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Research identifies several distinct types of nonprofit leadership transition with different levels of risk and opportunity.   The best known examples are:

  • The departure of a founder
  • A "turnaround" in response to a crisis
  • The planned departure (such as retirement) with 2-3 years of planning.

In each case the leadership of an organization (the board and often the departing executive) have important decisions to make, in a logical sequence, usually with little or no experience to guide them.  Leadership Transition Planning presents a widely adaptable menu of services which usually group into four areas.

1.  Succession Planning - General succession planning for the top positions in an organization is a sound risk management practice for one of the few inevitable events faced by all organizations - i.e., people leave.  A basic approach provides emergency contingency plans so that key leadership and administrative functions will continue without disruption when a member of management is absent either temporarily or permanently. Constructing the plan involves clarification of key responsibilities and functions for the positions, identifying who can cover those functions short-term, and creating cross-training plans to ensure their capability.  The emergency plan for the executive director position will include who activates the plan (e.g. the board chair), who has authority to name an "acting" director, and how notification of internal and external parties is addressed.  A broader approach to general succession planning will include (especially for larger organizations) leadership development as a strategic practice to retain and grow internal leaders.  This practice matches the organization's future vision to leadership skills, and provides for related skill enhancement for the top current and future leaders. 

2.  Immediate Next-Steps Planning - A board faced with a short notice resignation from its executive director (especially less than three months notice) or has decided to terminate the executive's employment will benefit from consultation on immediate next steps.  Decisions include:

  • appointment of an acting executive, range of responsibilities as well as compensation
  • clarifying the job description and priorities for the interim period (including orientation objectives for an overlap period if any) 
  • processes for enhanced supervision by the board
  • communication and notifications
  • defining the search process for a permanent replacement.

3.  Planned Departure - When a long-term leader is considering or announces his or her departure 2 or more years in advance the organization can engage in a thorough and thoughtful process often called "departure-defined succession planning."  This is a rich "pivotal moment" in the life-cycle of the organization that can yield powerful results.  The following activities can be well supported by an outside coach and consultant:

  • Assist the departing executive with major personal barriers to the planning, and support her/him in the transition period.
  • Create an organizational readiness profile to clarify the strengths and challenges of the organization.  This leads to goals for the period before the departure and a list of experience and expertise qualities needed in the new executive. 
  • Gather board member and management staff input on the leadership style of the outgoing executive and create a profile for the next-phase leader.
  • Design a detailed plan for the search, engagement, and onboarding of the new executive director.

4.  New Executive Onboarding - A board of directors makes a multitude of decisions and spend many extra hours when they select a new executive director.  It's not surprising then that most new executives experience a quick handoff of the keys from a relieved and optimistic search committee.  Orienting the new executive and setting a solid course is clearly the board's responsibility but is usually foreign territory.  “Onboarding” is a process for placing the new executive director firmly in his or her seat by introducing the total job and context, and developing a shared leadership agenda.   An executive coach will be a great asset for this.  A simple but important orientation guide will include:

·         Communicating the transition and meeting key stakeholders

·         Introduction to major components of the organization: compiling documents and resources and      constructing a schedule to meet with informants on staff

·         Calendar Issues – upcoming events and recurring meetings

·         Relationship building – who are the players who deserve early attention.

More important than a straight-forward orientation plan is the determination of priorities and goals for the first 30 days, 90 days and one year.  In a 2014 survey of nonprofit CEOs, Bridgespan found that 66% of respondents disagreed with the statement “The board and I worked together effectively to establish measures and milestones to assess my performance in the first year.”*  A shared leadership agenda will clarify for the new CEO what the board believes are top organizational priorities and then together, action plans with appropriate milestones are set forth.   Typically, most priorities are identified by the board before the search but a dynamic process involving the new CEO clarifies and creates quantifiable goals in the first few months.


Transitions:  Prepare, pivot, and thrive
The Casey Foundation's research and experience to date suggests that executive transitions need not result in bad organizational outcomes.  On the contrary, we have found that transitions are powerful - and under-realized - opportunities to strengthen nonprofits.  Proactively managed, leadership transitions provide a "pivotal moment."  Boards, with expert support from executive transition management providers, can assess the situation, work through the hiring process, and implement strategies that enable an organization to not only survive a transition but to thrive through it.
Capturing the Power of Leadership Change - Executive Transitions Monograph Series, Tom Adams, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2004