Transitions are powerful opportunities to strengthen non-profit organizations. Properly managed and supported with expert executive transition services, they can serve as “pivotal moments,” enabling organizations to change direction, maintain momentum, build or rebuild its infrastructure, and clarify its mission and vision. Poorly managed executive transitions incur high costs to organizations and communities.
The use of Interim Executive Directors/CEOs can be a powerful capacity-building and sustainability strategy for organizations that want to not only survive a leadership transition, but also want to grow and thrive. What follows are some of the steps I take to insure that I start out as positively as possible in the role of Interim Executive Director.
The IED’s Role
The primary function of the IED is to manage the day to day operations of the organization and support the Board of Directors in carrying out the business of the agency. Since the interim role and tenure is more limited than the Executive Director, not all responsibilities will be carried out with equal attention, but each is equally important. Decisions about priorities are established early with the Board of Directors and staff during an assessment period. Duties encompass:
- Financial management
- Board policies and procedures/governance
- Staffing roles and organizational structure
- Program operations
- Culture and communications
- Strategic and business planning
- Major events and organization calendar
- New executive director search and onboarding (assist the Board if needed)
- Specific goals and workplan for key staff and the transition period
Sample Transition Steps for the First Two-Four weeks of the IED Tenure
The first two-four weeks are a critical time for clarification and communication with the Board, management team, and staff in order to insure alignment with the IED roles and responsibilities. Some of my primary tasks include:
- Meet with the agency transition committee (or executive committee) to gain their perspective on the current status of the organization and to orient them on how best to utilize an IED.
- If possible, interview the departing Executive Director to determine agency status from his/her perspective and critical tasks requiring immediate action.
- Meet with management team or key staff, particularly with the finance director, program directors, and development director to gain perspective on team dynamics, accomplishments, and areas for review as well as report or grant deadliens. Visit program sites and observe programs in action.
- Meet with primary funders to insure stability of the contracts, grants and donations and determine any areas needing attention.
- Review key financial documents: audit, 990s, budget, financial statements with YTD actual vs. projections, profit and loss -particularly for earned revenue streams, balance sheet, and cash flow projections.
I then develop an IED workplan that includes performance goals and objectives based on my initial analysis and review of all aspects mentioned above and developed in collaboration with the Board to envision the future.
Communication is the name of the game during a transition. It is important to clarify the type of communications expected from your IED such as monthly reports, regular check-in meetings, and a final report with closing recommendations.
Onboarding of the new Executive Director is a critical last task that allows for a sufficient transfer of knowledge and creates a platform for a smooth transition. I strive for a “public” hand-off with the staff and some Board members from the IED to the new ED so a positive ending, and new beginning, can be established.
As an IED, I maintain awareness of these principles throughout my tenure. I watch for behaviors and actions that might be the result of anxiety often associated with change and work hard with staff to alleviate and normalize concerns. I also keep an eye towards the positive aspects of change, focusing on staff and organizational strengths, and preparing for the new Executive Director.
For additional resources about Executive Transitions and Interim Executive Directors/CEO’s, click below:
When there is a shift in executive leadership, organizations experience many new and often unexpected challenges. Transition Management research has shown that awareness and understanding of the transition process can benefit all staff and Board members in maintaining a positive outlook about these changes. It can also better prepare the organization for its next phase of leadership. In addition, a new Executive Director entering an organization will have an easier time adjusting if the organization has done this preparation and if it has been viewed with high levels of optimism about the future of the agency.
Some important concepts about transitions:
- Change is the objective event: loss of Executive Director; new Executive is hired.
- Transition is the psychological process of reorientation as a result of the change(s).
- Transitions must be well managed or change becomes unmanageable.
- Transitions include three overlapping phases consisting of:
An Ending Phase– gaining closure on the executive’s departure;
A Middle Phase or the Neutral Zone – a time of organizational vulnerability, and importantly, of heightened opportunity; and
A New Beginning Phase– includes the new executive’s welcome and onboarding, and significant organizational changes and new ways of doing business.
My goal as an Interim Executive Director is to be as clear and supportive as possible with the Board of Directors and staff throughout the leadership transition. Some Boards will want to better understand succession planning and how they can best prepare for these changes and avoid pitfalls that might lead to a failed chief executive placement. Others want to utilize the transition time as an opportunity to revisit and reflect on their own governance policies and practices to be sure they are ready to welcome a new chief executive into a reinvigorated organization. Staff often approach leadership transitions with curiosity about the what the future holds, and a willingness to be part of the process that will ultimately lead to the hiring of a new leader.
I remain open to new ideas while guiding organizations based on my accumulated knowledge, recognizing that new and creative thinking invariably emerges from a transition process. Most importantly, I find the Board is passionate about and willing to take on the important responsibility of searching for a new chief executive while keeping the organization strong and staff morale high. All that is needed is a little expert guidance.
It is natural to try to resist something you are not familiar with. In organizations undergoing change, resistance is to be expected. What people are resisting isn’t necessarily the change they are experiencing; they might even be welcoming the change. What they are usually resisting is the having to let go of things they have always done or situations they have depended upon, sometimes for years. Resistance is neither avoidable or bad. It is a fact of organizational life especially during transitions. By showing resistance, employees are struggling with the dismantling of both their individual and collective worlds, or those circumstances and perspectives that have helped them to feel at home while at work. Resistance becomes the “system’s” effort to regain the equilibrium that has been disrupted by the change.
As consultants working in the area of executive transitions, we must allow people time to experience change at their own pace and provide them with support and understanding along the way. Consultants often move too quickly and expect employees to “tough it out.” Then when anger or resentment happens, or staff gets withdrawn and depressed as they mourn the loss of how it was, the consultant takes is as a personal challenge to his or her authority or effectiveness. Good transition consultants provide useful, clear information about what can be let go of (let’s meet every other week instead of every week) and what can be saved (your style of running staff meetings really provides reassurance), and help employees better understand the value of the change by not getting stuck in the past. Managing the feedback and the communication contained in resistance is critical to creating effective work partnerships with employees.
Resistance takes many forms. In some instances, resistance can provide valuable feedback for consultants. This feedback can be experienced as:
- Lack of Motivation
- Questioning the skills or credentials of the transition leaders
Sometimes the causes of the resistance are very helpful for building the right strategies for responding to employees in ways that can further build partnerships and teams. Causes of resistance can include: preserving what is presently valued; feeling out of control; threats to dignity, respect, and autonomy; struggles over power and control; just to name a few.
Certain qualities of resistance stand out amongst all the rest:
- Direct and active vs. indirect and passive
- Flexibility vs. rigidity
- Situational vs. chronic or systemic
If resistance gets out of control it is usually because it has lost contact with its original cause and points to larger organizational issues that may run deeper than dealing with the current change. For instance, there may be a history of mistrusting management or undermining key functions or positions. In these cases, it is important to trace the origins of the problem in order to get a handle on the resistance you are facing.
Good transition consultants anticipate resistance and are willing to explore the feedback the resistance is providing. By creating partnerships with employees to address what is happening, the consultant gives employees a chance to express their sense of loss or fear and feel validated and understood. By empowering staff to effectively deal with the changes they are experiencing, true problem solving begins and a transition team can be built that works together to reach a “new beginning” in the life of the organization.
Thanks to Barry Dym, PhD and William Bridges, PhD