Nonprofit leadership changes can be exciting, hopeful, anxiety-producing and challenging for all parties. In our fast-changing environment, they are also pretty frequent. Here in the Triangle, we've observed some pretty high profile nonprofit leadership changes in the last couple of years. Some have gone smoothly while others have stumbled. If you are contemplating, in the middle of or have recently completed a leadership change, here are three things to keep in mind as you climb aboard the post-honeymoon roller coaster.
- Ready or not, the new leader is here. It's especially tough to follow a long-time, beloved leader into a job. Board, staff and volunteers need time to mourn the departure of a founder or a respected colleague. But the truth is, nothing is permanent in this life but change. It's important to take the time to honor and thank the outgoing leader so that the new arrival can begin with full support of the team. If you find yourself saying "That's not how the old boss did it," take a deep breath and banish the thought. First of all, the old boss was not perfect. Secondly, the new boss has gifts the old one didn't. Celebrate the differences and give the new arrival a chance.
- Accommodate for the learning curve. New leaders need time to fully understand complex organizations and to get to know possibly dozens of new people. Adaptation skills vary from person to person, so err on the side of generosity when the pace of "settling in" is not as fast as you may wish it to be. If you find yourself thinking "But I told her that! Why is she asking again?" remember that no single person has a full picture of all the balls the new leader is juggling. Kindness and generosity will go a long way in smoothing the transition.
- We are in this together. When a new leader takes the helm, board, staff and volunteers often have high hopes for the future. Many of us can be unrealistic in thinking that the new person is going to solve all our problems, do everything the last person did well while excelling at everything the last person didn't do well, and create a brave new world. When the crash comes (and it will) and you realize you have not hired a deity but a human being, it's important to remember that nonprofits are partnerships and no single person can do it all. Whether a board member, staff member or volunteer, avoid criticism and ask what can I do to make us all successful together. We're all working for the same goal, making a positive impact on our communities, saving and changing lives.
A former colleague and I had lunch last week. Over my salad I heard a tale of woe about a transition that did not work. My friend is now happily enjoying a new professional challenge, but last year was tough. After seven years of professional success at a great local institution, he was recruited to take on a brand new position at another respected organization. It was not a good fit and after four months he was job-hunting. Why didn't it work? My best guess is that the organization was simply not ready for change. This sad story with a happy ending is what prompted this week's musings. Change is hard, but change is coming. Let's embrace it with equal doses of good Southern manners including kindness and thoughtfulness, a British stiff upper lip that helps us take the long view, and Mediterranean passion for why we are all working together.
(Priscilla was born in Louisville, Kentucky to Southern parents, went to the first grade in Manchester, England and lived for six years in Brazil and southern France explaining the reference above. Her seven years on Long Island led to her bossiness.)