The Challenge: Deciding to go

It was an organization managed by three founders (executive director, deputy director, and program director), all heavily invested in the operation of the agency.  A close-knit team, the trio had worked together for more than a decade and they had a great working relationship, although much of the communication was in insider shorthand.

After a long period of reflection with family and friends, the executive director decided it was time for her to retire and move the leadership into new hands.  All three staff leaders were concerned but committed to a smooth transition.  Rather than simply announce her planned retirement and make a recommendation to the Board for her replacements, she worked with the Board to develop a transition plan.

Planning to leave

Eighteen months before she wanted to step down, the executive director not only told the Board of her plans but brought to them transition-planning tools she had acquired by taking advantage of training opportunities in the nonprofit community.  At this point, one of their funders helped the Board finalize a plan for the transition.

The first step in the plan was to make sure that knowledge about the operations would not leave with the founding executive director. In the months prior to her resignation, she made sure other members of the management team were included in everything she did, be it meetings to establish new relationships with funders or straightforward day-to-day operations.  This assured that when she left, the information needed to run the agency remained.

Another part of the plan was to develop a job description for the position she was vacating.  After an initial period of Board and staff leadership planning, the staff was informed of the departure and the transition plans at the same time.  They and a small group of former clients were asked to describe skills that were needed in a new executive director.

With input from the staff and clients, the Board and executive director developed the job description to be used in the search. Board members were fully engaged in the process, realizing that they had the primary responsibility for developing guidelines, placing ads, and making the final decision.

Despite the strength and investment of the two remaining founders, the Board decided to solicit applicants from both inside and outside the organization. “We didn’t want to go with either of the other founders without seeing if there was someone else out there,” the chairman of the Board said. Applications were sent to him, not the agency, so complete confidentiality could be maintained. 

Still friends

Internally, the two remaining founders discussed their interest, or lack of interest, in the position with each other, but not with members of the staff.  Only one of the remaining founders applied, along with several outside candidates.  No one on staff knew who had applied, so there could be no “loser.”  This could have potentially created an awkward situation if staff members knew that someone had applied and been rejected.

The decision by one founder not to apply and the implementation of a formal executive search prevented hurt feelings and added to the credibility of the candidate chosen.

“I had to formally apply and be interviewed,” the founder who applied said. “The expectation many staff members had was that because I was deputy executive director, I would automatically move into the position. That was not the case.  It was hard to understand. I’ve been doing this job for 10 years; why should I go through the same process as an outsider? But [I realized] it was important for the Board to do its job and hire an executive director as opposed to having one selected for them.”

In the end, the Board did hire the founder who had applied, but in doing so the Board acquired knowledge about the skills needed for the job, what was important to staff and clients, and how to plan for future transitions.  Going forward, the Board has new knowledge of how to manage a transition.

A new leadership relationship

The new executive director and the Board are building a new relationship.  They continue to guide the agency through this initial leadership transition and all involved have learned several important lessons.

Now the agency has in place the “hit by a bus” leadership transition plan. “Whatever information I know about the operation of the organization, I’m not the only person who has that information,” the new executive director said. “Anything can happen to me and the agency can move forward. When I am developing relationships, someone else is there.”

The Board has moved forward and assumed its second generational leadership role—for the first time having hired an executive director.  Their experience provides them the confidence and understanding of how to deal with the next transition.  For the Board and Executive Director, the experience gained will ease future transitions and make everyone at the agency aware that change is the only constant!