December 15, 2022

Does Executive Transition Have to Be a Drama or Disaster?

By Karen Schuler, Partner, Nonprofit Search, Transition & Planning

Does Executive Transition Have to Be a Drama or Disaster? Executive Search

Nonprofit executive transitions are complex, challenging, and unique to each organization. The volunteer board of directors — whose members may have varying views on the executive search function and the organization’s transition context — is ultimately responsible for hiring the next executive. Layer in the board’s unspoken aspiration to “make the right choice” for the future of the organization, and the odds of success can be mixed.

It does not have to be this way

Every nonprofit will, at some point, experience a change in CEO or executive director. Over the past 20 years, professional consultants in the field have developed a body of knowledge and experience that can dramatically improve the odds of a positive executive transition. The following actions increase the odds of a successful transition.

Prepare the organization for a transition years before one occurs by paying attention to the following:

  • Periodically conduct a sustainability and succession review to determine organizational strengths and challenges, as well as board and staff engagement, expertise, and gaps.
  • Ensure the organization has emergency backup plans in the event of an unplanned executive absence or departure, update plans annually.
  • Understand the organization’s philosophy around talent management and development and the potential to consider a planned internal succession.

Support the executive — particularly if they are a founder or long-tenured executive – to prepare before their transition

  • Guide them in assessing their current work. Consider how to delegate more responsibility to the leadership team or bring on more capacity so their successor can more easily step into the CEO role.
  • Support the executive and the board in planning ahead for the executive’s potential role in the search and transition.
  • Develop a written executive transition agreement to clarify expectations for both the individual and the organization during and after the transition. Consider their role in both the executive search and the transition.

Pay equal attention to the executive search and the transition

Many boards get really focused on the search and finding the right person. While this makes sense, experience demonstrates that attention to major transition issues is equally important. For example, consider the following potential issues:

  • Recent investment in a new strategic initiative, or sunsetting a program.
  • Significant change in major funding (influx or reduction).
  • Concurrent departures of key staff.
  • The board’s function and timing of changes for board officers.
  • Internal candidates: current/past staff, board members, or leaders from member organizations.

There are search firms that attend mostly to the search, and there are search and transition firms that attend to both. Most nonprofits are better served by attention to both transition and search.

Understand how an equity lens impacts the executive search and transition process

  • Applying an equity lens throughout the transition process begins with the organization recognizing and understanding how diversity, equity, and inclusion are advanced across staff, at the board level, and through the organization’s culture, values, and work. This understanding supports authentic communication in the executive search process and potentially reduces the impact of unconscious bias in decision-making.

Preserve time and leadership attention for onboarding the new executive

Hiring and onboarding an executive takes time, focus, and commitment from the board and staff. The best onboarding practices begin before the new executive steps into the role. This includes supporting them in planning their first 90 – 120 days, identifying the relationships or organizational priorities that require attention early on, and considering the additional resources (coaching, training, advisory group, etc.) that support a strong start. Board members often think their work is done once they’ve hired the new executive. But paying close attention to the introduction, welcome, and orientation, as well as instilling mutual accountability between the executive and board, further enhances the odds of a productive executive tenure.

If you have any questions about this article or how we can help your organization with executive search and transition planning, contact Karen Schuler at [email protected].