Ready or Not...Like It or Not...Change is Coming!

| by Bert Armstrong

Spring is here. With it comes a new season of NCAA tournament brackets.  A new season of tax preparation. A new season of grass mowing. 

New seasons offer moments of celebration and joy as well as sadness, disappointment, and frustration.  Think about that “One Shining Moment” video at the end of the college basketball’s national championship versus the realization that 67 of 68 teams who start the tournament end their season with a loss. What about the thrill of getting a hefty tax refund versus that sinking feeling when you learn you actually owe more to the IRS by April 15th?  How about the nostalgic feeling that comes over you from the smell of freshly-cut grass, contrasted by the chalky feeling in your lungs and yellow dust settling on your cars as this season of pollen hits?

Seasons of leadership transitions for nonprofit leaders are similarly filled with moments of celebration and times of sadness and unease. Excitement for a beloved leader making it to retirement or taking on a new challenge with another organization, contrasted with the sadness of losing a special colleague or frustration with the mess that is left in their wake.  The possibility that a strong, popular vice president or associate director will be considered for the chief executive role, contrasted with the Board’s propensity to look past internal talent and only want to consider candidates from outside the organization. The chance for fresh energy and ideas coming into the organization, contrasted with the anxiety of the unknowns about the personality and judgement of a new leader. 

Leadership transitions, especially those involving the chief executive of a nonprofit, can be tricky.  There is typically excitement, sadness, anxiety, or some combination of these emotions being expressed by staff, donors, community partners, and stakeholders.  The approach in managing these transitions by the board sets the tone for how others will adjust to and embrace this change. It’s important to prepare as best you can, and as far in advance as you can, for this inevitable change.

The best time to think about leadership transitions is well before they take place. And winning in the leadership transition game comes from preparation, teamwork, and commitment to a shared and understood plan of action.

What can board leaders do to help ensure more celebration, excitement, and confidence while reducing the levels of anxiety and disappointment?  Here are a few suggestions about preparing for inevitable executive transitions:

  • Seek out the emerging leaders inside your organization and train them up in roles beyond their job descriptions so you have bench strength to draw from for interim management or for the opportunity to promote these talented leaders when the time comes.   
  • Appoint an ad hoc committee of the board to work on a basic succession plan. You may need it in an emergency when a leadership change happens unexpectedly. You will certainly benefit from it when your beloved leader gives notice of their intentions to leave.  Either way, having a plan to follow helps ensure smooth transitions.
  • Make sure the board is ready for its role when a transition occurs.  All eyes of staff and key stakeholders will be on the organization’s board to give assurance and confidence that all is well during a transition.  Nothing can derail that confidence quicker than a board that is seen as unorganized or unprepared to lead during times of change.  Set regular times on the board agenda for conversations about professional development of staff, succession planning for leaders, and effective board governance.  The more you discuss it and talk through solutions, the more muscle memory you’ll build up for when the time comes that you need it. 
  • Senior staff who surround a chief executive are a tremendous resource in times of transition.  Make sure these talented professionals are engaged in healthy ways in board and committee meetings as well as in board social functions throughout the year in order to build relationships and trust.

Don’t wait! Executive transitions can sneak up on you quietly, or they can pounce on you quickly and without warning. Be ready for the change. 

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