Ep. 20 – How Boards Prepare for and Manage Executive Transition

PodcastCoverArtIn this episode of the Lead. Learn. Thrive. Podcast, executive transition is discussed in depth. To explore more deeply how board leaders are preparing for the inevitability of executive transition, this podcast features a discussion between Tom Adams and two board leaders who recently led their organization through an executive transition. Jean Hochron served as the Search Committee Chair when the National Health Care for the Homeless Council completed its transition and search last year. Jean had also served as Board Chair. Jim Hastings is the current Board Chair for the Literacy Council of Montgomery County. As Chair, Jim served on the Transition and Search Committee during two executive transitions over the past four years.

Executive transitions are inevitable. Sometimes they are expected; sometimes not. Regardless of the circumstances, boards are asked to step up and lead in very unique and important ways when an executive transition occurs. Sometimes glibly, we say the board’s most important duty (or high up there) is to hire the executive. There is more to the story. What this really means is the board is responsible for ensuring great leadership for the organization over time.

Ensuring great leadership means more than placing an ad, doing some interviews and hiring an executive. Boards tend to err in one of two extremes when faced with executive transition – either panic and act like the sky is falling because the beloved executive is leaving, or nonchalantly go about quickly picking a successor like this is just any ordinary hire. It is not an ordinary hire or process.


Based on the experience of Jean and Jim as board leaders of a transition and search and on Raffa’s extensive experience working with boards, here are six tips for board leaders who want to be ready when executive transition happens:

1. Start early and revisit annually – The National Health Care for the Homeless Council transition was of a long-tenured founder of the organization. The board and executive were in discussions about his plans many years before the transition occurred. Jean Hochron commented on how important it was that 3 years before the transition they had taken the time to develop a written succession policy which detailed who would be on the Transition and Search Committee, how staff would be involved, and who made what decisions. In addition, the executive and managers developed back-up plans and looked at what actions were needed to make the organization ready for the transition. Once you have a succession policy and emergency plans, revisit them and your organizational sustainability annually.

2.Pay attention to the culture and guiding principles of the organization – For the Literacy Council, the Board and the interim executive recognized a need to move from an informal way of operating that worked for their previous executive to more defined operating procedures. Through the transition – from a long-tenured executive, to an internally promoted executive, to an interim executive, to the newly hired current executive – the Literacy Council has intentionally made much progress in shifting their culture. Over the years, the Health Care for the Homeless Council had developed a strong commitment to consensus decision making. It was important to honor this culture in how the new executive was selected and in establishing expectations for the new executive.

3.Consider hiring an Interim Executive – The Literacy Council had an internal interim while the Board led its own search for the first successor. Unfortunately, the Board decided not to make an offer to any of the three finalists. Meanwhile, the internal interim had proven her ability, was approached, and agreed to take the position. After two years she received a great offer at another organization and left. A colleague suggested to Jim Hastings that they consider an interim executive and told him about a network of Interim Executives serving the Washington DC region. Jim explained: “Our interim was exactly what we needed. She built on the work of our departing executive and rapidly advanced our processes and systems. We were a stronger and more attractive organization to candidates as a result. And the cost was not significantly more than our normal executive salary. Prior to this experience, I did not know this service existed and I highly recommend it to boards with that need.”

4.Consider retaining consulting assistance – Both the Literacy Council and the Health Care for the Homeless Council decided to hire a consulting firm to assist with the transition and search. For the Literacy Council, Hastings explains: “We spent hundreds of hours of volunteer time trying to do this ourselves the first time and were unsuccessful. Having an external consultant both to be a thought partner and to do the leg work of finding the candidates we needed was worth the cost.” Hochron added: “We are a national membership organization and operate primarily via conference call and email, which made the search process somewhat complicated.  I was preparing for my own retirement and stepped forward to chair the Search Committee.  But I had neither the time nor skills to manage all of the details of a national search.  Having a consultant who knew and understood the process and who supported our culture was critical and a wise use of our resources.”  The National Council tapped its reserves to pay for costs associated with the search.  The Literacy Council was able to secure a grant after it had hired the consultant so it had minimal out of pocket costs.

5.Engage and communicate often with all stakeholders, especially the staff – Transitions make boards and staff anxious. The staff wonders if the board really understands enough to hire a successor. Some of the board wonders if the Search Committee has too much authority. Being clear about roles, as well as how and when the full Board and staff will be involved, is key to success. For the Health Care for the Homeless Council, Hochron had regularly scheduled calls with the retiring executive and management team to make sure staff were engaged and had real-time information about the status of the search. This investment in communication and engagement is key to both the board and staff having full confidence in the decision.

6.Invest in onboarding and the first years of a new executive – There are amazing opportunities to move an organization forward under new leadership. This is not a criticism of the past, but rather an acknowledgement of how quickly the environment and the needs of an organization change. A new executive working with an engaged board and staff can facilitate the needed changes without disrupting the secret sauce of what is working. This begins with the board paying attention to how it onboards the new executive and how the board, new executive, and staff intentionally advance their agreed upon change agenda over the first couple years of the executive’s tenure.

Preparing for executive transition is a key and ongoing role for board leaders. The tips above are intended to help guide investment in that important duty.

For more information on Raffa’s succession and executive transition services including this and other podcasts, a just-published case study on internal succession in Nonprofit Quarterly, click here. For more on these and related topics, read The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide by Tom Adams available on Amazon.com. To hear this and other Raffa podcasts, click here.



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