause they don't know any better, or they want it to be different because they do [know better]. Depending upon where they're going, that may or may not be the case. I like to get them all fresh when they haven't been on a board before and mold them to what they should be. Those are the most successful ones. But I think in terms of advice, always be aware of the fact that, even though there is a line between what the organization does day-to-day: their programs and how they execute them, and what the board's responsible for: the governments, and the guidance, and the strategic-level stuff. Be aware of that difference, but also be aware of where the gray area is, where those two things can meet and really be productive. Because you can't be too far apart, but you can't be too close together.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
Elizabeth: Sure. So it's really a question of keeping the board from micromanaging what the day-to-day of the organization should be. In other words, the board should be responsible for this 35,000 foot view of the organization. What is the strategy that they're going to implement moving forward, how are they going to execute it in the bigger sense? It's the program staff and the CEO and the development staff's responsibility to mold that out of the lump of clay that they're given and make that into programs, [and figure out] how much they have to raise in order to do them, who's going to run them, who they’re going to serve, and how they’re going to measure their success. There's a big difference within those two worlds, but where they peacefully coexist is in having these kinds of conversations of translating what this strategy is. So we want to get to this, we want to serve this many people, or we want to execute our mission by creating a program that brings an awareness of what we do to more people. That's it for the board. They can outline that strategic framework and hand it over and have really productive conversations about what that means. But once that happens, they don't need to be on top of the program staff saying, ‘well, what does the program look like?’ ‘Who's going to teach that?’ ‘What days are you going to do it?’ That's not the board's role.
So, every episode, I play a game at the end where I ask you a random icebreaker question. So... if you could have any celebrity to be your best friend, who would you pick and why?
Elizabeth: It's either Oprah or Bruce Springsteen, but I don't think I'd be able to talk if I were with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, because, well, first of all, I've looked up to her and, and followed her for so long.
I feel like I am already her best friend, although she doesn't know me. We read the same books. I almost always read - even sometimes before she picks them - from the book club. We have a lot of common interests. She's funny. She likes all different kinds of food. She loves to travel. She's really interested in helping people. I just think we have tons of things in common and would make great best friends.
Carol: That's awesome. So what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in your work?
Elizabeth: So right now I'm right in the middle of a little interim CEO gig that I'm doing for one of my clients. That will be concluding at the end of October. Then I'm hoping to take a little bit of time off because I need it and deserve it. And I think self care is very important. I always encourage the CEOs that I coach to make sure that they take good care of themselves because it's not an easy job. It's sometimes a very lonely place. So I would hope that I will be able to do a little bit of work, but a little bit of relaxing between the end of October and the end of the year. As far as next year is concerned, it's really interesting because I never really know. And for 2021, I really, really don't know because nobody can predict what's going to be happening anymore. So I am keeping myself pretty open and not letting that freak me out at all. I’m figuring that whatever comes along will be something that I will be able to consider and I’m not worrying too much about it right now. I don't think stress and worry really get you very far and I've trained myself to really not worry about it.
Carol: That's great. So how can people find out more about you and get in touch?
Elizabeth: So, my website is intuitionconsult.com, and I'm pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. I'm very interested in connecting with people for all different kinds of networking and mentoring-type things. I would encourage whoever wants to talk to me more to please reach out.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate our conversation.
Elizabeth: Thank you, I had a great time.
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.
Need similar results for your organization? Inquire about scheduling a coaching call.
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.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, as well as the Mission: Impact blog with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.