Underestimating the complexity of an executive transition is easy. To some Board and staff members, it looks simple and straight forward. Executive A decides to leave and informs Board; Board recruits and hires Executive B. Executive A hands leadership to Executive B. What’s the fuss? Unfortunately, as experienced leaders know, executive transitions stretch and challenge everyone involved – Executive, Board, and staff.
In this Lead. Learn. Thrive. podcast episode, Keith Peterson who retired as CEO of PennMar Human Services in 2013 and Louvenia Williams who is retiring this year as founding executive of Edgewood/Brookland Family Support Collaborative, share their perspective on their transitions with Tom Adams, Director at Raffa.
Here are some key points Williams and Peterson made about executive transition.
The discussion focuses on three dimensions – personal, professional and organizational. As in real life, these and most executives are much more comfortable attending to organizational issues than their personal and professional planning.
Both executives emphasized how being concerned about the future of the organization is personal. Williams observed: “I am the founding executive of this organization. It has been my baby for over 20 years. This is bigger for me than the Board finding a new executive. There is a lot of care and feeding needed to plan this hand-off well and to ensure that what we built together lasts and continues to do good work.”
Peterson described the pressure he felt of being responsible for services to over 500 individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families and the staff who relied on PennMar for their livelihood. “I knew that a poor transition put the people served and the staff in a precarious situation. So I was deeply committed to a positive transition so that services were not interrupted and quality sustained.”
The two executives offered several examples of what makes executive transition personally and professionally challenging and complex:
- As an executive, accepting the anxiety of letting go of control and influence as the Board and management team step up and make decisions more often independent of the executive.
- Finding time to plan for what life after being an executive looks and feels like. One day you have an important mission and are in charge and the next day you are not. That is a big change and benefits from attention to what will give purpose and sustain meaningful relationships after leaving the executive position.
- Deciding how much to encourage potential internal candidates for the executive position and how to determine what is and is not your role in working with the Board as they consider how to respond to internal candidate(s).
Peterson emphasized the importance of ensuring the Board gets appropriate help during the transition process. “As I began thinking I would retire in two to three years, I searched for books and resources on succession planning and executive transition and looked for resources for the Board and myself. I considered it part of my responsibility to make sure the Board had the resources needed to lead a successful transition.”
Denial is a normal reaction to uncomfortable times and feelings. Letting go of a position of authority and respect is a big decision for an executive. For many, it feels overwhelming and somewhat risky and becomes easy to put off. Williams and Peterson suggested the following to executives thinking about a transition:
- Begin planning early. Two to four years before your departure is not too soon, particularly if you have a long tenure and are retiring or moving out of executive leadership.
- Look for safe places to network with peers and get educated about what to expect during transition and what is and is not your role. (Both executives commented that Raffa’s two day Next Steps workshops for executives are great for learning and networking. Click here for more information on Next Steps)
- Strengthen your partnership with the Board. Review and clarify roles in preparing and completing the transition.
- Have some idea what will give you meaning and the personal connections you need after you leave. (Peterson chose to join several boards after retirement as a way to continue to contribute from his experience; Williams looks forward to continuing her role as a community leader and advocate.)
- Let go gracefully and try not to take too much personally.
For the executive, there are three dimensions to a successful transition: personal, professional and organizational. While hard to do, odds for a successful transition increase when all three dimensions are addressed.
For more information on Raffa’s succession and executive transition services, click here. For more on these and related topics, read The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide by Tom Adams available on Amazon.com.
The Lead. Learn. Thrive podcast series grew out of our Raffa Learning Community effort and features interviews with interesting nonprofit and private sector leaders and those who help them Do More. If you would like to suggest a topic or a guest for an upcoming episode, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and include “podcast” in the email subject line.