Thoughts on Leadership Transition

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2018 Conference for North Carolina’s Nonprofits, where our very own Bert Armstrong facilitated a discussion with panelists Pilar Rocha-Goldberg (CEO of El Centro Hispano), Charrise Hart (CEO of YWCA of the Lower Cape Fear), and Barrett Joyner (former SAS executive turned now-retired Director of Development of The Healing Place). The session panelists addressed diversity and inclusion, succession planning, staff development, and leadership transition, among other topics.

The discussion triggered some thoughts and reinforced themes I’ve seen with clients who are undergoing leadership transitions, so I’ve tried to capture a few of these below.

1. Staff changes, especially in the leadership ranks, are an opportunity to explore new structures and ways of operating.  

Regardless of the type of organization, attrition is to be expected. The best nonprofits are those who recognize this and leverage personnel changes as an opportunity to review organizational needs and structure. When a position is vacated, do you rush to fill it? Or do you step back and assess your organization’s needs moving forward?  Changes to strategic direction, external factors, or the remaining staff and board composition may suggest that you shake things up by re-allocating responsibilities, investing in existing human capital, or hiring a new skill set.  

You’re likely familiar with using SWOT (strength/weakness/opportunity/threat) analysis for planning purposes; this same information can be used to identify an organization’s structural and hiring needs. When working with clients on leadership transition, we conduct an organizational assessment (read more about those here) before writing the position profile to be used in recruiting. The assessment gives a solid view of not only where the organization stands, but what will be required to move it forward toward strategic goals.

So, the next time a staff (or board) position becomes vacant, take the time to consider what the organization needs before making a hire. You may be surprised by what you find.

2. To grow diversity, we must change the way we recruit and hire.  

We’ve been hearing a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion lately and that’s a good thing. These discussions force us to think about inherent biases and practices that (even without conscious knowledge) have traditionally driven homogeneity. As the nonprofit sector seeks to increase diversity — whether in race, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability, religion, or experience — we must recognize that this necessitates changes in the way we identify and evaluate candidates. The idea is not to give favor to the “diverse” candidate, but to broaden the pool of applicants so it represents the populations we serve and the world in which we live. This may require recruiting through non-mainstream channels or reaching out to specific audiences or groups to find qualified candidates.

We must also ensure the interview process offers a level playing field for each candidate. Who are the interviewers, and do they acknowledge their inherent biases? Is everyone on the same page with regard to organizational goals and needs? Are interview questions consistent across candidates? Is there a standard way to evaluate those interviewed?

Once hired, are expectations clearly set for the role the new staff member will play in growing or maintaining diversity? Has the existing staff had diversity, equity, and inclusion training to support adjustments to staff or board composition?

We are a diverse country. Recognizing commonalities and embracing our differences will make the work we do in the nonprofit sector more effective and valuable.

3. Not everyone wants to (or should) be an executive director.

When discussing succession planning or leadership transition, the focus is often centered around the executive director/CEO/president role. However, just as the best salespeople are often not the best sales managers, not everyone is cut out to be an executive director. And, as I’ve witnessed a lot lately, many nonprofit professionals have no interest in becoming an ED. The position comes with a broad range of responsibilities, a board full of bosses, and never enough time to accomplish everything on the to-do list.

For those who want to be an executive director, I encourage you to gain a clear understanding of what that entails. When the shine of the title wears off, there is still a lot of work to be done. Many in the position will tell you that the ED role is the loneliest and hardest job they’ve ever had.

If you are already an executive director, it’s up to you to prepare the next generation of leaders. Your role is to communicate the nature of the work to potential successors and to train them on how to do it.

For those who are in or aspire to other roles in the organization, you are valued and needed. Every job in a nonprofit has the potential to be a leadership position. Growth and opportunity can be found without becoming an executive director.  

If you’re in search of additional resources on leadership, leadership transition, and diversity, visit  

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