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Transition Guide for Board Leaders - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning

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When a chief executive move on, board leaders are asked to step up. The role and work of the board changes significantly during transition. The risks and opportunities increase exponentially or at least it often feels that way.

Each transition is unique and usually far more complex than the simple hiring decision it appears to be. Ask the board leaders from any three transitions about the experience and at least one will be a nightmare.  All transitions have challenges and stretch the leaders involved.

The most common challenges board leaders face during transition include:

  • Negotiating an appropriate ending with the departing executive;
  • Deciding who is in charge until the new executive arrives;
  • Developing a clear picture of the competencies and personal attributes required of the new executive;
  • Reaching consensus on outcome expectations for the new executive;
  • Setting compensation and marketing the position in order to attract a diverse and talented finalist pool;
  • Interviewing and selecting a candidate legally and focusing on the job and written requirements;
  • Negotiating a fair deal with new executive; and
  • Getting started well with the new executive with an entry plan that is clear about goals, aspirations and roles--developing a strong social contract with the new executive.

We encourage you to resist the pressure to act too quickly and to take the time to develop a thorough plan. The Executive Transition Overview section, especially the Three Phases of Executive Transitions, Five Developmental Tasks and Tips for Boards and Search Committees can help.

For more hands-on help, TransitionGuides can tailor transition coaching and consulting services to assist organizations with any or all of these challenges. For more information about how we serve nonprofits, click here or call us at (301) 439-6635.

Transition Guide for Board Leaders

When executives move on, board leaders are asked to step up. The role and work of the board changes significantly during transition. The risks and opportunities increase exponentially or at least it often feels that way.

Each transition is unique and usually far more complex than the simple hiring decision it appears to be. Ask the board leaders from any three transitions about the experience and at least one will be a nightmare.  All transitions have challenges and stretch the leaders involved.

The most common challenges board leaders face during transition include:

  • Negotiating an appropriate ending with the departing executive;
  • Deciding who is in charge until the new executive arrives;
  • Developing a clear picture of the competencies and personal attributes required of the new executive;
  • Reaching consensus on outcome expectations for the new executive;
  • Setting compensation and marketing the position in order to attract a diverse and talented finalist pool;
  • Interviewing and selecting a candidate legally and focusing on the job and written requirements;
  • Negotiating a fair deal with new executive; and
  • Getting started well with the new executive with an entry plan that is clear about goals, aspirations and roles--developing a strong social contract with the new executive.

We encourage you to resist the pressure to act too quickly and to take the time to develop a thorough plan.  The Executive Transition Overview section, especially the Three Phases of Executive Transitions, Five Developmental Tasks and Tips for Boards and Search Committees can help.

For more hands-on help, TransitionGuides and its collaborators tailor transition coaching and consulting services to assist organizations with any or all of these challenges.  Click here to find a local guide.  For more information about how we serve nonprofits, click here or call us at (301) 439-6635

Transition Guide for Board Leaders

When executives move on, board leaders are asked to step up. The role and work of the board changes significantly during transition. The risks and opportunities increase exponentially or at least it often feels that way.

Each transition is unique and usually far more complex than the simple hiring decision it appears to be. Ask the board leaders from any three transitions about the experience and at least one will be a nightmare.  All transitions have challenges and stretch the leaders involved.

The most common challenges board leaders face during transition include:

  • Negotiating an appropriate ending with the departing executive;
  • Deciding who is in charge until the new executive arrives;
  • Developing a clear picture of the competencies and personal attributes required of the new executive;
  • Reaching consensus on outcome expectations for the new executive;
  • Setting compensation and marketing the position in order to attract a diverse and talented finalist pool;
  • Interviewing and selecting a candidate legally and focusing on the job and written requirements;
  • Negotiating a fair deal with new executive; and
  • Getting started well with the new executive with an entry plan that is clear about goals, aspirations and roles--developing a strong social contract with the new executive.

We encourage you to resist the pressure to act too quickly and to take the time to develop a thorough plan.  The Executive Transition Overview section, especially the Three Phases of Executive Transitions, Five Developmental Tasks and Tips for Boards and Search Committees can help.

For more hands-on help, TransitionGuides and its collaborators tailor transition coaching and consulting services to assist organizations with any or all of these challenges.  Click here to find a local guide.  For more information about how we serve nonprofits, click here or call us at (301) 439-6635.

Transition Guide for Board Leaders

When executives move on, board leaders are asked to step up. The role and work of the board changes significantly during transition. The risks and opportunities increase exponentially or at least it often feels that way.

Each transition is unique and usually far more complex than the simple hiring decision it appears to be. Ask the board leaders from any three transitions about the experience and at least one will be a nightmare.  All transitions have challenges and stretch the leaders involved.

The most common challenges board leaders face during transition include:

  • Negotiating an appropriate ending with the departing executive;
  • Deciding who is in charge until the new executive arrives;
  • Developing a clear picture of the competencies and personal attributes required of the new executive;
  • Reaching consensus on outcome expectations for the new executive;
  • Setting compensation and marketing the position in order to attract a diverse and talented finalist pool;
  • Interviewing and selecting a candidate legally and focusing on the job and written requirements;
  • Negotiating a fair deal with new executive; and
  • Getting started well with the new executive with an entry plan that is clear about goals, aspirations and roles--developing a strong social contract with the new executive.

We encourage you to resist the pressure to act too quickly and to take the time to develop a thorough plan.  The Executive Transition Overview section, especially the Three Phases of Executive Transitions, Five Developmental Tasks and Tips for Boards and Search Committees can help.

For more hands-on help, TransitionGuides and its collaborators tailor transition coaching and consulting services to assist organizations with any or all of these challenges.  Click here to find a local guide.  For more information about how we serve nonprofits, click here or call us at (301) 439-6635.

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Founding Executives

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As the founder of a nonprofit organization you have put your heart and soul into creating a vital institution that is meeting a particular need in your community. As John Carver wrote in Nonprofit World, "We are fortunate that there are souls so insightful or so driven that they stimulate others of us to new levels of commitment. These leaders swim against the tide of apathy and common judgment long enough for those of us less foresighted to catch up."

These close connections to your organization can make the prospect of leaving, whether for retirement or for other work, difficult. Further, the influence that the founding executive usually has over board and staff members can make it difficult for them to step forward and offer the leadership that is often necessary during a transition.

Our research suggests that founders often feel intensely conflicted about the decision to leave. The founder's personal identity is likely wrapped up in the success and operation of the organization making it extremely difficult to think about future plans. As many founders say, "I've put my whole life into this place for so long, it is hard to imagine what is next." Further, the private contemplation that most founders go through before deciding to leave can be particularly lonely. There are few people with whom the founder can talk about ideas and possibilities without risking instability for the organization or undermining their hard-fought position.

From the organization's perspective, the loss of a founder is often a defining moment. It is the time when separated from its principal motivator and leader, the organization's board, staff and other stakeholders have the opportunity to come together and define an institutional space and direction for the organization. Unfortunately, this process takes time and commitment and usually occurs under difficult circumstances often caused by the stress and emotion of the transition. How the board responds, the steps the founding executive takes to prepare the organization, and the skills and understanding of the new executive can all impact the outcome of this moment.

Some of the key topics that are discussed in our research include:

  • Legacy—honoring what has gone before
  • Board Development—an often necessary part of founder transitions
  • How organization life cycles can impact the selection of the next executive
  • The emotional process of letting go
  • Identifying the costs in founder transitions
  • The successor's experience

For more on lessons in managing founder transitions, see Founder Case Studies and the Founder Transition Lessons in this section.

If you are a founding executive director who is planning his/her departure, we also suggest reviewing the Introduction to Executive Transition, especially the Transition Tips for Departing Executives.

 

Lessons about Founder’s and Long-Term Executive Transitions

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Lessons about Founder’s and Long-Term Executive Transitions

The sample of case studies highlight some of the most important themes concerning founder transitions.  Below, we discuss in more detail seven themes that are apparent in these cases and in our larger research.  While the way in which each theme interacts with the specifics of an organization’s transition differs, these themes are woven into each founder transition experience.

Legacy: Honoring what has gone before

The case studies of founder transitions, the literature on successions and the literature from interim pastor’s experience all highlight the importance of celebrating the gifts and successes of the founder who is leaving.  As one succeeding executive pointed out, “I honor what the founder has done.”  Founders, themselves, acknowledged the importance that receiving honor for their accomplishments had for them.  One said, “It was wonderful to know that so many people cared about me.  This love and care allowed me to feel like I could go out and do other things.”  Through being honored, founders feel less need to protect what they had created because they knew that others understood and valued it.  Another founder said, “I actually identified the legacy that I wanted to leave the organization with and set out to ensure all the pieces were in place.”  This definition helped the founder feel good about what s/he had accomplished and good about moving on.

The importance of honoring the founder was also clear in instances where they were not honored or did not feel engaged enough.  As one founder said, “Once the search began, I felt discarded, like an old shoe.”  In another case, a board member confessed that not enough was done to “nurture and feed” the founder.  “I was so exhausted I just didn’t have time to call the founder.  I wish I had.”  It might have prevented some of the discomfort that still exists today.

Unfortunately, legacy has not been well defined in literature and is not often discussed. However, in these cases*, honoring “the legacy” whether so named or not, was a vital part of caring for the founder and smoothing the way for transition.

Board Development

As was apparent in several of these cases, the board of directors had to become a much more engaged and sometimes broader body in order to manage the transition.  This development of the institution of the board of directors and coalescing of the people currently on the board is often a critical spark that allows the transition to flourish.

Board growth and change can be particularly difficult during a founder transition, because the board is often in the habit of deferring to the founder.  As John Carver wrote in Nonprofit World, “We are fortunate that there are souls so insightful or so driven that they stimulate others of us to new levels of commitment. These leaders swim against the tide of apathy and common judgment long enough for those of us less foresighted to catch up. By the time incorporation occurs, the founder has already invested tears and sweat often times in a lonely vigil to which the organization's board members may be respectful latecomers.”  This dynamic can make it hard for the board to take on the responsibility that it must take on during a transition.

Perhaps because of this dynamic, the growth and change in the board often takes place without the founder.  In at least one case, the founder specifically curbed his tendency to offer opinions or guide the process.  This founder’s willingness to step back was important to the board’s ability to grow into the space that was left.

Organization lifecycle

Literature and the experiences of transition consultants has long suggested that where an organization is in its life cycle will impact the issues that it will need to address during transitions.  This insight holds true in the cases of founder transitions.  In several of the cases, the organizations were well established, had over ten staff members, and had excellent reputations.  These organizations were ready to make a transition to a different kind of leadership and in these cases the next executive that was hired was a manager.  In one case, the new executive had experience following founders or long time leaders. In another case, the new executive had significant experience as a number two at different organizations.  Both of these new executives describe themselves as managers and highlighted their skills in administration, people who “get things done” and “follow through.”  All of these successors identified the difference in their styles from their predecessors and one even explicitly related the differences to the growth and change of the organization.

In other cases the organizations had been close to shutting down when a new executive came in.  While not founders, these new executives did have close connections to the founders and their passions.  These executives might be better characterized as entrepreneurs.  These executives have different traits and skills than the managers and are more closely matched to organizations that were at pivotal stages in their lives.  In one case, this executive was able to grow the organization (not included as a full case here); in the other, it is too soon to tell what the outcome will be, but the new executive has stabilized the organization.

Letting go

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of founder transitions is the emotional process of letting go.  In business literature, writers acknowledge these emotional forces, and, claim that, when left unacknowledged, they can wreak havoc on the succession process.  As one business writer said, “For the incumbent leader, succession is a time to confront the passage of time, the end of a career, and even mortality itself.”  None of this is easy, especially for motivated, successful people.

In the case studies, the founders noted how hard it was to let go, “It is like giving up one of your children for adoption.”  Another one described it this way, “It is like leaving home.  I learned a lot about endings during this process.  Most of my life had been about beginnings, exciting beginnings; during this time, I learned about the importance of endings and of ending well.”

The founders also noted some of the things that helped them through the process.  Many of the founders had close advisers and friends; a couple even had formal mentors and spiritual support.  They talked to these advisers, they planned with them, and in some cases they cried with them.  Those who didn’t have close support talked about the loneliness and lack of support from a community that they considered their peers.

One founder said of his/her departure, “It really helped to have something to go to.  There were things that I really wanted to do.”  In a couple cases the process of letting go was made easier because they were both proud of where the organization was, and running the organization had become less fun and harder in recent years.  One founder put it this way, “Every day I ask myself ‘what has been life-giving and what has not?  There can be things that are difficult but still life-giving.  Things at work weren’t as life-giving as they once were and, as I realized this, it became clearer that it was time to go.”

In some cases, the founders simply had a hard time letting go.  They may not have set clear expectations about when they were leaving or they may have felt upset by changes in the organization after the transition had happened.  Further, some founders may not be retiring but moving on to other work in the same field.  While it is always important to establish boundaries and expectations about the on-going relationship between the organization and the founder, in these cases it is particularly important.

Learning to let go may be one of the hardest things a founder has to do.  Those who have been through it say, “There is life afterward.”

Identifying/Defining Costs in Transitions

Little definitive work has been done on the overall impact of transitions on organizations and the costs of transitions.  In our case studies, board members identified the following impacts:

  • “It was hard on staff morale.”

  • “We weren’t able to go after new grants”

  • “Some funders were really upset.”

  • “Staff really stepped up to the plate and took on leadership that they hadn’t taken before.”

  • “The committee was pretty tired and was ready to close the organization.”

  • “Some funders held up funds because they didn’t think the organization was stable.”

  • “We (the board) found that we weren’t meeting requirements of our grants and we didn’t have the relationship with funders to communicate with them…he (the founder) had relationships with them.”

In terms of direct costs, the board members estimated the following costs: $20,000 to $50,000 for hiring a search firm or consulting assistance and between 520 and 860 volunteer hours.

In one case, the costs were that the organization lost its entire budget, its entire staff and was on the verge of shutting down.

Succeeding Ms. (or Mr.) Wonderful: the successors experience

In the words of one successor, “It is a roller coaster ride.”  It is clearly an experience filled with the highs of learning and moving an organization forward and the lows of making mistakes and realizing how much one has to learn.  Part of the ride is the huge amount of work.  Most of the successors noted the long hours.  In one case the successor said, “I know I can’t keep up this pace.”  In another case the successor said, “I was very careful to regulate the number of hours I worked.  You could work all the time especially during the transition.”

Part of moving an organization forward for successors is learning about the organization and staff and balancing the tension between learning about the organization’s past and “the way things have always been done” and setting a new path.  It can be difficult to initiate change in systems and infrastructure; it can even be tricky deciding when it is the appropriate time to initiate changes.  Further, most successors are being judged by the initial actions and may need to have early successes to help establish credibility.  These tensions can be difficult enough in any transition, but when staff and board are mourning the loss of popular founder, they can be almost impossible.  Many of the successors in the case studies recognized these tensions and were conscious of the way they handled them.

Finally, successors note that it is often both a wonderful gift to have the founding executive available for questions and support and a burden to appropriately use and build this relationship.  Because of the tension between the past and the future, this relationship can be contentious and supportive, sometimes at the same time.  Successful successors are able to both honor the founder and chart a new course.

Transitions are a process, and a long process at that

Finally, each of the actors in a transition—the board, the founder, the successor and the staff—should recognize the time that transitions require.  As our cases highlight, it is at least a year after a new executive is in place before the uncertainty surrounding the change wears off.  Literature from the for-profit experience would suggest that it may be closer to two years before the new executive has consolidated their learning, made initial changes and begins to see an impact from those changes.

As William Bridges pointed out, transitions are about the emotional and other impacts associated with a change.  The ripple impact of the change in executives may take years to be fully realized.  Several of the case studies suggest that planning and deliberateness during the initial stages of transition may help bolster the patience and perseverance necessary for a successful long-term transition.


*Legacy is a more salient issue for founders and long-term executives (whose identity and emotions are usually closely tied to the organization) than for other executives.

 

Four Case Studies of Founder Transitions - Nonprofit Executive Search, Succession, and Planning

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The departure of a founder or a long time executive from an organization can be a defining moment for an organization.  It is the time when, separated from its principal motivator and leader, the organization’s board, staff and other stakeholders have the opportunity to come together and define an institutional space and direction for the organization.  Unfortunately, this process takes time and commitment, and usually occurs under difficult circumstances often caused by the stress and emotion of the transition.  How the board responds, the steps the founding executive takes to prepare the organization, and the skills and understanding of the new executive can all impact the outcome of this moment.

These cases are based on interviews with the departing executive, the successor and a board member who was engaged in the search.  These case studies are part of the ongoing work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to explore the impact of leadership transitions on community-based and other nonprofit organizations that have a critical role in helping the Foundation carryout its own mission.  The following four cases each provide insight into the highs and lows of founder transitions.  The basics of each case are outlined individually—what happened and what some of the issues were.  However, in order to preserve anonymity, the preliminary lessons from the research are combined into one section with no attributions.

Case 1: Long time executive retires

The Situation

The organization was founded out of the moral imperative to feed, cloth and house the poor prayerfully.  A beloved executive with a 15-year tenure who brought the organization back from the edge of closure retired.

Preparing to Leave

For several years before her departure, she had been preparing the organization—telling the board and staff she was considering leaving, meeting with transition consultants to better understand the process and providing information to the board about the steps in transitions.  She sought out staff that she felt needed to be in place to stabilize the organization.  One year before she gave notice, she took the board to a training workshop about transitions and discussed what would happen when she decided to leave.  Finally, at a workshop about fundraising, she was challenged to think specifically about her legacy and goals.  Here, she verbalized that she wanted to leave by the next year, identified the things she wanted to do before she left, and began writing her own transition plan.

The Transition Process

With the help of a transition consultant, the organization began a thoughtful process of transition.  The new board president (the long-time board president had stepped down for personal health reasons) met with the transition consultant and decided that as a new board president she should not lead the search committee. She appointed a well-respected board member with a long history with the organization to chair the transition committee.  They identified the following as important:

  • As a beloved person was stepping down; it was very important to celebrate her legacy and engage the community in the search;

  • A clear communications plan was necessary to let stakeholders, donors, and institutional funders know what was happening during the transition;

  • Intense discussions were needed to clarify the core values of the organization and the characteristics of the person that would lead the organization into the future;

  • The transition committee would maintain constant communication with the full board and staff;

  • The board agreed that the committee would make the final hiring decision;

  • A new executive must be a unanimous decision of the committee.

The New Executive and Post Hire Time

Two months after the long time executive left, the new executive began.  The new executive is from outside of the immediate community and has extensive management experience.  She has a different style and different experiences which are shifting the culture and approach that the organization takes.  The successor says she worked in the interview process to let the transition committee get to know her and to understand her differences in style.  After being hired, she really tried to get to know each staff personally and professionally and feels like they have been welcoming and supportive in return.  She highlights the importance of communicating with the staff and board, she says she wants to “over-communicate” and notes, “it is hard and maybe she hasn’t done it enough but it is clear how important it is.”  She also says that the former executive has stayed engaged but has been incredibly gracious and considerate, and that her support is important.

Six months after the transition the organization’s budget is similar to its pre-transition level, their fundraising to-date has gone well, and they are engaged in a strategic planning process.  While the literature suggests that this transition process will last for at least another 6 months, and there are certainly challenges and issues yet to be addressed, the care and planning that this organization has taken in the transition process seems to be paying off.

Case 2: Entrepreneurial founder moves on

The Situation

The founder of a marine conservation organization wanted to avoid “the founder flounder,” so he decided it was time to move on.

Preparing to Leave

Nine years ago, a veteran diver recognized the destruction of coral reefs and an opportunity to work with the dive industry to protect the reefs.  He discussed the idea with friends in environmental conservation, but none of the organizations was in a position to take on the task. Faced with the prospect of either letting the idea die or doing it himself, he started a nonprofit.  He always said, "I’ll do this for 6 years," but he doesn’t think people believed him.  His commitment to leave grew with his own understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, and from seeing the impact of other founders who stayed on too long.

Of course, having decided to leave doesn’t make it easy.  As he noted, “it is like putting your child up for adoption.”  His leaving took place in a couple of stages, during which time he read about transitions and talked with friends and advisors.  He took a sabbatical during which it was unclear whether he would return and in what capacity.  Then he gave notice.  Like many founders, some of his concerns were about what he would do next and about how the organization would fare.

The Transition Process

The founder had told many executive committee members privately that he would be leaving, so when the formal notice came, the committee was able to move fairly quickly.  The executive committee charged the founder to begin preparing staff for transition and to inform staff and board of any funding or programmatic plans he might have for the organization.  They also set up a transition team and search committee.

The board contacted transition consultants, but they were unable to get the kind of direct advice and guidance they felt that they needed.  They didn’t have the money to hire a search firm, so they decided to manage the search on their own.  Three months later, they had a candidate that they were very excited about.  The candidate ended up not taking the position.  As the board president said, “We got left at the altar.”  Board members at that point were exhausted and decided they had to hire help.  The board committed to raise funds to hire a search firm.  Once a search firm was engaged, the process moved forward more quickly, however the organization was still without an executive for a year.

At the same time, the transition committee and the founder were feeling their way through the delicate dance of defining roles in the transition process and beyond.  This was particularly important since the founding executive was not retiring but was instead moving on to other work in a similar field.

The extended transition and search process had some pros and cons.  On one hand, the staff was able to step forward and take on leadership and management responsibility that would otherwise have been unlikely.  On the other hand, some programmatic decisions were delayed waiting for new leadership and funding.  Further, some funding fell through while the organization was in transition.  Finally, the drawn out transition process took much of the board's energy and there was little time and energy left for celebrating and honoring the founder.

The New Executive and Post Hire Time

The new executive has experience following an entrepreneurial leader and prides himself on “turning plans into reality.”  He is focused on further sharpening the programs, building internal systems and institutionalizing relationships (moving relationships to the organization as opposed to with the executive) with funders and partners.

Seven months into the new executive’s tenure, the organization has moved to new offices, the programs have written objectives and are coming in on budget, and they are financially “on track.”  Two staff people have left, in part due to the office move and one board member has left.  The organization has gained two new board members and the board is moving more towards active governance.

While the transition is continuing, this organization’s board and staff have grown and developed through the process, and the organization is positioned to successfully weather the loss of its founder.

Case 3: First executive retires

The Situation

The first executive of an interfaith coalition of congregations, dedicated to meeting the needs of the poor, retired.

Preparing to Leave

While the first executive was not part of the initial group of clergy and volunteers that wrote the charter for the organization, he was hired as its first executive director and had been the organization’s executive director for 27 years.  He decided that, “When I reached 65 would be time to leave.  I had other things I wanted to do and I thought it would be better for the organization to find someone new.”  It was a good time to move on—the organization was doing well and while he had decided it was time to retire, he didn’t feel as if he had “had enough.”  He was recognized as a powerful, influential, respected and well-liked member of the community and the primary spokesperson for the poor in the county.

Two conditions increased his level of comfort in leaving the organization.  First, the current board president at the time agreed to serve another term as president so there would be some continuity for the new executive.  Second, he helped identify and was very impressed with the extremely talented candidate that rose to the top of the pool.

The Transition Process

The first executive gave the board more than a year's notice that he was planning to retire at age 65.  He and the board president talked about the transition and the necessary skills and traits for a successor.  They identified both the strengths of the retiring executive that were vital to the organization and new skills that the new executive could bring that might be important for the organization’s future.

The board hired a transition consultant and allowed the consultant to guide them through the mechanics of the transition.  The consultant also helped facilitate conversations about the organization’s future and helped integrate some of these plans into the search process.  For example, as part of a long-range plan to garner more support from the business community, one of the celebratory events held honoring the retiring executive was with the business community.  This event has now become an annual fundraiser sponsored by the business community.  This kind of integration helped make the transition process part of long-range, strategic direction of the organization.

At the same time the organization prepared for the retirement of the executive by undergoing a transformation of the board.  The board was becoming more active and more structured.  New committees with clear objectives, power and leadership were formed.  The board president noted that several individual board members stepped up and helped transform the board into a more engaged and active body.  So, despite anxiety on the part of some members of the board that ‘without the founding executive, the organization will fall apart,’ the founding executive was able to step back and let the board change and develop into a more active, seasoned leadership body.

New Executive and Post Hire Period

The new executive is a seasoned manager who worked closely with other executives and leaders in the area.  Several years earlier, she made a decision that she wanted to lead an organization working to alleviate poverty and had given herself five years in which to get the experience she needed and to find the right job.  A call from the executive of the interfaith coalition asking her to apply for his job came just three years into her plan.

In part because she hadn’t sought out the job, she feels like she was able to be really honest with the board during the interviews.  For example, she recalls stating, “Look, I don’t want us to be looking at each other in 6 months and saying ‘Well, didn’t we make a mistake.’”  She also acknowledges real differences.  “People love the retiring executive in a way that they will never love me.  But I’m okay with that.  And while we didn’t talk about this in specifics during the interviews, we did talk some about differences in style and skills.” A good example of this was when one person said, “You have big shoes to fill,” referring to the retiring executive’s successes and reputation.  The current executive laughed and said, “it is a good thing we wear different shoes.”  After she was hired, she really felt welcomed and valued.  There was some overlap between the retiring executive and the new executive, which provided the retiring executive an opportunity to help by introducing his successor throughout the community and showing that he really supported the change.

Three years after the transition, the organization’s budget is up from $900,000 to $2.2 million.  Personal giving is up by 23%, and the number of active congregations is up from 105 to 125.  There have been some changes in staff, but not a large-scale turn over.  They have launched 5 new, fully funded programs.  In this case, enough time has passed to judge the transition itself as a success.  The success of this transition is undoubtedly due to a plethora of factors including:

  • The retiring executive had a desire to explore other career opportunities and felt acknowledged and appreciated even as he was preparing to leave;

  • The incoming executive was a strong candidate with good management skills and an inclusive management style;

  • The retiring executive was comfortable with the candidate taking over the organization;

  • The board president served another term providing some continuity during the process;

  • The board strengthened itself and was able to rise to the challenge of choosing a successor and;

  • The organization received some outside facilitative assistance.

Case 4: Founder moves on

The Situation

The founder of an organization dedicated to developing multi-cultural environmental leadership left.  As the organization was being sponsored by another organization that acted as its fiscal agent, the organization did not have a board or their own 501(c)(3) status.  They did have an advisory committee.

Preparing to Leave

The founder had been with the organization for about 8 years when he decided that he needed to move on.  He had noticed a growing disconnect between himself and the staff in terms of interests and approach.  Further, his peers in the organization had left.  The founder was also questioning the multi-cultural philosophy that had framed the organization and consequently the mission and approach that they should take into the future.  In all, he was finding it difficult to maintain the same energy and enthusiasm for the work, and decided it was time to move on.

In hopes of sorting out fundamental questions related to the mission and leaving the organization with a clear direction, he hired a consultant to assist in doing a strategic plan.  At this time, he told both the staff and the consultant that he was planning on leaving.  Unfortunately, the completed plan did not resolve the issues for him and he ended the process feeling even further disconnected from the staff.  Having “thrown his life into the organization now for almost 10 years and with things in some disarray, it was difficult to think about leaving the organization.”

At this point, he hired a transition consultant.  The consultant’s perspective was organizational—how to maintain the organization when he left - and the founder received little support for his personal struggle with the transition.  Finally, after an auto accident, the founder decided that it was truly time to move on.  He gave the staff and advisory board a specific termination date and he sent letters to stakeholders and funders.

Transition Process

The transition team consisted of members of the advisory board, a few other stakeholders, and a transition consultant.  However, without a board of people committed to the organization and working to ensure its successful transition, there were few champions to manage the process.  Further, the organization still struggled with unresolved fundamental questions about mission and approach.  Without a board and founder, there was no one to make these decisions.

The transition team hired a former staff person to become the new executive director, but six weeks later that executive left because of the organization’s serious financial problems.  Although the incoming executive had asked for financial statements when he was interviewing for the job, he did not see them until after he was hired.  After six weeks of due diligence, the incoming executive determined the organization would be out of money within three months and that grants the organization had assumed it would be awarded were, in fact, not going to be awarded.  Further, he did not find the kind of community support that would have been important to his success.

At that point the transition team had been working for about a year, was exhausted, and was considering either merging with another organization or closing down the organization.  The organization had also lost almost its entire staff.

New Executive/New Beginnings

The former assistant to the founder, told by a colleague about the organization’s struggle, did not want the organization to close.  After years of being mentored by the founder, she believed she had the close personal connection to the organization, its mission, and the founder that are important for a new executive, and she was personally ready for a change.  She approached friends and colleagues in the local nonprofit community and received advice about taking on the troubled organization.  They encouraged her.  She, with an advisor, approached the transition team. The transition team gave her a couple of months first, to explore funding opportunities and second to determine if there was sufficient support in the community for her to gather a powerful board of directors for the organization and create a group of influential supporters.

In part due to her personal connections in the funding community (she had worked as a program officer at a local foundation) and her relationships with several influential leaders in the local nonprofit community, she was able to get funding released and begin to gathering a group that would become the board.  With these successes, the transition team agreed to hire her and then they disbanded.

The organization has five full-time staff, two part-time staff, a budget of almost $500,000 and has moved its offices to a more convenient location.  The organization is applying for 501(c)(3) status and has a high powered board that meets regularly.

There were several issues of importance during this transition.  First, the organization did not have a board of directors to guide it through the transition.  Second, some funders and other stakeholders were concerned about the organization’s instability and held back support during the transition.  Finally, the organization had lost all the staff and had few internal systems.

Fortunately, the new executive was able to address many of these issues because of her relationships in the funding and stakeholder community.  Her good relationship with the founder allowed her to solicit assistance in contacting unhappy funders.  Further her approach of soliciting input and feedback from key stakeholders before taking on the position helped her gain support.  Leaders of other key institutions told her, “If you take this on, we will help you.”  Some people even called and asked what they could do to help her.  For example, a well known organization development consultant joined the board and is providing pro bono strategic planning.  Another nationally known leader has assisted with the hiring new staff, a major issue for the organization.  Others continue to act as advisors as the new executive moves to create organization systems, solidify funding, lead meaningful programs, and continue to build relationships in the community.

For the new executive, an important, ongoing challenge is the sheer amount of work.  She knows that she can’t keep up her current pace and is seeking staff that will be capable of taking on the management of some programs.

While the organization is still not 100% stable, it has made giant strides.  Under the leadership of a new, energetic, entrepreneurial executive, it is likely to continue developing.

 

Transition Tips for Boards & Search Committees

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Your biggest challenge is to resist the pressure to act too quickly. The following are some steps to consider:

  • In the first week after the departure, take stock of the key issues facing the organization and the leadership and resources available to manage the transition.
  • Develop a plan that pays attention to all three phases of transition—getting ready, recruiting, and post-hiring.
  • Build extra time into your plan to identify and attract a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Consider whether outside assistance from a consultant or facilitator friend of the organization is needed to get the full picture of the organization and its needs.
  • Retain outside help unless you have an experienced volunteer with immediate time and expertise to devote to the transition.
  • As soon as possible, let staff, board, and other stakeholders know about the transition. Tell them in writing and face-to-face where possible. Let them know when the executive is leaving and who will head the search committee. Invite input into the attributes of the next executive, priorities of the organization, and possible candidates.
  • Review your compensation package, add an employer-paid retirement plan if you don’t have one, and stay open about the final salary until you’ve tested the market for candidates.
  • Say an appropriate goodbye to your departing executive and celebrate his or her contribution to the organization.
  • Communicate regularly with the departing executive, board members, and other key stakeholders.
 

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News

    BIG NEWS...
    TransitionGuides has transitioned! 

      
    

 


As of January 2, 2014, we have joined Raffa PC

CLICK HERE to see what Raffa PC has to offer!

 This change allows us to continue to offer and further develop our search, sustainability, succession, and transition services and to offer a broader range of services. Our team, our work, and our commitment to outstanding service remain the same. For more information contact Karen Schuler regarding CEO and Senior Executive Search (kschuler@raffa.com) and Tom Adams regarding Sustainability, Succession & Transition Planning Services (tadams@raffa.com) For now you can continue to access the TransitionGuides website at www.transitionguides.com.

Please visit the Raffa website at www.raffa.com  to learn about the comprehensive services and benefits offered to the nonprofit community.

From the practical back office solutions that keep organizations compliant, effective and efficient to the deeper strategies that create sustainability, Raffa provides the financial and management expertise as well as accounting, consulting, and technology services that help organizations deliver on their promise to the community. Experience the Raffa culture of corporate citizenship and community commitment, and learn how passion for professional excellence and for making a difference merge for the better good.
While you are there, sign up for the Raffa newsletter to receive our timely articles and learn about the firm’s free Learning Community events.

 From the practical back office solutions that keep organizations compliant, effective and efficient to the deeper strategies that create sustainability, Raffa provides the financial and management expertise as well as accounting, consulting, and technology services that help organizations deliver on their promise to the community. Experience the Raffa culture of corporate citizenship and community commitment, and learn how passion for professional excellence and for making a difference merge for the better good.  

While you are there, sign up for the Raffa newsletter to receive our timely articles and learn about the firm’s free Learning Community events.