Change at the executive level — whether planned or abrupt — requires the board to provide strong leadership and direction as it contemplates what the organization needs from its next leader. I have recently been doing some reading after interacting with so many founders who are either wondering on having a succession or transition happen in their respective organizations.
Successfully managing the departure of an executive and the recruitment, hiring, and installation of a new executive is a complicated process that typically requires months of work. Boards and founder members can get ahead of the game by thinking through their desired course of action in either a planned or emergency transition is a process referred to as succession planning. The practice of succession planning which includes ongoing updates to ensure that plans reflect the current operating environment ensures that the executive transition isn’t unnecessarily drawn out by lack of clarity about the process and initial steps, which can have a serious negative impact on the organization. While most of the founders of different organizations I interacted with a report that they have a rough idea on their expected succession plan, all non-profits should have one in place so that they are prepared in case the transition or succession process starts.
Research also tells us that the periods of executive transition can sometimes open opportunities to think differently about organizational boundaries. A study of success factors of non-profit mergers reveals that for 80 percent of the mergers studied, an executive director had recently left or was soon to retire in one of the pre-merger organizations. While merging organizations may not be the path for every organization facing an executive transition, board openness survey suggests that boards may be more willing to explore this conversation than one might think.
Succession planning can take on different forms and be completed for various situations. Three scenarios are recommended for all organizations;
- Emergency Succession Planning – A process that is in place in the event the executive suddenly departs – either permanently or for an extended period (i.e., longer than three months).
- Departure-Defined Succession Planning – A process that is in place for future planned retirement or permanent departure of the executive.
- Strategic Leader Development – A process that promotes ongoing leadership development for talent within the organization.
Furthermore, success depends on defined responsibilities among the founders, board, the executive and staff. Properly outlining responsibilities and communicating them prior to the planning process will help alleviate concerns among those involved.
- Secure the organization’s future by clarifying direction and ensuring strong leadership. A succession plan promotes the availability of a strong executive when needed.
- Understand the complexity and responsibilities of the executive role. Select, support and evaluate the executive on a regular basis.
- Leverage board contacts and expertise, especially during periods of leadership transition.
- Play a lead role in working with the executive to develop and approve succession plans for various scenarios.
- Appoint a board committee to address transitional issues in the unexpected departure of the executive.
- Provide a process for regularly reviewing and stretching the board’s effectiveness.
- Ensure legacy and succession occur. Draft an emergency succession plan and submit to the board for approval.
- Implement a process to develop key staff members and promote a culture that encourages professional development.
- Work with the board chair to schedule board meetings dedicated to the succession-planning process.
- Evaluate their role in the organization, promote and encourage the executive succession-planning process.
- Implement, upon board approval, and communicate the succession plan with affected staff.
- Support the successful transition of new executive and provide program and organizational information as requested.
- Continue to provide services to clients in the absence of executive and during the transition.
- Ensure they are aware of the defined internal and external communication plan so they can address public inquiries.
Where does the founder come in? the following conditions have to come in play.
- The founder has the capability and desire to stay engaged.
- The board perceives a clear value from the founder staying involved.
- The founder is willing to play a different role and genuinely wants the successor to succeed.
- The successor is willing to work with the founder.
All the above require both founders as well as the successor to sublimate their egos. If these conditions are not met, the organisation should pursue a “clean break” approach, where a founder does not have a role once the successor starts.
Once these conditions are met, we have five recommendations that address the practical aspects of managing an ongoing role for a founder. While our data show that transitions with an internal successor and a role for the founder tend to be the most successful, these practices apply to any organisation that seeks to extend the founder’s stay.
- Limit the founder’s new role to specific areas of high interest and capability: Some roles are well-focused assignments with timetables and clear deliverable, such as starting a new programme; others tap the founder’s capabilities, such as fundraising.
- Recognize that both the founder and successor will benefit from regular coaching: This helps navigate the operational and emotional aspects of transition. Research has shown that a coach can increase the chances of transition success.
- Anticipate conflict and agree to a process to mitigate it: Leadership transitions are inherently complex, even more so when a non-profit’s founder stays on. The board chair needs to work with the founder and successor to establish a conflict resolution process.
- Transition board, funder, and staff loyalty in logical order: Founders often develop intense loyalty among staff and board members, and funders are likely to identify more closely with the founder than the organisation. It is critical to shepherd these loyalties to the new leadership.
- Create initial separation to allow the successor to settle in: This is particularly helpful if the founder’s new role is substantial or long-term. Successors need time to establish themselves, a period that may include staff restructuring or strategy changes. It is important for the founder to maintain a low profile during the early months of transition to avoid confusion about who is in charge.
Who Is Responsible For Planning For Transitions of Leadership?
Leaders who care about sustainability pay attention to ways they can support their own succession. Here are six strategies worth reflecting on by those leaders who are planning their non-profit’s journey towards a new leader.
A committee of the board will generally focus on leadership succession at the board level and usually at the founders level, while staff leaders are most often charged with identifying transition plans for staff’s leadership succession. Because the board is ultimately responsible for oversight of the executive director, typically it is also the board’s role to initiate succession planning for the executive director/CEO. Board members invest lots of energy and time supporting the chief staff leader – it’s their fiduciary responsibility to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization – which can depend on there being the “right” leader in place. Help boards understand that succession planning is not just “making a plan.” It’s a risk management strategy to ensure the sustainability of the organization.
Departing leaders need some love, too. By helping the departing leader leave well, the board is doing the organization huge favor and paving the way for a smooth on-boarding experience for the new leader, but this can only happen if you have a functioning board.
Additional Information from
- Noam Wasserman, “The Founder’s Dilemma,”Harvard Business Review, February 2008.
- Tom Adams, Founder Transitions: Creating Good Endings and New Beginnings, Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2005.
- Frances Kunreuther and Stephanie Clohesy, The Long Goodbye: Advice, How-Tos,and Cautionary Tales for Extended Leadership Exits, The Building Movement Project, 2016.
- Libbie Landles-Cobb, Kirk Kramer, and Katie Smith Milway, “The Nonprofit Leadership
Development Deficit,”Stanford Social Innovation Review, October 22, 2015.
 Board Openness to Strategic Alliances & Restructuring
 Success Factors in Non-profit Mergers: A Study of 41 Minnesota Non-profit Mergers 1999-2010