Six Tips for Boards: Preparing for Executive Transition

By Tom Adams, Director, Succession and Sustainability 

Executive transitions may look simple and straightforward to some board leaders. As Pam Gilbert, current Board Chair of American Antitrust Institute observed, “If your executive is doing her or his job well, they make the job look easy. Then as I have learned from being involved in several executive transitions, when that executive decides to leave, we as board leaders find out how complicated the job is and the challenge of thoughtfully hiring and connecting successfully with a successor. And this is even more complex if the executive was the founder or has served a long-tenure and/or transformed the organization.”

The following are six suggestions that emerged from Raffa’s transition, search and succession work and our recent podcast with Pam Gilbert about the board’s roles and challenges in preparing for and successfully leading an executive transition:

  1. Don’t Expect Executive Transition to be Easy or Simple

Most humans like to avoid conflict and challenges. One way to do that is to deny what is happening or its significance. Another way is to avoid action and hope for a magical solution. Neither of these approaches results in gains for the organization and its mission. Admit hiring a nonprofit executive is among the most important duties of board. It is different than and harder than one manager hiring an employee. The good news is there are a lot of helpful resources to guide boards with how to lead executive transitions well. (link to raffa resources on web?) Embrace the opportunity and work to make the most of it.

2. Start Early – be perpetually getting ready for transition

The departure of a founder or long-tenured executive is a big deal. It has unique dimensions not found in other transitions. The culture, important relationships, and even in some cases the identity of the organization is closely tied to the departing executive. There are many reasons not to start early. The executive fears being a lame duck or being pushed out. The board fears sending the wrong message to the executive. By normalizing and making part of the work each year attention to succession and sustainability planning, the organization can prepare for inevitable and eventual executive transition without calling it that. Smart leaders begin work early on succession and sustainability and don’t stop.

3. Ensure board, managers and staff are appropriately engaged over long-term

The days of John or Jane Wayne as “hero or heroine executive” are over. Too much over dependence on the executive is not healthy for the organization or sustainable. Fewer and fewer people want those kinds of jobs. Building a culture where the managers and staff are involved in building leader capacity and bench strength for each position reduces the risk of executive transition. Similarly boards who are proactive about recruiting and engaging board members who have time to participate and add value are better prepared for transition. The needs and duties of board leaders change as the organization and its ways of working and getting needed resources change. The stepping up required of board and managers during transition is less traumatic if those muscles are already regularly exercised. Staff who are excluded from the transition process become quite anxious and have a hard time connecting well with the new executive.

4. Focus on both the transition and the search

It is normal to put the emphasis on finding the right person. This is particularly true if we are still looking for the perfect hero leader (God on a good day). Experience shows repeatedly that when a nonprofit ignores the transition – the context and changes required to successfully transition leaders and the emotional experience of the leaders and staff – the risks for a failed or flawed transition increase. Gilbert observed: “It is often only in hindsight that we appreciate how much change the organization will need as it transitions. As board leaders, we each have a limited view. I am convinced we as boards need outside help without an agenda and with deep transition and search experience to make sure we are paying attention to what is important in this process. I have seen boards hope for the best or rush to get to the hire and find out they did not engage enough. In some cases the organization ends up going out of business. This is a serious responsibility and the answers are not obvious.”

5. Be proactive and thoughtful about how to handle internal candidates

Boards and outgoing executives are often conflicted about how much or little to encourage internal candidates. Again there is no one way. Ideally the organization is engaged annually in a leader development process. The executive and board are discussing the leadership team and requirements and opportunity for growth. The written Succession Policy is an opportunity for the Board to establish how it wants to handle internal candidates. In most cases, internal candidates are more empowered if compared to external candidates. However there are exceptions to this rule. Gilbert observes: “At AAI, we ended up hiring our Vice President. We did a thorough search, had a very strong pool and the interview process helped the Board and our new executive gain confidence that hiring internally was the right decision.”

6. Pay attention to the organizational transition as you onboard your new executive.

Research in Daring to Lead (2011) showed that new executives need more attention and support in year 2 and 3. Most boards pay some attention to the initial onboarding. The challenge for the board during these early years with a new executive is to find balance between micro-management, overreacting to recent experiences positive or negative, and supporting the new executive while ensuring accountability. The board has been preparing for both an organizational and executive transition. The organization may need to shift its culture, ways of raising revenue, services mix. The new executive is hired to partner with the board and staff in advancing this organizational pivot. The board is best served by organizing to support the executive and organizational transition over a 2-3 year period.

Executive and organizational transitions done well ensure continuity of mission impact and ongoing growth and retention of leaders needed for success.

For more information on Raffa’s succession and executive transition services listen to the Preparing for Executive Transition: The Board’s Role and Perspective podcast and other podcasts, read this just published case study on internal succession published in the Nonprofit Quarterly and the Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices essay.

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