Don’t panic, do these things first

This goes out to all the board members who suddenly find themselves in an executive transition.

Your ED is leaving or has left – maybe by their choice, maybe they have been transitioned out. Regardless of how you got here, if you’re on the board, then you’re on deck to manage the transition. It’s one of the most important jobs of a nonprofit board, and it’s time-consuming, and it matters that you do it well. But don’t panic…stay calm! Navigating through an executive transition, done well, can actually be a great experience for the organization and the board as well. This article provides eight specific things you can do right away before you start searching for your next leader.

Let me be clear: in no way should this article take the place of the vast array of literature and resources out there about succession planning (click here for one of my favorite comprehensive guides from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.) But what I’ve found is that sometimes these resources can be so comprehensive and detailed as to be overwhelming, especially if you need to get going quickly. Sometimes you need to know what to do, right now, before too much time passes.

Do These Things First

If you have a Succession Plan, review it. This may seem obvious, but your organization might have one, and if so, you should reference it. It might be out of date, but at least it’s a starting point. If you don’t have a succession plan, fear not, proceed to point 2.

Make a 4 to 12-month transition timeline. Typically, a transition timeline includes: exiting of the current ED, setting up interim leadership, recruitment planning (including hiring a search firm or consultant), the search and hiring process itself, and onboarding of the new leader. All told, this can take anywhere from 4 to 12 months. If this seems daunting, remember that ED transitions are more complex than other kinds of staff transitions for a number of reasons. For example:

  • If you choose to hire an interim or a search consultant, you will need time to fully vet your options, make a decision, and work with their timeline for when they can start working with you. It can take 4 to 6 weeks to line up these resources.
  • When an ED leaves, it often prompts the board to think hard about the organization and address questions otherwise ignored or deferred. For example: What are your internal strengths and weaknesses? What current and future opportunities and threats are facing the organization? What do you most want in an ED? What kind of a relationship do you want the board to have with the new ED? Don’t skip this step! It will maximize the odds of finding the right ED and their success once in the job.
  • ED searches take longer than other kinds of searches. Whether you hire a search consultant or not, you will likely decide to assemble a search committee and populate it with a group of busy people who are difficult to get in the same room for lengthy interviewing sessions. And each decision point along the way (e.g. deciding who to interview for the first, second and finalist rounds) will require group discussion above and beyond the interviewing time.

Figure out interim leadership. No matter how much time you have between your current and future permanent executive director, if it’s more than about 2 weeks, you’ll need to determine who will lead the organization during the interim. If the window of time is short (4-6 weeks) you can consider appointing an acting director (from within your staff team or sometimes from the board). If the timeline is longer, consider hiring a professional interim. Professional interims can be amazing! They are often experienced at coming in just at this precise moment to manage the stress associated with change and to keep everything running smoothly. Not only does this give you breathing room, but an interim can also facilitate the often deferred or ignored conversations mentioned in point 2 above. 

Prioritize what you’re looking for in a new leader. It is tempting to create a 100-point list of all the qualities, skills and experiences you want in your next ED and expect that you’re going to actually find someone who is strong in all these areas. Seriously, I’ve seen this list – a dizzying array that is both discouraging to your candidates (who will feel exhausted just reading it) and completely unrealistic for your search committee (because humans never come in this kind of a perfect package.) Not figuring out which qualities are the most critical until you are interviewing candidates can unravel an otherwise well-managed transition process. Take the time upfront to discuss and evaluate your priorities. Gather input from your staff and key external stakeholders. Think beyond the needs of the organization’s next 6 to 12 months (even though that often looms largest in everyone’s mind) and think about the skills to enable success over the next 3 to 5 years. Know what’s in the “must have” versus “nice to have” category. You don’t necessarily need to know all of these things before you post the position, but you should have it agreed upon before you start filtering out applicants and certainly before you start your first serious interviews.

Get clear on your key messages. If you don’t shape the message, the rest of the world will, so what do you want the world’s takeaways to be when they hear about your organization’s transition? Key messages and talking points can help get everyone on the same page and on point. A transition communications plan typically includes the following three main elements:

  • Key messages and talking points: Answer these questions: Why and when is the executive director leaving? What is the process and timeline moving forward? Who will lead the organization during the interim? Who can I talk to if I have questions or concerns? You’re best positioned if you have a positive message that communicates a strong plan, respect for your departing ED, and confidence in the organization’s future. 
  • Key audiences: Identify your internal audiences (board, staff, interns, volunteers) as well as external stakeholders (clients or constituents served, program partners, funders, individual donors). Segment your audiences and tailor your communications based upon what is most relevant to them. For example, you might have a different message for your staff versus your volunteers or for your individual donors versus your clients.
  • Schedule of communications: Who will communicate with whom and how often? What will be done in-person, on the phone, in writing, and online/via social media? While it’s possible to over-communicate with your stakeholders during a transition, it’s much more common to under-communicate. Set a regular schedule that has you reaching out with routine and frequent updates throughout your transition.

Reach out personally to your strongest supporters and allies. This point probably belongs above under communications, but it’s so important it gets its own shout-out. ED transitions can be a time when trust and faith erode. Done right, this needn’t be the case. Done super right, you can even emerge with a greater commitment to and faith in the organization, its mission, its board, and its staff. What does this mean in practice? Board members and/or the departing ED:

  • Make phone calls to your “top tier”. Make a list of your top 25 to 50 stakeholders: institutional partners, funders, volunteers, donors, etc. Before your official transition announcement goes out, INDIVIDUALLY CALL each of these stakeholders to let them know about the transition in advance (and stick to your key messages and talking points!). You can divide these calls up between board members to make it more manageable, but don’t skip this step. It usually takes about one to two weeks to make this many calls, so plan accordingly.
  • Send personal emails to your second tier. You likely have a second tier of supporters – those people you don’t have the bandwidth to personally call, but who you know would greatly appreciate hearing about the transition before it goes on your website or in an email blast to the world. Make a list of these people and send a personal email out a day or two before a general announcement that says “wanted you to know before we send this out next week…” Offer to be available to talk in person or answer their questions if they have any.

Don’t alienate your staff. How do transitions go wrong? Well, lots of things can happen in the course of an executive transition, but there is one particular pitfall that I’ve seen lead to long-term negative consequences. Despite best intentions, board members can inadvertently alienate their staff team during a transition – by not keeping them informed of what’s going on, not involving them appropriately in key decisions, and not appreciating them during an extra-stressful time. But you need your knowledgeable, loyal, and hardworking staff members now more than ever! While it’s important to clarify that the board is the ultimate decision-making authority when it comes to hiring the executive director, consider your nonprofit’s culture and design a process that is consistent with it, knowing that many organizations in the nonprofit sector put a high premium on collaboration and involvement. Make routine visits to staff meetings to update them on the process, gather their input and ideas, and answer their questions about the transition. Nominate one or possibly even two staff members to sit on your hiring committee. Staff have a unique perspective that board members don’t and can help you create a balanced understanding of what you need in the next leader. 

Consider a merger. This might make your head crack open, but there is often no better time to consider a merger or new kind of strategic partnership or structure than during a leadership transition. Before jumping into hiring, ask yourselves: is there another organization that we could combine forces with to more broadly or effectively deliver on our mission? If the answer is “maybe”, then let yourselves explore this opportunity. I’ve seen this lead to official mergers that allow both parties to better pursue their previous individual missions, through new opportunities or through greater efficiency, impact, and scale on existing opportunities and programs. And I’ve seen it not lead to a merger but result in stronger connections and collaborations across organizations and renewed internal commitment to and mission conviction.

So there you have it. A set of first things to do when you find out your ED is leaving. If you take these on, you will be well on your way to managing a great executive transition.