Executive transitions for nonprofits are tricky. It is more than just a straightforward hiring process. The executive transition process has three essential stages. In his seminal work on the topic, Tom Adams describes these three stages as prepare, pivot and thrive. Most people only think about the middle stage – the search for the new executive. Yet the first and the third are really the underpinnings of helping a new executive succeed. They prepare the organization grow and learn through the transition. I am going to explore the first stage in this post – “getting ready”.
A key first step to managing a key leadership transition is to get organized. The board needs to appoint a transition team. Team members should be able to think bigger picture and longer term for the organization. Recruit for a variety of skills including strategic thinking, emotional intelligence and project management. Decide whether the team will consist of only board members or might include some staff leaders as well.
Should we continue as we are?
Don Tebbe, a leading expert in leadership transitions, urges all nonprofit organizations to consider a key question before getting caught up in the details of managing a succession process. Should we continue as we are? Where do we stand in terms of the organization's mission? What has changed in the landscape since we last chose an executive director? Is our organization, with its current programs and services still relevant? Or should we consider closing down? Or is a new organizational form needed? Should the organization consider merging, being acquired or some other strategic restructuring?
This team will need to address both the needs of the departing executive, the needs of the board and the needs of staff. Transitions almost always create some anxiety in the organization. Just pretending that people are not having the emotions they are having about the upcoming changes does not actually make them go away. The team should plan on educating themselves about the types of emotions that people typically experience when going through these kinds of changes. A consultant familiar with leadership transitions can also help normalize this experience.
Another key consideration it to get clear about what role staff will play in the search process if any. It is important to clarify expectations, especially if staff are involved. Are staff involved simply for their comfort? Will they have input on the decision? To what extent? Who ultimately is responsible for making the decision about whom to hire? As the team thinks about how to involve staff, they will also want to talk about their approach to retaining key staff.
Thinking about your communications plan at this stage is also important. Who are the key stakeholders who need to know about the transition? How will you let key funders know? When and how will they be informed?
Consultant help? Interim?
Considering whether it would be helpful to have a consultant guide you through the process is an important conversation. A coach for the departing executive, especially if they have been in the role for a long time can be helpful to help them let go and think about their future. The consultant when hired often plays this role as well. Would the organization be better served with an interim executive instead of jumping immediately to a permanent hire?
During this preparation stage, you should conduct an organizational assessment. This is a piece that is particularly useful to have outside consultant help. What are the organization’s strengths, challenges, direction, and priorities? Often this review will consist of board, staff and stakeholder interviews and surveys.
As part of this review, you may find that the organization needs to be stabilized and key deficiencies identified in assessment process need to be addressed. Do not leave these for the new executive director to fix. When the deficiencies are substantial, an interim director can be particularly helpful.
Strategic leadership session
After the assessment is complete, hold a leadership strategy session. This session should not be designed to tackle a full blown strategic planning process. Topics would include answering questions, such as the following: Is board clear about strategic direction? What does the organization want/need in a new executive director? What are the priorities for the first 12-18 months? What are the issues to be addressed before new executive director is on board? Facilitating this session is another place that is helpful to have consultant support.
A final task in the preparation stage is to create a search plan.
Need help thinking through how to get started with a leadership transition? Reach out for a coaching call.
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