Following a Long-Tenured Executive: Insights from the New Leader
By Samantha Sadiv, Staff, Search, Transition & Planning
When nonprofit leaders who succeed long-tenured executives enter their roles, they often navigate a balancing act between the organization’s history and future: how to honor their predecessors’ legacy while leading the organization with their own style and new ideas. In 2018, the Executive Transition practice of Marcum’s Nonprofit & Social Sector group surveyed 52 chief executives who succeeded long-tenured executives (hired into their roles following a Marcum-led process) to gather feedback on how successors managed the transition experience. Twenty-seven executives provided their insights, including 17 respondents who succeeded executives who had served more than 20 years in their roles.
Respondents provided first-hand testimony regarding their experience early in their leadership and their insights on the support they received from their predecessors, Board members, and leadership teams. In addition to exploring the new executives’ relationships with Board, staff, and key external stakeholders, the survey gathered useful insights on the new executives’ relationships with their predecessors. When asked to give advice to nonprofit leaders who succeed a long-tenured executive, survey respondents suggested the following:
- Observe the intricacies of your organization – do not make assumptions. Listen, then act and follow through.
- Familiarize yourself with the background and context. Use the first few months to meet with affiliates of the organization and hear all perspectives.
- Ask as many questions as you need. Talk to as many staff, Board members, stakeholders, and key contacts as possible to inform your goals and strategies.
Senior Staff Interactions
- Earn the respect, loyalty, and trust of the leadership team as you establish rapport in your new role.
- Converse with the leadership staff about their workstyle before proceeding with the Board’s directive on future actions.
- Consult with financial staff about the budget, donor relations, grants, debt, and access to reserves.
- Interact with your Board members individually to learn what they did and did not appreciate about your predecessor.
- Ensure the Board supports you, proactively communicate with them, and encourage debate.
- Clarify the departing executive’s role for the near term future. Have the Board set reasonable transition limits to prevent the departing CEO from giving unsolicited advice during the early stages of your tenure.
Relations with the Predecessor
- Maintain a relationship with your predecessor for when you need their help as a consultant.
- Honor their tenure, accomplishments, and legacy, but be yourself and lay out your own vision and agenda.
- Make your own mark; change the organization’s culture if there is a need to do so, and decide on your own priorities.
- Honor the past – make an effort to praise the organization, its history, and previous leadership. If the organization is healthy when you join, then maintain that culture.
- Establish your own style and rapport. Don’t be afraid to challenge habits that no longer serve a purpose. Get buy-in from staff to show the utility of those changes. Acknowledge that change takes time and accept the decisions made before your arrival; focus on what you can control, and look ahead to changes you can make for the next few years.
- Talk to other CEOs who have been in a similar situation.
- Take care of yourself! Although overwhelming at first, establishing a good work-life balance early on is imperative to beginning a long-term tenure.