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:
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.