In episode 54 of Mission: Impact, Carol celebrates the podcast’s two year anniversary by doing a best of episode about executive leadership transitions. We talk about:
Guests and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Today’s episode of Mission Impact is a little different. To celebrate my two year Pod-iversary, I am doing another “best of episode.” Today’s podiversary episode focuses on leadership transitions - a topic that has been the focus of several interviews. We will be hearing from Elizabeth Woolfe, Carlyn Madden, Don Tebbe and Andy Robinson. We talk about the types of transitions that organizations experience and how different leaders approach those transitions, why it is so important for leaders to make space and groom the next generation of leaders, whether or not having an interim executive director is a good idea, and how those exiting the leadership role and those entering as new leaders can prepare themselves for their new chapter.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Leadership transitions come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of factors will go into what type of transition the organization is facing. One of those is the attitude of the leader, others include the lifestage of the nonprofit – is it a start up? In a growth spurt? Is this the first transition from the organization’s founder? Has there been ongoing transition on the board side, not just the staff side of the organization?
Don Tebbe is a leading expert in nonprofit leadership transitions and with Tom Adams in many ways founded the field of executive transition management. He has written several books on the subject and we will link to those in the show notes. He talks about what inspired him to focus on this aspect of nonprofit management.
Don Tebbe: In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I was 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, to 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.
Tom and I put together this program two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors, cuz those, those are some of the. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there and, I think it's just, 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 really, to address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. When we realized that we needed to be working with organizations earlier, before they. That moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. What are the characteristics of these high ity organizations? those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment and the impact. And what's going on in those organizations 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 was vitality. And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and board leadership that the board hires the executive, the board, is responsible for, shepherding the mission and shepherding impact.
Carol: Leadership transitions really do impact all aspects of the organization and are an opportunity to take stock of how leadership is being shared – or not- across the organization – between the board and executive director – between the executive director and staff.
I appreciated Andy Robinson’s challenge to organizations and their leaders. His question goes to the heart of thinking about, planning for and preparing for transitions. And normalizing this process, instead of thinking of it as an anomaly.
Andy Robinson: One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the work of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge that many organizations are perpetual organizations. Hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? Then I say, are you gonna be here for the victory party? And of course everybody laughs and says, no, I'm not gonna be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not Actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition.
Carol: If you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. This is a real call to action for leaders – because very few are really putting this front and center as they lead their organization – or their movement. To dig deeper into how different people approach their leaving, Don Tebbe has reflections on the different common styles people take.
Don: The hero's farewell, and he outlined four different characters, four different profiles.
ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything was gonna be just fine. Governors who went on to other big jobs and left the organization behind so forth. Monarchs, they are gonna be carried out feet first. Stewards, what I see most of in the nonprofit world. People that can leave gracefully, but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization. So I encouraged department executives to think of themselves as stewards, and they're gonna hand off the organization to the next steward.
Carol: For those starting to think about their exit from leadership, which of these avatars will you embody? Will you be a monarch, an ambassador, a governor or a steward? And how ready is the organization as a whole for change? How are you cultivating shared and new leadership on your staff and board? Without this, the board – who is charged with finding the new leader can be ill equipped for the responsibility as Elizabeth Woolfe explains.
Elizabeth Woolfe: If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. And it really, 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, like sheep following the leader, to something that becomes what's more appropriate for a later or iteration of the organization where they're, they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills.
Carol: Andy Robinson echoes Elizabeth’s points.
Andy: You and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years. Term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that even if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this.
Carol: Don advocates for the staff leader to take the reigns in planning their exit.
Don: You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I go to try to clarify that doesn't mean you suring the board's authority and trying to force in your handpick success or on the one hand, nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship they want with this new executive, paying attention to how that handoff and making sure that the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive.
Carol: Carlyn Madden explains some of the work her search firm does to prepare the groundwork for the needed changes.
Carlyn Madden: On the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents. To get a sense of the lay of the land or does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, see staff members for membership association, the actual members of the association, key volunteers, possibly even program participants. We're talking to funders, we're doing a survey, we're doing one on one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It's just, it's gonna depend on what the organizations are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what. What was really stellar about the LA person in this position?
What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that often needs too often, staff culture is a big east. I think we're really going through a virtuous time. Rightly so. In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader.
Carol: She also comments on what has often been missing from how boards approach executive searches.
Carlyn: What hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect individual organization. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the The thesis banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon.
Carol: Andy Robinson pointed out the mission critical aspect of grooming the next generation and preparing a leadership pipeline. We talked about some specific actions that leaders can do to start that process.
Andy: one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand it off. I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the medical stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center
when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's gonna lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda. Cuz the ability to, to run a meeting, facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. Don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way. And often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space?
Carol: One thing that I would say to every leader – you can start creating more space for others to lead by one really simple yet challenging act. Do NOT be the first to speak in a discussion. Wait a beat. Wait two beats. Even when it feels awkward to be in silence. Let others step in and share their perspective before you. If you always go first – most likely everyone around you will be sharing in reaction to and in light of your contribution. I observe so many leaders dominating conversations and not realizing the impact they are having. By doing this, they are leaving a lot of good thinking on the table from those around them. If it feels super awkward – tell people you are going to do this – and have them hold you accountable.
If you do try this, I would love to hear some results of your experiments.
As Elizabeth points out, your leadership pipeline doesn’t have to only be inside your organization. You can be looking to cultivate leadership with those in your wider ecosystem.
Elizabeth: If it's that organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that but 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, but it is always nice. And, I encourage organizations to do this, to have sort of a. A running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in, in a search or someone who would, they, they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough.
Carol:. Carlyn also talks about how those wider networks and ecosystems are so important for effective searches. As well as tapping into a variety of networks.
Carlyn: Hire by hire and talk about some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographic has not actually changed. And so what is required are that the conditions of executive search have to change.
we're very firm in that color transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not actually building out networks, multiracial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying, who do you know in this space. That would be a good executive director because there's so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles. Our networks are very homogenous. If a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for it. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors.
And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Carol: Carlyn also talks about the differentiation process of what is essential for the executive director role and what is there because of the current person in the role.
Carlyn: What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible heights in a very small period of time, short period of time. But there are also things, their pet project. And the board recognizes it to some extent but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay.
Carol: Interim executive directors is something that organizations going through a transition should consider as an option. There are consultants who do nothing but interim work and can bring their experience to your organization. But our experts were not totally in agreement about interims and their value.
Elizabeth: The transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to, to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next. I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason. And, and especially with a founder, and 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 and or, and when you make pancakes and, and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, It's like that. 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. The statistics about, especially following a founder for new leaders coming in and not being successful is really shocking.
So the interim can really 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. 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. And 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.
Don: I've been listening to your interview with Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of interim executive. Being the standard approach for an organization now, that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations. For a lot of organizations that just doesn't work, you've got fundraising relationships that you need to hand off, or you've got key government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, you know, having an interim in there and doing that hand off twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work.
Carol: Carlyn and I talked about the danger of a new executive director becoming an accidental interim – especially if they are following a founder or a long term ED.
Carlyn: Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys? Or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because this person can help steward and.
Steer the organization's operation and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their position they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's sort of. Accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there for a much longer term. Maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of opportunity.
Carol: The glass cliff, not the, just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, you women, women of color, especially being offered the, the impossible job. Yeah, exactly. And then people wondered why they couldn't.
Carlyn: Where women are called in to clean out a. And then have an impossible job out of them. And then our, their performance is managed in a way that is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, or the challenge ahead.
Carol: As Don points out it is never too early to start thinking about transition and succession. It is not just a process to follow or a set of steps. In William Bridges work on transition, he describes three phases that people go through - the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning. In our action oriented culture, we often think we can jump directly from the ending to the new beginning. The liminal - in between spaces of the neutral zone can catch us off guard. It is messy and confusing. And all through the transition, you can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Don describes how this impacts leaders.
Don: the executive really should initiate the succession. Process and rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. You probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people four, three to four to five years ahead of their departure. A lot of times, executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process 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 gonna 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: Don talks about how many leaders are caught by surprise by the emotional element of the transition – and I would add - everyone in the organization is going through their own emotional roller coaster too. Don tells a story that illustrates just this point.
Don: He was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and.
Said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never gonna leave this organization. I'm gonna go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but you know what I mean? It really upset the apple cart. And I think it also makes people feel whipsawed. It can be a real stew for the staff and ripe for people, some of your best people, to look elsewhere because they're questioning their career. The future with the organization and, and there's always questions anyway will we like the new executive? Can we trust the board to pick the right person for a job?
Carol: I appreciate Don’s comment about the leader preparing themselves for the next step. In our conversation, Andy described his own process of succession and transition into retirement.
Andy: I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring to other people or jobs. I don't get anymore, cuz it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who wanna enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and I've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants. Black indigenous people of color as a way of supporting social justice and equity.
Carol: Carlyn and I explored what emerging leaders can do to get ready for an executive director role and what the board needs to do to set the new leader up for success.
Carlyn: if you're an aspiring ED, this is your time to shine. But if you're a board know that, that it's gonna be very additive to get the right person. So you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in this situation where they're negotiating a parallel job offer. You have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table, all sorts of things. If somebody is looking to ascend into an executive director role, the board is paying very close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing. What are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first week? How are they let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members so that that's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I will meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to be a happy hour,
We also do 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director, and the board chair.
Carol: The topic of transitions seemed super relevant as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. As the going impacts of the Great resignation, great reshuffle keep reverberating through the economy. And the nonprofit sector as a subset of that – feeling all those transitions too. We are also I think – finally in the much anticipated generational transition as boomers retire and new leaders step into the limelight.
If these clips intrigued you and you want to go back and listen to the full episodes from each of the people featured in today’s best of – Elizabeth Woolfe’s is episode 12, Carlyn Madden is 27, Andy Robinson is 21 and Don Tebbe is 32.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything that you do to contribute and make an impact.
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.
Important Guest Links:
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
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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